Every year as the General Assembly session winds down, it’s important to take some time to reflect on the things that have been accomplished, the things yet to accomplish, and perhaps the missed opportunities. With less than a week left before the scheduled adjournment of the 2014 session, a couple of things are clear.
The biggest opportunity this session has been to try to find a way to provide health insurance to perhaps as many as 400,000 additional Virginians and also recapture some of the federal taxes we are paying to fund the Affordable Care Act. Some people deem this the expansion of Medicaid. We in Virginia have come up with a different response, Marketplace Virginia, that basically turns this over to the private insurance market. Perhaps the next week, and more likely the next few months, will determine whether we are able to take advantage of this opportunity.
I have been on a journey to bring reform to the area of delivery of mental health services. The road to reform has been somewhat bumpy. My proposals, many of which were roughed out in my mind as I tried to process what happened in November, are moving forward. The details will be finalized in conference this week. These proposals are just the first steps of a concerted effort to improve our mental health system.
A number of other issues, some a regurgitation of past efforts and others brought on by the exigency of circumstances, have been considered this session. A few of those are as follows:
- Legislative ethics reform has been put forward in bills sponsored by Delegate Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County and Senator Tommy Norment of James City County. Both of these bills represent a very modest step forward, and many who call for reform in the area of ethics, including me, are going to be left unsatisfied with the results. Those bills will be in conference this last week.
- Sunday hunting has been championed through bills from Senator Phillip Puckett of Russell County and Delegate Todd Gilbert. Those bills limit Sunday hunting to private property with written permission from the landowner and are headed to the Governor’s desk. He has indicated he will sign them.
- Delegate Tim Hugo and Senator Dave Marsden, both of Fairfax County, sponsored legislation to require social studies textbooks used in Virginia to identify the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and japan as both “Sea of Japan” and the “East Sea.” This legislation appears to be enjoying the majority of support in both bodies but is tied up procedurally right now. The Governor has indicated he will sign this legislation if it reaches his desk. The legislation has many proponents in the Korean American population.
- My effort to increase the court fee paid by those convicted of crime to fund the Internet Crimes Against Children units in Bedford and Fairfax, grants to localities throughout the Commonwealth, and maintenance of the Child Pornography Images Registry appears to be stalled in the House of Delegates. The bill enjoyed unanimous support in the Senate. The legislation would raise the fee $5 and generate an additional $900,000 a year for this important work.
- The legislature has tackled SOL reform through bills championed by Senators John Miller of Newport News, George Barker of Fairfax, and Delegate Tag Greason of Loudoun County. I also sponsored two bills on the matter. The number of tests, especially for elementary age students, will be reduced as a result of this effort. High standards are the right thing for our schools and students, but the emphasis on testing has diminished the role of teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Many of the concerns some of us had about the SOLs when they were adopted back in 1994 are being heeded 20 years later.
- The additional hybrid fee added last year as part of the comprehensive transportation package was repealed. As many recall, Governor McDonnell included the fee in his transportation proposal in 2013. Both the Senate and the House removed the provisions from their versions of the legislation. When the bills went into conference, the conferees reinserted the language into the bill. At that point in the process, the bill could not be amended. While many opposed this particular provision, a majority of legislators voted for the proposal in its entirety. Governor McAuliffe has signed the legislation, which will become law July 1.
- For the second consecutive year, the General Assembly has passed a resolution to place on the ballot this fall a proposed constitutional amendment to allow localities to grant real estate tax relief to the surviving spouses of service members who were killed in action. The companion bill that stipulates the details of how this exemption would work is still moving through the process. Voters should expect to vote on this measure in November.
- A number of bills were introduced to delay the July 1, 2014 start date for local governments to have in place new stormwater management programs that reduce runoff. Many localities were concerned about the implementation costs and whether they had sufficient time to put in place the necessary regulations and staff by the deadline. During the deliberations, a compromise measure came forward that makes the adoption of this program optional for localities that do not operate a municipal separate storm sewer system. The Department of Environmental Quality will manage a stormwater management program in those localities that opt out.
Over 2700 bills and resolutions were introduced this year, ranging from resolutions recognizing great Virginians we lost this year to legislation effecting major policy changes. Today is the final day for committees to meet. In this final week, we will finish up work on bills in conference and take action on the bills coming out of committees today. I look forward to your continued input during this last week.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. This session is rapidly winding down and while it is true that some issues may not be resolved by the scheduled adjournment period, I expect to be able to be back home practicing law soon. If you have concerns or questions please contact us at [email protected]. We can be reached by phone in Richmond at (804) 698-7525. Beginning March 10, please contact the district office at (434) 296-5491 or P.O. Box 5462, Charlottesville, Va 22905.