Last Wednesday, on the coldest day in Richmond of the very New Year, the General Assembly began its 2016 session. This year’s 60-day session is the first of the four-year Senate term. That means the first day of session begins with all 40 senators elected last November taking their oath of office.
While the ceremonies surrounding the commencement of a new term can seem formal, there is also an understated simplicity to the proceedings. We stand at our desks, raise our right hands, recite our oath, and begin our service to the citizens who entrusted us with their votes just ten weeks earlier. What our nation’s founders called “republican virtues” still inspire awe, not by grandeur but by the relative lack of it.
This year I was elected Co-Chair of the Senate Republican Caucus. I am excited to serve in this new capacity, working with our 21 member majority to further advance our conservative principles of limited government and personal freedom.
With only 60 days to craft a two-year state budget and consider 2,000 pieces of legislation, the General Assembly has to get to work quickly. Both the House and Senate use a committee system to screen legislation, assigning bills by topic to committees comprised of 13 or 15 senators.
I am delighted to continue my service on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, Rules Committee, and Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees during Session. My district is home to the largest agricultural producing area in the Commonwealth and I look forward to having a voice on issues impacting that industry. The 26th district is also seeing tremendous growth with economic development, and I want to continue to ensure Virginia is a business friendly Commonwealth.
I am also honored to be Chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee this year, where we consider all legislation impacting our civil and criminal justice systems. Serving on the Senate Finance Committee is both an honor and a privilege. It is an opportunity to shape and define our priorities and to change the way government works here in Virginia. It is a tremendous chance to effectuate positive change as we fund the core services of our state government – education, public safety and transportation.
The opening day of every General Assembly session concludes with the State of the Commonwealth address, delivered by the Governor. The address is intended to be a report on the progress made during the last year and to detail the Governor’s agenda for the upcoming session.
Governor McAuliffe detailed his agenda, much of which will be familiar. There is broad agreement on some of the items he is promoting, like increased funding for public education, programs to enhance workforce development, and initiatives to attract more businesses and grow our economy.
While jobs and economic development must be a priority, the Governor must not lose sight of the need for accountability. Just this week it was revealed that theGovernor’s Opportunity Fund might have been fleeced to the tune of $1.4 million it granted to a Chinese company that promised to open a factory in Appomattox that never materialized.
Some portions of the Governor McAuliffe’s agenda do not enjoy widespread support. His continued desire to have Virginia expand Obamacare by signing up for the federal program’s Medicaid expansion scheme does not enjoy majority support in either the House or the Senate. His insistence on this in 2014 resulted in a three-month-long budget standoff that only ended when Democrats lost control of the Senate.
Unlike that debacle, the Republican-majority Senate and House will be approving a budget before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on March 12.
As far as legislation goes, education and public charter schools are my top priority this session. I have introduced, SJ 6 which would amend the Constitution of Virginia to allow for more charter schools. Education is a right not a privilege and charter schools in our Commonwealth would provide another option to parents to get the best education they can for their children. I hope this year my colleagues will agree with me so we can finally send this to the voters of Virginia this November.
This week, my bill calling for accountability and transparency in the Attorney General’s use of outside counsel, SB447 moved forward. This bill, vetoed by the Governor last year, requires the Attorney General to explain why outside counsel is being used in cases rather than the outstanding career attorneys in the Office of the Attorney General and to disclose the identity of the outside counsel and the terms of retention. It also imposed limits on the use of “contingent fees” by the Attorney General. Frankly, I think contingency fee agreements are rarely appropriate for the Commonwealth, and while the bill doesn’t prohibit them, it limits their use and caps the percentage at 25% of recoveries and the total fee at $50 million. Incredibly the Office of the Attorney General showed up to object to the bill and when asked about the cap, they said $50 million is too low! I reminded the Committee that in the event that Virginia hires counsel to recover money, it is money that belongs to us – the taxpayers — and that we should not allow the Attorney General to give it away to Gulf Coast or Chicago law firms, but that it should instead be used for teachers, public safety employees, transportation and other priorities.
I will be highlighting other key pieces of legislation in future weekly updates.
One of my favorite parts of Session is meeting with visiting groups and constituents. So far this session I have met with representatives of banks, credit unions, veterans groups, JMU, and various constituents who stopped in to discuss issues important to them. If you will be at Virginia’s historic Capitol between now andMarch 12, please remember to stop by our offices in Room 331 of the General Assembly Building and say hello. If you have any concerns about legislation, or would like to arrange a tour of the Capitol while you are here in Richmond, please do not hesitate to contact my Richmond office at [email protected] or804.698.7526. My legislative aide, Jenni Aulgur and I are happy to assist you in any way we can.
Mark Obenshain is a Virginia state senator.