It is a privilege to serve you and to provide a brief summary from our recent General Assembly Session, which ended February 27.
The countless calls, e-mails, and letters received from constituents and supporters, like you, throughout session are always greatly appreciated. Hearing your concerns and information is very important because it helps me to best represent you and the 69th district.
Each year, the vote on the budget is the most important one cast by legislators because it demonstrates the spending priorities for our Commonwealth. This year House Bill 1400 amends the state’s budget for the second portion of a two-year cycle. The $35 billion represents general fund dollars, taxpayer money that is allocated largely to education, health, and public safety. It provides much needed pay raises for state workers, teachers, and state police and maintains level funding to K-12 public education.
The budget increases teacher retirement funds by $190 million and provides a significant payment for the Rainy Day Fund to anticipate future shortfalls. It invests in expanded health care and increases TANF benefits for families. There is money to fund school breakfast pilot programs at elementary schools where free and reduced lunch eligibility exceeds 45%. There is more money in the Governor’s Opportunity Fund to help recruit more companies to Virginia.
Although Medicaid expansion was not included in this budget, along with other worthy investments, I voted for it because it includes important items that should be adequately funded this year. The budget was ready a record two-days early, before the vote occurred, allowing time for adequate examination. As a final product, it represents much time and hard work from finance leaders in House and Senate as well as important priorities of Governor McAuliffe.
Now the Governor will review the budget bill and offer any amendments at the Reconvene session of the General Assembly on April 15th.
Concerning my own legislative efforts, I introduced legislation for the second year aimed at reducing the number of drug and alcohol-related overdose deaths in our Commonwealth. HB 1500 encourages individuals to contact 9-1-1 or emergency medical services in the event that they or a loved one is experiencing a drug overdose. When I introduced this bill in 2014, it failed to pass subcommittee. After receiving substantial feedback from the Courts of Justice subcommittee, I worked over the past year with many stakeholders, such as public health officials, physicians, law enforcement, Commonwealth Attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office, community members, and the ACLU, to develop legislation that addresses everyone’s concerns. The bill passed both houses and will become law. Hopefully, it will increase calls to 9-1-1, save lives, and decrease overdose-related deaths.
For the past three years, due to numerous constituents, certified public accountants, and other concerned citizens, I have introduced legislation to allow the default method of payment for individual income tax refunds to be by check rather than by deposit or debit card. This year, my legislation,HB1346, was incorporated into Delegate Ware’s successful HB1286, which will become law. The passed bill will allow for an individual to select payment to be made by check, direct deposit, or debit card.
Continuing with a priority of ensuring that our Fourth Amendment right is secure in the 21st century, I introduced HB1348, which became a part of Delegate Marshall’s HB1408 and will become law. This bill requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant in order to intercept or obtain information from telecommunications, such as cellphones, or in order to access a person’s real-time locational data. Colloquially, this is referred to as “stingray” or “cell site simulators” or “ISMI catchers.”
“Stingrays” are often used to combat crime by tracking down suspected criminals. However, when utilized, the data of nearby bystanders is collected too. In order to protect our right to privacy, transparency and reform should be incorporated as technology evolves.
At the recommendation of a constituent, I introduced a successful bill,HB1345, which expands the list of items eligible for exemption during the Energy Star and WaterSense Sale Tax Holiday. Under current law, only fluorescent light bulbs are exempt; however, this bill updates the Code in keeping up with current technology by allowing both compact fluorescent (CFLs) and light emitting diode (LED) light bulbs that meet the Energy Star program requirements.
The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States. Commemorating how far our country and Commonwealth has come in terms of equal rights and opportunities for all people is important. Many younger citizens are unfamiliar with the hard work and sacrifices that took place to ensure that women would be allowed to cast their vote in public elections. HB2281 would have established the Commission for the Commemoration of the Centennial of Women's Right to Vote. It enjoyed the support of the League of Women Voters, many community groups, and Virginia history academicians.
While the bill successfully passed the House, it ultimately failed to become law due to a last minute deal brokered between Senate and House Rules committee leaders. It was agreed that two of three bills related to commission in conference would pass, but unfortunately, my bill was not one of the two chosen. I will re-introduce the bill again next year, hopefully, with a successful outcome. Since it took 41 years for the 19th Amendment to pass originally, it may not be surprising that this commemorating bill may take two years to pass.
Other legislation that I introduced but was not passed by the General Assembly related to non-partisan redistricting (HJ624 and HJ706), codifying the restoration of rights process (HJ604), supporting productive reentry after someone has paid their debt to society (HB1680), and creating a model policy for the use of body cameras on law enforcement (HB2280). These issues are important as they embody principles of fairness, transparency, and equal opportunities for all people.
Other legislation I sponsored and co-sponsored is listed here.
During this session, among several key issues addressed were ethics reform, Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) reform, transportation funding, and campus sexual assaults.
Ethics reform legislation (HB2070) imposes an annual $100 cap on gifts, which includes travel, entertainment, sports outings, and dining. An ethics advisory panel is created to oversee mandatory disclosures of legislators and address questions or issues that officials may have in terms of appropriate actions. The panel does not have the authority to investigate or enforce. All disclosures will be filed electronically to insure transparency.
The General Assembly passed legislation (SB1032 & HB1776) to turn the ABC Board into an independent authority beginning on July 1, 2018 to allow time for the transition. The new authority will be required to submit a six-year operating plan as well as annual accounting and proposed procurement and personnel policies to the Governor and General Assembly. The General Assembly will also continue to use the profits generated from ABC to support the general fund budget.
During the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly passed significant reforms for our transportation system and funding mechanisms. This year, due to inadequate funding streams, a transportation omnibus bill (HB1887) was passed to address the budgetary holes in the transit capital funding. This bill would allot $40 million annually from highways and freight rail to transit and would change the way that VDOT uses a formula to distribute funding for highway construction by giving localities increased opportunities for road funding.
Due to recent high-profile sexual assaults on college campuses, many legislators tried to address the issue through legislation related to reporting of sexual assaults. After much debate and input from community stakeholders, the final bills passed attempt to protect the sexual assault victim and also prevent the next occurrence.
On the environmental front, SB1349 caught the attention of local advocates. Senator Wagner’s bill SB1349 freezes the base electric rates for Dominion Virginia Power, and also stops the State Corporation Commission (SCC) from conducting two-year reviews to determine how much profit the company made. In an effort to compromise, amendments were added to allow Dominion to expand their solar energy in Virginia and require the company to offer energy assistance programs for low-income, disabled, and elderly costumers. Proponents of the bill stated that the legislation would provide stability as a final ruling is awaited from the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether Virginia will be required to reduce its carbon emissions or close coal plants. Even though the main reason the bill was introduced was to maintain stable rates, I voted against the bill after hearing constituents’ concerns and opposition. However, it successfully passed.
You can learn more about legislation passed during this session here. Governor McAuliffe has thirty days to sign or veto the legislation passed by the General Assembly. Any legislation he does not sign, veto, or amend will automatically become law.
As tax preparation season is underway, those who make less than $60,000 annually are most likely eligible for free access to name-brand tax preparation software products to prepare and file their taxes. The Free File program comes at no cost to the government, as it is a public-private partnership between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the tax preparation software companies. To find out more information or begin using Free File, visit the Virginia Department of Taxation’s website.
Thank you for the privilege of serving you in the General Assembly. Please feel free to contact my office at 804-698-1169 or e-mail me at email@example.com if you have any questions or concerns.