Ken Plum: Staying on task
Despite all the distraction associated with events in Richmond these days, the General Assembly is staying on task dealing with legislative and budgetary issues it faces. Each house of the legislature has started to work on legislation passed by the other with conflicts resolved in conference committees made up of members from both houses. The really big conference committee is that working to resolve differences on the budget. The big differences on the budget are between the Democrats and Republicans and not the two houses–how to deal with additional revenues coming to the state from the federal tax changes. Stay tuned for the differences on the budget because they will not be resolved until the last few days of the session that is scheduled to adjourn on February 23.
Some good news is emerging from the session. Requiring hands-free phones in cars that has been required in most other states many years ago may finally be coming to Virginia. Research shows that the greatest cause of auto accidents is distracted driving with calls and texting being the chief reason.
I remember the many sessions that it took to pass requirements for smoke-free areas. Richmond as the cigarette manufacturing capital was finally over-ridden by popular sentiments, and smoke-free areas were legislated. Amazingly but happily the age to buy cigarettes and the latest craze of buying electronic vaping devices is being raised from age 18 to 21.
Efforts to legalize gambling establishments in areas of the state as diverse as Portsmouth, Bedford and Danville failed this year in favor of a year-long study to determine state policy. I predict we will see casinos established in the state in a few years as some regions see them as economic development and a source of new revenue offsetting anemic state funding. I voted to let a study go forward but would not support public financing of a stadium or gambling establishment. Bills that would have decriminalized marijuana did not make it out of committee in either house. My bill introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation to make Naloxone more available to reduce deaths from drug overdoses passed.
Different bills passed that purport to create a fairer way to draw legislative district boundaries, but neither comes close to the independent processes that the public has been seeking to end gerrymandering.
On the environment, bills to require Dominion to clean up their coal-ash ponds passed both houses with endorsement by major environmental groups. A bill I voted for that would have established an ambitious agenda for cleaning up the environment in Virginia failed in the House.
The Senate passed a bill to require public schools to teach a class on the Bible! I will not be voting for it if it makes its way through committee.
All the gun safety bills were defeated in both houses. A bill to make it easier to get a concealed weapon if you are from another state passed with a likely veto by the governor.
Yes, there are other big challenges in the capital these days. I will be addressing them in future columns as the facts involved become better known.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.