Landes provides updates on legislative activities in Richmond


Column by Steve Landes

stevelandes.jpgThis last week in Richmond was one of the busiest and most eventful of the session, as the General Assembly has now reached the home stretch in completing its work for 2008. In a week that began with a federal holiday and ended with my attendance at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Capitol Square monument, what was most notable happened inside the Capitol.

This week, the House of Delegates and the Senate passed their respective versions of the 2008-2010 Biennial Budget, and also approved differing plans for the final adjustments to the 2006-2008 Biennial Budget. The size of these tasks, and the myriad details that go into them, is why even-year sessions of the Virginia General Assembly are two full weeks longer than odd ones.

Triggerman

If that were not enough, key pieces of legislation advanced and are already on their way to the governor’s desk for his review and consideration. Most notable among these is a change to Virginia’s death-penalty statute, a change heavily promoted by our Commonwealth’s attorneys.

In order for someone involved in a murder to be subject to capital punishment under current Virginia law, the individual has to have actually performed the physical act that resulted in death. This provision is commonly referred to as the “triggerman rule.” Why would those responsible for enforcing the law and prosecuting crime want this rule changed? Because under it those who mastermind crimes and enlist others to do their bidding would never be subjected to the most severe penalty allowed by law. Frequently cited examples would be Charles Manson, who, under current Virginia law, would not be subjected to the death penalty.

Virginia is one of just three states that has capital punishment but also carves out this exception. Gov. Kaine vetoed this bill last year, but there is hope that the strong support of the law-enforcement community and the overwhelming support in the General Assembly might cause him to reconsider.

Budget

The competing versions of Virginia’s two-year spending plans were all available for review this week, and there are, of course, many differences. Last week, I noted Gov Kaine’s calls for additional cuts to K-12 public schools and higher education. This week, the House of Delegates approved a budget that greatly improved funding for both of those core government services. Moreover, the House plan dramatically increased the funding for mental-health services in Virginia, easily surpassing the increases called for by the Kaine administration.

Increasing spending for K-12 public schools by $1.1 billion over the 2006-2008 Biennial Budget, the House plan pays teachers more, makes more funds available for school construction, and provides more total funding than the plans introduced by the governor or approved by the Senate Democrats. In total, the House plan devotes $193 million more than Gov. Kaine proposed for K-12 public education and $68 million more than the Senate plan. The House plan includes funding for the state’s share of a pay raise for public-school teachers of 2% this year, and rejected the govenor’s plan to cut school construction grants by $220 million.

The nearly $70 million in additional cuts to higher education proposed by the governor on Feb. 12 were also rejected in the House plan. Working to maintain funding levels for our state-supported colleges and universities has become a key emphasis of delegates, as we know that reductions in funding are often accompanied by steep increases in tuition. And, keeping tuition rates affordable is one of the main reasons we have state-supported colleges and universities in the first place.

Gov. Kaine proposed increasing funding for Virginia’s mental health care services by $42 million. The House plan expands this initiative, adding an additional $43 million for mental-health services. In this of all years, delegates are committed to improving mental-health services in Virginia, and the House budget plan does this more comprehensively than either the governor proposed or the Senate approved.

You might be wondering how the House was able to do all these things – provide more funding for critical needs than either the Governor proposed or the Senate plan includes – without raising taxes. Well, it’s all about setting priorities.

Does the House plan include higher levels of funding for every government service than the competing plans? It does not. In fact, hundreds of million of dollars in spending for new and expanded government programs proposed by Gov. Kaine are conspicuously absent from the House plan. Also missing are provisions to build a new office complex for legislators, which are part of the governor and Senate’s overall spending initiatives. And because the solvency of our Rainy Day Fund is critical to maintaining Virginia’s AAA bond rating, the House plan uses hundreds of millions less from this financial safety net than the amounts called for by the governor and approved by the Senate.

No one ever gets everything they want out of the budget, and the weeks to come will prove critical. I am optimistic, however, that the final approved spending plan will be much closer to the fiscally responsible vision set forward by the House of Delegates this week when it approved its proposed budget by a bipartisan vote of 93 to 5.

Legislation

My bills that passed the House are now making their way through the Senate. The Senate has already passed House Bill 84 repealing the VA/NC Interstate Toll Road Compact, House Bill 85 establishing a Prescription Medication Donation Program, House Bill 87 repealing authorizations for issuance of certain license plates, and House Bill 1331 recodifying Title 3.1 of the Code of Virginia related to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. After a lot of work and compromise from many sources, House Bill 1332, which establishes a uniform permit issuance process for the Air Pollution Control Board and the State Water Control Board, passed the Senate.

Finally, this week, House Bill 1334 which allows an employee of local government to receive an award or payment in honor of meritorious or exceptional service and House Bill 1372 repealing the duplicative authority of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to regulate the sanitary conditions in places where honey is stored and manufactured under beekeeping laws. All of the bills I have mentioned here await the Governor’s signature to pass into law.

Visitors

It doesn’t matter how busy the week gets, it’s always a good time to see smiling faces from home. This week was no different. The Linkous-Bosserman Model General Assembly made their annual trek to visit the General Assembly and see their legislators in action. For this group of young men and women from our high schools, the education of what they have learned from books and instructors is reinforced by seeing these lessons come to life in the committees and Chambers of the Virginia General Assembly.

Mr. and Mrs. Rupen Shah and young son visited the General Assembly and Capitol this week. As deputy Commonwealth attorney of Augusta County, Mr. Shah came to speak in favor of House Bill 312 dealing with crimes resulting in the unintentional cause of a miscarriage or stillbirth. Mrs. Shah and their young son came to learn and see government in action as well as to visit the newly restored Capitol.

Location, location, location

Although the session is winding down, we never tire of visitors, if you’ll be visiting the Capitol before the scheduled March 8 end of session, make sure to stop by our office, located in Room 528 of the General Assembly Building. You can contact us here by sending an e-mail to delslandes@house.state.va.us or by sending a letter to me at P.O. Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218-0406. Or, if you just want me to know your opinion on a particular issue, you can call on the toll-free Constituent Viewpoint Hotline at 1.800.889.0229 or direct to 804.698.1025.

Have a great week, and look for more news from Richmond in this same place next week.

Steve Landes represents the 25th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.



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