The General Assembly convened for the 2018 Legislative Session on January 10. Since then, the House and Senate have considered over 2000 bills; I would like to provide you an update from the Capitol at ‘crossover’, the midpoint of the legislative session.
The bills I introduced this session reflected issues of community concern, as well as recommendations from the Housing Commission and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) on which I serve. A bill (HB 594) addressing crime blight along a couple of traffic corridors in our area, which had been identified by our Richmond police chief, as well as similar problems from other police chiefs around the state, passed in the House. It reflected the consensus of a number of stakeholders including law enforcement, motel owners and the Poverty Law Center. Another bill (HB 609) endorsed by the Housing Commission, provides a statewide system for ensuring the proper installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in rental residences. This can help protect residents and ensure proper warning when there is fire or smoke danger in the home.
Continuing recent legislative work establishing a land bank and land trust, House Bill 590 and House Bill 591 were passed for the construction and preservation of affordable housing in our community.
Two bills, which were the result of JLARC recommendations, dealt with the issue of establishing a statewide policy on regional water use and planning in our Commonwealth.
HB 1185 would have required that localities work together to plan their use of water. Currently, each locality, which uses a common water source, can develop its own plan. This approach can be problematic because upstream localities could, for instance, make a plan for river water use without considering implications on downstream localities. Although other delegates expressed interest and support for regional planning, there was concern about the immediate cost to implement such planning and the bill did not pass.
The second bill (HB 1186) would have ensured that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) follow current Virginia Code when issuing permits for water withdrawals from the Potomac aquifer, which is the aquifer underneath the eastern half of Virginia. This bill would have ensured that permits are prioritized for human consumption; for instance, human needs and a municipal water supply would take precedence over an industrial commercial use. While the bill failed, DEQ has agreed to determine how best to implement the intent of the law prioritizing human use. DEQ will provide options that address complicated considerations such as economic development, agricultural use, and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District project which plans to inject “purified” water back into the aquifer. A consensus advisory group met in the recent past; their agreements resulted in lower withdrawal permits. For the present time, the aquifer level is not in immediate danger. However, implementing the intent of the code, which prioritizes aquifer use for human consumption, ensuring an adequate water supply for citizens’ use in the future, remains a necessity. I plan to continue working on these issues, in collaboration with my colleagues and experts in the field.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s full report on Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management is available at this link.
Gun safety, a frequently expressed community concern, was the subject of several of my bills which were, unfortunately, unsuccessful in this year’s session. House Bill 597 would have banned the use of ‘bump stocks’, devices that can be used to increase the rate of fire of a weapon. A bump stock device was used in the tragic Las Vegas shooting that resulted in over fifty dead and hundreds wounded; such devices remain legal in our Commonwealth. Other bills included limiting the number of magazines (HB 596), and requiring in-person training for a concealed carry license (HB 602).
HB 603 would have raised the permit application fee for a concealed handgun for non-residents of Virginia and raised revenue for our Virginia State Police. Although this measure seemed analogous to that of charging higher tuition for out-of-state students attending our public universities, the bill was defeated in subcommittee.
House Joint Resolution 86, which I submitted, commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution which requires equal protection under law for all persons. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, on which I am privileged to serve, recommended this resolution.
Several key issues permeate this year’s legislative session. Expanding access to health care coverage continues to be a major priority for representatives. Governor Northam and Speaker of the House Cox have had pertinent discussions about how Virginia can provide more health coverage to our residents. The House of Delegates Appropriations Committee will present its Fiscal Years 2019-2020 budget proposal on Sunday, February 18. Where we stand on the critically important task of ensuring quality health coverage for more of our citizens may be clearer then.
Legislation supported by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company has garnered much attention. House Bill 1558 would lift the “rate freeze” that was passed by the General Assembly, which I opposed back in 2015. Although this year’s bill does propose investments in renewable energy while returning $200 million to ratepayers in one-time bill credits using money that was deemed to be “over-earned” by Dominion Energy, both concepts which I favor, I believe that both can and should be done in simple legislation and not within a complex package of technical regulations.
