I am writing to update you about my work representing in the Virginia House of Delegates on your behalf during the Annual General assembly session that ended on March 8. The General Assembly will return to Richmond on March 24 for several days to hopefully resolve differences concerning the state budget and the expansion of the Medicaid program under the national Affordable Care Act healthcare law, which remains unresolved.
This year I introduced a trio of bills that all focused on the protection of privacy for citizens who use personal electronic devices such as cell phones. One bill (HB 813) would require that police obtain a warrant before searching the data on a person’s laptop, smartphone, or other personal electronic devices. The second (HB 814) would require a warrant from a judge before police use a mobile phone or other personal electronic device to track a person’s location – something that happens now in many cases without judicial oversight. The third (HB 817) would require a judicial warrant if the police wish to obtain information relating to the historical location of a person that is located in the detailed records kept by cell phone companies.
I am pleased to report that we made small progress on this issue. The General Assembly unanimously passed a bill (HB 17) that, except in a few narrow instances that now have been specifically written into law, will require that police obtain a judge’s order before being able to track someone in real time using a mobile phone or other personal electronic device. The bill also sets up a requirement that tracking performed without prior judicial approval be reported to the court in a timely manner.
Last summer, many people were saddened by the death of 7-year-old Brendon Mackey of Chesterfield, who was murdered by “celebratory” gunfire on July 4, 2013. Thanks to the advocacy by the Mackey family and other groups, such as Moms Demand Action, Richmond Senator Henry Marsh and I were able to pass legislation to make it a felony when an individual recklessly handles a firearm in a manner so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life that causes serious bodily damage to another person. Although legislation cannot bring Brendon back to life or find the person who is responsible for his death, it provides an appropriate means to punish and deter those who mishandle a firearm and in doing so endanger the lives of others.
This year marks the beginning of the observance of the centenary of the First World War. The magnificent Carillon in Byrd Park was built to memorialize those Virginians who died fighting in that war. This year legislation I proposed was passed to make the City of Richmond’s Carillon Advisory Committee the official First World War commemoration committee for Virginia, which will provide the official forum for Richmonders and Virginians to participate in the national commemoration of the First World War.
Finally, legislation I proposed to allow cider to be sold in the same size containers as wine, such as growlers or kegs was approved unanimously. In Virginia, the production and sale of hard cider is rapidly growing. The 69th district proudly has Virginia’s first urban cidery, Blue Bee Cider, located in old Manchester, which has become very popular and successful.
This year there was a bipartisan desire to reform Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Over the years, many parents and teachers alike have been frustrated with SOLs and
"teaching to the test," rather than focusing on learning through innovation and creativity. Legislation passed this year that will reduce the number of tests by 20 percent to a total of 17 authorized assessments. In addition, a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee will be established to periodically review the SOL tests.
Changes to improve access to mental health treatment also received bipartisan support following the tragedy that struck Senator Creigh Deeds and his family last fall. The duration of emergency custody orders will be extended to 12 hours. State hospitals will be required to take patients when private beds are unavailable. The time permitted for an emergency detention order to be in effect before a court hearing is required will be increased from 48 to 72 hours, and the order will be permitted even if a bed has not yet been found. Legislation also will require law enforcement officials to work more closely with community service boards. A statewide registry of available psychiatric treatment beds will be established. Finally, a special legislative committee will undertake a four-year comprehensive study of the state’s mental health system.
In response to the revelation concerning the behavior of former Governor Robert McDonnell, the General Assembly passed significant ethics reform legislation. The bill sets a limit of $250 on the amount of certain gifts that legislators can receive from lobbyist per year. It requires that legislators report any gifts and other financial interests they hold twice instead of once a year. It requires the public reporting of certain gifts received by legislators’ immediate family members. There will now be an independent commission to review these reports and provide mandatory training to legislators. Although this legislation is an improvement, I think that the law alone will not make people act ethically. People, including government, will either act ethically or they won’t. Although we would like to, it is not possible to make every case of bad judgment, stupidity, or unethical behavior a criminal act. In some cases, we need reasonable transparency that will subject public officials to the verdict of the voters and of history.
On a number of issues that I have tried to work on for several years now, we were not successful, but I do think we were able to make progress building bipartisan support for change in the future.
One such issue regards restoring the ability of state taxpayers to receive tax refunds by paper check. Beginning last year, a new procedure was implemented that required these to be made by direct deposit or a debit card issued by a government contractor (Xerox). The end result of this is that a portion of tax payments is taken out as debit card fees, and it has been extremely frustrating for taxpayers to get the money back that they overpaid in taxes. After hearing from their constituentsmany legislators joined to support my legislation correcting this situation. We were able to get a bill out of subcommittee – the first step in moving a bill forward, but it did not go further. However, a bipartisan group of senators and delegates have written a letter asking that this situation be corrected in the state budget, so there is still a slim possibility of action on this matter this year.
Drug overdose is now second only to motor vehicle crashes among the leading causes of unintentional injury deaths. In recent years, Virginia has had a 300% increase in the number of deaths related to drug overdose. This year I also proposed a bill (HB557), Safe Reporting to Save Lives, which would provide that if someone or a person with them is overdosing, then they could call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical attention without either party being at risk of arrest or prosecution for possession, consumption, or purchasing of a drug or alcohol. This is a real issue that is a life or death matter for all too many of our fellow Virginians. I was touched by the number of people who came forward to support this bill because their lives had been affected by this situation. After a fair hearing before the House Courts of Justice Committee, we were unable to convince a majority of committee members that the ability of prosecutors to investigate and prosecute drug times should be restricted in the interest of saving human lives. This is a cause that I plan to work on so we can build support for doing something in the future.
I proposed two constitutional amendments this year. The first would provide for the automatic restoration civil rights, including voting rights, for a person convicted of a felony upon the completion of his or her sentence, including any term of probation or parole, and the payment of all restitution, fines, costs, and fees assessed as a result of the conviction. I also proposed a constitutional amendment to introduce a bill outlining a process for non-partisan redistricting. Unfortunately, neither of these measures advanced.
Another issue we have begun work on this year is the voluntary labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In order to start this conversation, I proposed that money be set aside to study the possibility of establishing a voluntary program for labeling and promoting Virginia agricultural products that do not contain GMOs. What I learned was that there are many interests who don’t think that consumers should be able to know what they are eating, and that others think even a voluntary system would somehow be an unreasonable burden. According to our legislative survey this year, 89% of you thought that this is a worthy issue. I believe it is important for Virginians, especially those who may have food sensitivities, health or religious concerns to have the right to know what is in their food. This is something I wish to continue working on in the future.
Much of the most important work of the General Assembly, including the detailed consideration of bills, is done in the House of Delegate’s committees and subcommittees. I serve on the Committees on Transportation, Finance (which handles tax policy), and General Laws (which handles non-criminal law issues in general, including issues concerning state employees and procurement, the alcoholic beverage control system, freedom of information and privacy.) During February I was appointed to a fourth committee, the Committee on Commerce and Labor, by the Speaker of the House. This came as a very pleasant surprise and honor. This committee deals with the laws affecting our state’s most important industries. It is going to provide me the opportunity to learn more in depth about many key public policy questions affecting our economy.
If you have any questions or concerns about legislation passed during the session, please contact me at 804-698-1069 or contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am always happy to hear from you.
Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving you.
Betsy B. Carr
Member, House of Delegates