Senate Democrats work through issues
Column by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple
Greetings from Richmond! As the Senate Democratic Caucus begins another lively session of the Virginia General Assembly, we are reminded that every year presents its own challenges and opportunities, and this year should offer plenty of both. As we consider the many bills before us, know that we are mindful of the challenges caused by the economic downturn and are seeking ways to spur economic development, increase employment opportunities, and help meet the needs of all Virginians.
On Jan. 18, Sens. Dick Saslaw of Fairfax and Mamie Locke of Hampton outlined our priorities in the response to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s first State of the Commonwealth address. The senators presented opportunities to work with the governor to address our challenges and called on him to lead his fellow Republicans as we seek solutions to our transportation crisis. They also asked the governor to reject permanent cuts to our public schools and to work with us as we try to find the resources our healthcare safety net and public safety professionals need.
All our senators are hard at work on a broad range of issues that will better the lives of all Virginians. The Senate has already passed Sen. Janet Howell’s bill that will allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot in person without an excuse. Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax has legislation to incentivize green buildings, businesses and jobs. And Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke is fighting to end abusive and predatory lending practices. These are just some of the many ways that we are working to create jobs, promote economic recovery, and meet the needs of our fellow Virginians.
Democrats are also leading the charge for meaningful ethics reform in Virginia politics. Last year’s scandal, where a legislator wrote a paid job for himself into the state’s budget, revealed serious failings in the way the General Assembly investigates and punishes ethical violations. Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk has introduced a bill to establish a bipartisan panel to investigate conflicts of interest in a public and transparent way.
We will continue to look out for the best interests of all Virginians while conducting our business in Richmond. Before the session convened we found out Gov. McDonnell would allow his cabinet secretaries to also sit on corporate boards, including the Secretary of Commerce and Trade that oversees the state’s business development and regulation efforts. Many Virginians expressed concern with this arrangement, so Sen. Janet Howell of Fairfax, Democratic chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections committee, made it clear that secretaries would not be confirmed while on the payrolls of corporations. Democrats refused to compromise on this and Gov. McDonnell wisely withdrew his initial Commerce and Trade nominee, replacing him with a more acceptable one.
Finally, we have a new member in our ranks, giving us twenty two Democratic Senators and a two seat majority. We are glad to welcome Sen. Dave Marsden, who served two terms in the House of Delegates before winning a hard fought special election in the 37th district. Dave has earned a reputation as a hard working and fair minded moderate whose bipartisanship and expertise on juvenile justice will make him a valuable voice in the Senate.
Much work remains ahead of us before we are scheduled to adjourn on March 13, including the crafting of the state’s two-year budget. Gov. McDonnell has decided that no new revenues will be available, so we await his plan to address the $4.3 billion in cuts he needs to balance the budget. This process will require some hard and painful choices, but we will do all we can to protect the jobs of our dedicated teachers, cops, doctors and nurses, as well as the critical services they provide. As always, please stay in touch with your senator and let them know how we can serve you better. We pride ourselves on being both available and responsive to the needs of our constituents and will continue to do your work in Richmond.
Mary Margaret Whipple is the chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.