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Ken Plum: Making the grade

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kenplum2At a time when quality reviews and accountability measures result in more activities being given a letter grade, it is appropriate that legislative sessions receive the same treatment. At the risk of seeming to cop-out, I give the session an “I” for incomplete because we have not yet completed the basic requirement of passing a biennium budget in the even-numbered years. We are back in Richmond in special session now to meet that requirement.

Taking the budget out of the equation, I would give the session a “B”-a higher grade than I would have given sessions in recent years. Some important work got done. Growing out of the recent tragedy of Senator Deed’s family and with lingering memories of Virginia Tech, mental health laws were strengthened. Legislation extends the time a person can be held involuntarily under a temporary detention order from 48 to 72 hours. The state will maintain a “real time” online registry of available psychiatric beds in public and private hospitals. Emergency custody orders will be extended from six to 12 hours with the state assuming responsibility to find a bed for a patient after eight hours. A four-year study will be undertaken to determine what other reforms are needed.

In significant reform of ethics laws that will continue to be debated as to whether or not they go far enough, a cumulative cap of $250 was put on gifts that elected officials can accept. Gifts given to spouses and immediate family members must be disclosed, and all disclosure forms will be accessible online for public viewing. Disclosure will be required twice rather than once each year. An ethics council will be established to provide oversight to the process.

In the area of education, the General Assembly restrained itself from passing the latest reform fad as it had been doing the last several years and even took a second look at recent reforms by delaying for a couple of years the idea of giving each school a grade, until it can be determined how such a system might work and whether it would be meaningful. State take-over of failing schools will also be delayed. SOL (Standards of Learning) testing that in recent years has come to dominate the school year will be reduced from 22 to 17 in K-8, giving more time for instruction.

The hybrid car tax was repealed, but efforts to roll back other provisions of last year’s transportation bill were rejected. The sodomy law was repealed as court action had already effectively done. A small step forward on bike safety increased from two to three feet the distance cars must leave to pass bicycles. Posting pornography on social media without a person’s consent was made an offense. Sunday hunting will be legal on private lands.

What would have given the session an “A?” Full committee debate on background checks for gun purchases, raising the minimum wage, and repealing the marriage amendment rather than such limited debate and defeat of these measures in subcommittees would have made for a better grade.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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