We have completed the first full week of the 2023 Session of the General Assembly. Committees are meeting and days are nearly endless at this point. The Session is only 46 days long, including weekends, which puts a premium on every hour. Committee meetings start early in the morning and end late in the evening.
In the Senate, we seem to be fighting the same sort of battles we have fought the last few years. Republicans have introduced bills to repeal or roll back changes Democratic lawmakers passed in 2020 and 2021. The repeal bills generally have fallen within the bailiwick of the Committees on Education and Health, Privileges and Elections, and Judiciary. I serve on Privileges and Elections and co-chair Judiciary. The bills in Education and Health primarily are attempts to roll back laws that protect abortion access. The bills introduced in Privileges and Elections are mostly attempts to repeal laws that made access to the ballot much more expansive. And the bills filed in Judiciary are attempts to roll back criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention efforts. So far, the brick wall that the Senate Democrats have established has held. The Judiciary Committee will hear all firearm related bills on Monday at 8 a.m. If you wish to watch the debate or register to speak, click here.
A new Democrat was seated in the Senate this week. Aaron Rouse, a Virginia Beach City Councilman and former Virginia Tech and Green Bay Packer football player, was certified as having been elected on January 10 in a special election in Virginia and sworn in, giving Democrats a 22-18 margin. I look forward to working with Senator Rouse!
In the Judiciary Committee, we had to deal with several tough bills that make sense in some respects but ultimately missed the mark. Senate Bill 902, a bill introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle of Hanover County, would have allowed the Attorney General to prosecute sexual assault cases in localities over the objection of a local Commonwealth’s Attorney. In general, the Attorney General cannot prosecute crime in localities without the request of the local Commonwealth’s Attorney, who is elected as the chief law enforcement officer and prosecutor in each locality. There was an exception made in the law many years ago for child pornography cases. This bill sought to add a new exception for sexual assault cases. Ultimately, there was significant disagreement, even among prosecutors. The Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Association and a majority of prosecutors did not favor the change. Nothing in the law prevents local prosecutors from seeking help, and in my experience, prosecutors welcome help and request assistance when needed. Ultimately, I voted against the bill. I believe that under our constitutional scheme, local prosecutors, who are elected in each community, have to make the call. The bill died on a close 8-7 vote.
There were a couple interesting bills in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee this week. Bills by Senator Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach and Senator David Suetterlein of Roanoke County were aimed at ending the local sales tax on groceries and essential personal hygiene products. You will recall that last year the General Assembly abolished the state sales tax on these items but left intact a one cent tax that localities are able to levy.
Senators DeSteph and Suetterlein took different approaches in their attempts, SB 1008 and SB 850 respectively, to abolish the local tax. SB 1008 would have given localities the option to exclude groceries and hygiene products from their sales tax collections. SB 850 would have required the abolition of the local tax and replaced it with general fund dollars. This approach was similar to the car tax debacle of the late 1990s. Virginia’s General Fund continues to send $950 million a year to local government to replace a portion of car tax revenue. This transfer of wealth is one that primarily benefits high tax localities, such as those in northern Virginia. Ultimately the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee rejected both bills. The state makes a serious mistake whenever it tries to interfere with a stream of revenue that funds local services.
I met this week with a number of constituents from the area I am honored to represent. A group of 4-H students from Albemarle County visited with lots of good questions about how government functions and about the work of the General Assembly. I had a thoughtful visit with an Alleghany County supervisor about economic development in the western part of the district and had good discussions with members of the Lexington City Council and folks representing our rural electric cooperatives from Rockbridge, Bath, and Nelson Counties. Groups of doctors, nurses, medical students, teachers, and clinical psychologists from across the district also visited this week. As did people advocating on behalf of the Arc of the Piedmont, the Alzheimer’s Association, New Virginia Majority, Sin Barreras, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, CASA, and many more.
I also had good discussions with the Department of Conservation and Recreation about three topics. We are trying to find ways to promote the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont. Hopefully we are working towards a good partnership with the state that will allow the Garden to grow. For many years I have promoted our state parks, and the Department and I are exploring ways for the state to support Biscuit Run in Albemarle County. I am also grateful the Governor included language in his introduced budget to hasten the development of Highland State Park. We are watching all three of these projects and looking for additional ways to create recreational opportunities for all Virginians.
It continues to be an incredible blessing for me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of assistance to you or if you would like to share your views on legislation, please contact my office at (804) 698-7525 or email@example.com.