Happy New Year and greetings from Richmond! This past Wednesday, the 2014 General Assembly was gaveled into session. This will be another busy year as we consider issues such as how to grow our economy, whether to expand Medicaid, fixing our mental health system, strengthening the ethics rules that apply to elected officials, and reforming the way we conduct testing in our schools. This year we will also be adopting our biennial budget.
Your feedback on these issues and more is very important to me. Please take the time to let your voice be heard by filling out my 2014 Constituent Survey. Also, mark your calendars for my annual Town Hall with Senator Chap Petersen on February 1st from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m. at Fairfax City Hall.
Committee Assignments and SOLs
With over 1,700 bills introduced to-date, and many more on the way, much of the work of the General Assembly is conducted through the committee system. I am pleased to have been reappointed to three committees, including Education, General Laws, and Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources. In case you are curious, General Laws covers alcohol, tobacco, housing, professional and occupational licensure and regulation, the Freedom of Information Act, gambling, administrative processes, and a couple of other areas. That is, it covers anything not covered by another committee.
I am particularly excited about being placed on a new subcommittee in the Education Committee that will tackle educational reform issues. One of the many areas of reform discussed is our Standards of Learning. Virginia adopted the SOLs in the 1990s to standardize testing in our schools and to set specific educational benchmarks. There is concern, however, that the SOLs have resulted in "teaching to the test" at the expense of critical thinking skills. This concern was echoed by teachers, parents, and students alike as I knocked on doors and attended forums over the summer and fall. The million dollar question is how to re-achieve balance in our education system.
Of course, not all reform is necessarily positive - but I am thrilled to have an opportunity to be on the front lines of these very important discussions.
This past year, several events placed a harsh spotlight on Virginia's relatively lax ethics and transparency laws - especially with regard to elected officials and their family members taking gifts. While Virginia is a well run state, it is important that we protect faith in our government by using events like these as an opportunity to enact much needed reform. On Monday, we got started on the right track when the Democratic and Republican caucuses announced the framework for a bipartisan ethics reform package. Key components include:
- Imposing a $250 per item cap on tangible gifts from lobbyists and individuals with business before the state. Currently there is no cap, only a reporting requirement.
- Creating a State Ethics Advisory Commission composed of legislators and citizen appointees that will be tasked with review of financial disclosures, ensuring that gifts are easily searchable by the general public, making recommendations on further ethics reforms, and providing advisory opinions to lawmakers.
- Requiring bi-annual reporting of gifts as opposed to the current practice of reporting only once a year in January (after elections).
- Mandating that new lawmakers participate in an ethics and disclosure training course, with mandatory refresher courses.
While a step in the right direction, I believe more needs to be done. For instance, the $250 cap includes things like watches but not items like meals and travel. I would also like to see the State Ethics Advisory Commission have more teeth to actually enforce our ethics laws. Finally, while bi-annual reporting is better than the current system, I think it would make much more sense to report gifts on the same frequency and on the same forms that we report campaign contributions. This will make reporting more frequent (eight times during a campaign year) and enable the information to be easily viewed on websites such as the Virginia Public Access Project. I have introduced HB271 to synchronize the reporting process for gifts and campaign contributions.
At the same time we enhance transparency and accountability, we must also make sure that the process is straight forward and simple to understand. We've made a good start! Hopefully we can push reform even further.
A New Governor
This Saturday at noon, Terry McAuliffe will be sworn in as the Commonwealth's 72nd Governor. You can watch the swearing-in ceremony live (and all of us in the audience getting drenched) through the General Assembly's website.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve! More to come next week on my bills and budget amendments. In the meanwhile, please do not hesitate to contact me if I can answer a question or be of assistance.