An amendment by Delegate Toscano addressed a significant concern about whether customers would be forced to pay twice for renewable energy projects, what the news media has been calling a “double-dip”. In the floor debate, delegates expressed concern that the bill limits the State Corporation Commision’s oversight control of utiltites. The bill does provide for “Grid Transformation.” For instance, there will be two-way communication between utility and customer. In some sections of the state which are subject to frequent hurricanes, customers are pleased with the possibiltiy that they will not have to call the utility company when their power goes out because the utility company will be able to already know that information. Much work and stakeholder input has gone into improving HB 1558. Governor Northam, the League of Conservation Voters, and many other groups now support it. However, I believe more work needs to be done. Along with 40 of my colleagues (out of 100), I voted against the bill on its final passage in the House. However, after a conference occurs to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, the final bill, which will be voted on nearer to the end of session, may offer more measures that representatives appreciate and can support. I will certainly continue to evaluate the legislation as it evolves.
The General Assembly continues work, in conjunction with the Executive Branch, to stem the tide of the opioid crisis in our Commonwealth. Legislation has advanced that puts limits on certain prescriptions and other regulations on certain pharmacies to ensure that prescriptions are not over-provided. Studies have demonstrated that addiction often starts with legitimate need for the drugs that are initially provided through prescription. Delegates who are doctors in their full-time careers advanced these bills.
I have always been a strong supporter of equality in the LGBTQ community. Moreover, numerous constituents contacted me to support legislation that would have banned discrimination in the workplace and in housing for the LGBTQ community, such as SB 202 and SB 423. While I co-sponsored these bills, and pushed for them to be passed by making motions in the subcommittee, the Republican majority defeated these bills. They were not even heard by the full House of Delegates. Thank you to the many constituents who contacted me to make their voices heard and also to those who took time to appear and testify before the General Laws subcommittee. I will continue to fight for equality and opportunity for all Virginians.
Many constituents, who advocated making city streets safer for pedestrians and for bike users, wrote to support increased penalties for distracted drivers using hand held communication devices. House Bill 181 passed the House although there was considerable opposition because of concern that selected community members may be targeted unfairly.
Legislation regarding protections for animals is also being discussed. House Bill 646, which I co-patroned, would put in place adequate shelter and space requirements before tethering of an animal would be allowed. This bill did not pass. However, House Bill 889, which simply allows a locality to implement limits on how long a dog may be tethered outside, with certain conditions, did pass the House of Delegates and will now be heard in the Senate. Meanwhile a different Senate bill (SB 872) concerning the subject will come to the House.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) continues to receive legislative focus. This critical infrastructure system, upon which thousands of Virginia citizens daily rely, must have its capital needs properly funded while appropriate oversight of management and safety is ensured. The final piece of legislation to fund Virginia’s share of WMATA is a work in progress. Members of the Northern Virginia delegation are working tirelessly to ensure adequate funding. Many constituents have contacted me supporting legislation that reforms and properly funds the WMATA system and addresses transit in Virginia.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, work on the state budget for Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020 is ongoing. Virginia is required to pass a balanced budget each biennium. I submitted various amendments to the introduced budget. Among my budget amendments are those that would direct more funding to school districts that serve a disproportionately high number of at-risk and low-income students, fund emergency construction and repair needs for facilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, and expand access to Virginia’s popular and helpful 529 College Savings Plan by allowing our citizens to make smaller deposits to these prepaid college tuition plans.
Participation in the Richmond Public Schools Job Shadow Dayeach year is a special delight. Aijya, a middle school student at Elkhardt-Thompson, shadowed me and my office staff for the day to learn more about the legislature and how a bill becomes a law.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation are sponsoring this year’s Poetry Out Loud contest. Students can apply at www.poetryoutloud.org and submit their work to compete in both the Virginia and national poetry recitation contests.
Constituents often want to know how best to follow General Assembly business. The General Assembly’s legislative website, available at this link, is an excellent resource to view the legislation and budget amendments introduced by each legislative member. Additionally, the website provides office contact information such as phone and fax numbers and email addresses for each delegate and senator. You can search legislation by bill number, by committee, or by General Assembly member. Various committee meetings are streamed online by visiting the meeting agenda for the committee.
Additionally, the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) provides a user friendly way to search legislation by topic. As always, if you have a question regarding legislation, please feel free to contact me.
The General Assembly is scheduled to adopt the FY 2019 and FY 2020 budget, finish all legislative business, and adjourn ‘sine die’ by Saturday, March 10th.
It is a privilege to serve you in the House of Delegates. I am available to meet with any constituents throughout the year in my office or in their local district community. Please never hesitate to contact me if I can be helpful with a state agency or with legislative information. My phone number is 804-698-1069 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to our continuing work together.