This week the General Assembly convened for its annual 45-day session at the State Capitol. What follows is a brief overview of some of the issues that we will be discussing.
The right to vote is fundamental to a democratic society, and it is one that was denied to many citizens on account of their race for many years. In spite of the fact that there are no recorded incidents of voter impersonation in Virginia, legislation is being proposed which would make the Voter ID requirements that went into effect last year even stricter. The effect of these laws is to discourage voting and make it more difficult for senior citizens, students, and the poor to exercise their democratic rights.
Tomorrow a House of Delegates subcommittee will begin consideration of changes to Virginia’s Constitution, including an amendment I have proposed, that would permit all citizens convicted of a felony to vote once they have served their time and satisfied the other conditions of their sentence. Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states to bar persons convicted of a felony from ever voting again their life, unless their rights are restored by the Governor after an individual petition. In spite of the Governor’s support of this measure for persons convicted of a non-violent felonies, it is doubtful whether or not the majority party in the House of Delegates will support this change.
Virginia will need to take action in response to the federal health care reform law. Will Virginia create and run its own “exchange”, a marketplace where individuals and small businesses can purchase insurance coverage, or will it leave the running of the exchange to the federal government? Will Virginia choose to expand its Medicaid program so that the working poor are able to get adequate health insurance and get needed medical treatment in a way that allows medical conditions to be treated early and for the taxpayer to save money in the long run, or will we leave these citizens behind? Will the legislature pass additional laws that will make it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion and other needed health care by driving outpatient surgical facilities out of business?
An ongoing issue is how we spend limited tax dollars, and how public resources are divided among education, health care, transportation, public safety, and other vital government functions. A related issue is how much we are prepared to invest in our transportation system, and how much of the cost will be borne by transportation users as opposed to taxpayers at large, regardless of how much they drive. A third related issue is how much Virginia taxpayers will be forced to subsidize the use of the roads by out-of-state drivers, that drive as many as one-third of the miles traveled on our roads. Last week the Governor proposed a transportation initiative that, at first glance, would break the link between miles traveled and taxes paid, reduce the burden on out-of-state users of the transportation system, and over the long term reduce funding for education, health care and public safety to pay for road construction and maintenance. We are waiting to read the fine print of these proposals, which will be released this week.
A company called Virginia Uranium is pushing to lift the 31-year moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia in order to mine a large deposit of the ore in Pittsylvania County near Chatham. Although the proposed mining activity and the lifting of the moratorium would be limited to Pittsylvania County, surveys have indicated there may be other uranium deposits throughout Virginia’s Piedmont region. Proponents believe that the proposed mine will bring jobs, opportunity and wealth to this region of Southside Virginia and the investors in the project and believe that uranium mining can be done safely. Opponents point out that 99 percent of the mined ore, known as uranium tailings - a relatively low-grade type of radioactive waste sludge, will have be stored indefinitely at the mining site and that there is a potential for these to contaminate the water supply. There is dispute as to whether there exists another safely operating mine in an area with a comparable amount of rainfall, propensity for hurricanes, and proximity to major population centers. The legislators representing the area seem to be uniformly against this proposal, as well as many of those representing citizens who live downstream in the Roanoke River basin. After a year of study, this will be a hotly debated issue which will not break down solely on partisan lines, and it will be a vital one for the future of Virginia’s environment.
The Port of Virginia is a public agency that was created at the initiative of former Governor Linwood Holton beginning in 1971 to unify competing publicly-owned port facilities in Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth. The Port has been a driver of tremendous economic growth in Virginia. The widening of the Panama Canal will enable larger “Panamax” ocean freighters to serve the East Coast ports directly from Asia and other destinations. This and upgrades to the nation’s rail infrastructure are creating opportunities for future growth. There is a move to fully or partially privatize the operation of the port by entering into a long-term agreement with a private company to operate the port or sell it entirely to private investors. Supporters believe that this would provide a large infusion of cash to the Commonwealth. This summer the Governor replaced 10 out of 12 members of the Port’s governing board, and there were some significant staff changes. Right now privatization can be done without the approval of the General Assembly, and it seems that plans are in place to begin the process of privatization at the Port Authority’s March meeting. Many legislators are concerned that this could be happening without the approval of the legislature, and a number of bills are being introduced to stop this. Again, this is an issue where the debate does not fall upon partisan lines.
A particular concern of mine has been the transfer of core government functions to the private sector when these changes don’t actually save any money but force citizens to pay more money to private vendors who make money off interactions between the citizens and their government. Often this results in citizens’ private confidential being placed in the computer systems of private companies. Two years ago, I worked unsuccessfully to stop the state’s privatization of its electronic tax filing system. For many years Virginia had a simple and effective web-based system where individuals could file their income tax returns and send their information directly to the states. A group of private companies lobbied to have this system eliminated and replaced with one where if you want to file electronically and receive the benefits of electronic filing including receiving your refund on time, you had to go through one of a cartel of private companies. In many cases you would have to pay a fee for something that previously could be done for free.
Unfortunately, a new scheme was inserted by special interests into last year’s budget that will do the same thing. Beginning this year, you will no longer be able to receive a tax refund check from the state. If you don’t choose to have your refund deposited by direct deposit, you will receive your tax refund as a prepaid debit card. Of course, there are fees associated with this card, and there will be many opportunities for Xerox and Mastercard, the companies administering this system, to take a bite out of your tax refund. In addition these private companies will know the amount and date of your tax refund, and your bank account details if you choose to transfer money from your debit card from your bank account, something which is none of their business. If you use your debit card to buy something at a store, Mastercard will get a cut of between 2 and 9 percent. I plan to introduce a bill to restore your option to be paid by check.
This is an overview of some, but certainly not all of the issues that will be taken up by your citizen-legislators in the coming weeks. Although on many issues there is a breakdown along partisan lines, especially this year, there are some key issues on which regional affiliation will make more of a difference. On other issues there are differences of principle that do not fall along partisan or regional lines, and on some issues there is the possibility for principled reform supported by a broad coalition of both parties. For example, I was pleased to be a sponsor of legislation last year that resulted in the codification of Virginia’s rules of evidence. Previously Virginia was one of only two states that did not have written rules of evidence – instead these were sprinkled throughout the laws and court precedents. The result of codifying these rules, writing them down, and putting them in one place will be a greater possibility of justice for the many citizens that find themselves before our courts every day. This effort was supported by a broad coalition, including my republican colleagues Delegate Loupassi and Albo from Richmond and Springfield, respectively, my Democratic colleague State Senator John Edwards of Roanoke, as well republican Senator Mark Obenshain, a candidate for Attorney General. It also received the support of the Governor and Attorney General. Although there are very serious differences in philosophy and opinion among Virginians, this is an example of how sometimes needed reform can gain the support a broad coalition.
I look forward to updating you in the weeks ahead about these and other issues. You may find it interesting to watch the daily floor sessions of the House of Delegates and Senate. The video is streamed live over the Internet each day, usually beginning at noon and is available on the General Assembly website. You can also track the status of bills that may interest you using thelegislative information system. I am available to speak with you about any legislative matter, or help deal with a state agency. I look forward to seeing you in the coming months, either at the Capitol, or in the community.
Finally, I hope that you might take some time to share your opinions, concerns and priorities with me by completing my online issues survey, which you can do by clicking here.
Thank you again for the honor you have given me to serve you and the trust you have placed in me as your member of the House of Delegates.
Betsy B. Carr
Member, Virginia House of Delegates