Featured: Sen. Creigh Deeds, Sen. Mark Obenshain
Creigh Deeds: Weekly Update
The third full week of the General Assembly session ended in unusual fashion. For the first time in recent memory, the General Assembly took a snow day. Granted we have had difficult weather this winter, beginning with the snow storm in the middle of December and continuing with several significant snow events throughout January and into February, but the General Assembly, limited by the constitution to a 60 day session this year, always conducts its work. I read in the newspaper that Lacey Putney, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly, could not remember the legislature ever being snowed out. I ran into a friend who served in the cabinet for Gov. Baliles who remembered a prior incident of a snow day being taken in 1977 or 1978.
The significance of the event is amplified by the state of our budget. No one will argue that our national economy has been through a rough spell and that all the states are struggling. Virginia is relatively well off. The fifty states collectively are $170 billion in the red; Virginia’s share of that is roughly $4.5 billion. The reality of that shortfall is coming down hard on local governments, school boards, constitutional officers, and folks who rely on state services.
I have heard from every local government I represent about the effect of the cuts. We know that $4.5 billion in cuts will mean about 13,000 state employees will be laid off. Reductions in state funding affect local employees as well, because the localities depend on getting a portion of their funding from the state. Around the Commonwealth, newspapers scream out about layoffs expected within school systems. The 25th Senatorial District is not exempted from those layoffs. Albemarle County alone is considering laying off at least 20 employees. Buena Vista City Schools are considering laying off 14 employees. Beyond schools, other areas of local government will be hard hit. My home county of Bath will not have a police officer on duty around the clock. Rockbridge County may lay off three to five deputies. The budget cuts that are being considered will have a disastrous affect on the localities within my district.
Frankly, the money has to come from somewhere. If the state cuts funding, and thereby reduces the state’s share of budgets for sheriff’s departments, commonwealth’s attorneys, clerks of court, treasurers, commissioners of revenue, local school boards and health departments, and people want the services those agencies have provided, local governments will be forced to make tough decisions. If the cuts are indeed enacted, we will see larger class sizes, fewer deputies on the roadways, and longer lines at state and local offices, and the list goes on.
I have refrained from being critical of the governor, given our past relationship. I want to support him when we agree, and I want him to do a great job. However, at this juncture, we still have not heard from him about how we are going to close the budget gap. So while I find fault in the General Assembly for taking a day off, I find more fault with the lack of leadership from the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We are in crisis and so far the mice have prevailed over the men. I am confident that working together we can solve many challenges facing our Commonwealth, but we need to get started. There is no more time for sitting on the sidelines. This is the time for bold leadership.
The 2010 session of the General Assembly is like many others. We have seen our share of bills. Many of them are controversial and have generated some publicity. But the budget situation is overwhelming and even in the face of snow storms that slow down traffic and produce tragedies in some parts of Virginia, it is somewhat ironic that the leadership of the General Assembly chose to take a snow day rather than continue to work to balance the budget and find success in our quest to keep Virginia the best managed state in the country, the best state for business, and the best state to educate a child. We have so much work to do and we have a limited time in which to do it. Time is running out on the 2010 session of the General Assembly.
Mark Obenshain: A winter blast from the Senate
It’s been stormy at times here in the General Assembly, too, though I’m pleased to report that this week saw some positive news as well.
The Senate passed SB 537, a bill to raise the speed limit on interstates from 65 to 70 mph, and the House is likely to follow suit. Presuming passage in the House, though, this law still won’t go into effect until July 1, so don’t try out the new speed limit just yet especially not in these conditions!
The Senate passed three bills (Senate Bills 283, 311, and 417) collectively known as the “health care freedom bills,” which state that Virginians cannot be required to purchase health insurance. We all know that health insurance is a good thing, of course, and expanding coverage is a goal everyone shares, but it is not the role of government to mandate purchases, so I was glad to join all eighteen Republicans and five Democrats in passing each of these bills on a vote of 23-17. You can watch video of the floor debate here.
We had quite a fight in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Wednesday when a coerced abortion bill patroned by my colleague Ralph Smith found its way onto the docket. The bill is a simple and sensible one, the sort of thing you would think should enjoy broad support, regardless of one’s position on abortion. All the bill does is make it a misdemeanor offense to coerce a pregnant woman into having an abortion – for instance, if a boyfriend physically threatens his pregnant girlfriend.
This isn’t really about abortion; it’s about choice. I’m proudly pro-life, but I don’t even know what it means to be “pro-choice” if pro-choicers are okay with someone physically coercing someone to “choose” abortion, or too concerned about being seen as insufficiently rigid on the issue to vote for such a commonsense bill.
The bill, SB 504, actually received a favorable report in subcommittee thanks to Democratic Sen. Roscoe Reynolds (D-Henry County), who supported the legislation. Once a bill is reported from subcommittee, it goes to the full committee for consideration – or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen. Instead, it mysteriously disappeared from the Courts Committee docket and showed up in the docket of the Committee on Education and Health, where the deck is stacked against any pro-life legislation. To be clear, it wasn’t re-referred. There was no vote. It just reappeared there.
When the “error” was discovered – by which I mean, when the patron and others made the breach of the Senate Rules an issue – the bill returned to Courts, where the majority leader, Sen. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), made a formal motion to refer the bill to Education and Health (to die). The subcommittee chair, Sen. Reynolds, strongly opposed the motion as coming far too late in the process, but his vote together with those of the five Republicans remaining on the Committee proved inadequate to stop the bill from being referred to another committee where it will meet its all but certain demise.
The Family Foundation has more on the committee battle here, and you can even watch the video of the committee debate, if you wish.
Elsewhere, my bill to shift ½ penny of the sales tax to the Transportation Trust Fund (only to the extent that we experience tax revenue growth above 3 percent) died a swift death in the Senate Finance Committee. This would have moved $450 million into the transportation fund – once our revenue grew by at least that much – to meet our growing transportation needs. Unfortunately, this effort to dedicate a portion of future revenue growth to transportation is going nowhere as long as the Senate remains in Democratic hands.
We had some excitement on the floor this week, too. One bill, patroned by Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), would make it a primary offense for the holder of a provisional driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle while talking on a cell phone.
The problem, of course, is enforcement. Legislators who have long asserted civil rights concerns as reasons not to give law enforcement officers open-ended authority to stop motorists sat on their hands when the bill passed. This measure effectively gives police the right to stop anyone driving while talking on the cell phone if they simply look young. As you might expected, I voted no.
And of course, the budget issue still looms, and remains our top priority. Some Democrats have come to grips with the fact that the full reinstatement of the car tax is not a viable option, but many still cling to that tax-hiking hope, and have angrily taken to the floor to denounce Gov. McDonnell and their colleagues in the General Assembly for working to find solutions that don’t increase the burden on Virginia’s taxpayers in this difficult time.