Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Thanks to everyone who came out for my Town Hall meeting last weekend! Chap and I look forward to this each year and enjoyed the discussion. In case you are interested, I have uploaded the meeting presentation on my website.
It is hard to believe that next Tuesday is cross-over, the official half-way point of the session when the House and Senate must complete work on their respective bills. The following are just a few of the major issues that we are currently debating.
Campus Sexual Assaults - Several bills have been introduced to better protect students from sexual assault on our university campuses. This is an extremely complex issue. First, federal laws like the Clery Act and Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 trump state law in many cases. More importantly, however, is the delicate balance between respecting a victim's right to privacy and the need to protect the community at large from potential predators. Under federal law, each campus has a Title IX coordinator, who is empowered with making decisions about whether an incident rises to a level where it should be reported to the police even against the wishes of the victim. The purpose of the bill we are debating now (HB1930) is to make sure that the Title IX coordinator has all the information necessary to make such a determination. While the mechanics of the bill are still a work in progress, the idea is to enhance coordination between a Title IX coordinator and a university's threat assessment team. Threat assessment teams, which include representatives from law enforcement, were an outgrowth of the Virginia Tech tragedy and are designed to determine whether a student may represent a threat to the overall campus community. While information about the victim may remain confidential, information about the alleged perpetrator can be discussed to determine if there is a pattern of behavior or if the alleged crime is sufficient to warrant reporting to the police. The bill is a work in progress but I am hopeful we will be able to strengthen our existing system without discouraging victims from coming forward. I also want to give a heart-felt thanks to the incredibly brave young women who told their stories to the House Committee on Education, of which I am a member, so that we could better understand the enormous importance of our decisions.
Continued SOL Reform - Building on last year's reform efforts, several bills have been introduced as a result of recommendations of the newly formed Standards of Learning Innovation Committee. The most significant bill, HB1675, requires the Virginia Board of Education to develop alternative assessments for meeting course requirements and end-of-the-year SOL tests. This is in recognition that many tests, such as IB and AP, already demonstrate proficiency - making additional testing redundant. The bill also gives local school boards more flexibility to allow students to opt out of certain course requirements if they can demonstrate a mastery of the subject. An example could be the state's new financial literacy requirements. While these are critical skills to learn, the new law would allow students to be completely or partially exempted if they can demonstrate proficiency through other course work.
Ethics Reform - This past Monday, I presented my ethics reform bill (HB1667) to the Ethics Reform Subcommittee. My bill would impose a $100 cap on all gifts, including so-called "intangible gifts" like meals and entertainment that were exempted from last year's reform package. The bill allowed exceptions for government and non-profit functions that could be attended by the general public. Exceptions could also be made by the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council for educational trips that provide a public benefit and do not raise the appearance of impropriety. My bill was rolled into HB2070 (Delegate Gilbert), which will be debated on the House Floor next week. I am pleased that this bill includes many of the same elements as my legislation - including the $100 cap on all gifts. My main concern is an exception for "widely attended" events, which is defined as events with 25 attendees or more but could still be closed to public scrutiny. However, the bill is a significant step forward and I look forward to making even more progress.
Uber Regulations - The House and Senate have now passed HB1662, which provides for the regulation of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. This past summer, these companies entered the Virginia market despite the fact that they were technically illegal under existing law. This forced a showdown between the companies and the Department of Motor Vehicles, which resulted in temporary regulations allowing them to operate. HB1662 contains a number of positive elements, including background checks for drivers and zero-tolerance policies regarding substance abuse. While I supported the bill, there remain questions about enforcement and insurance requirements. There are also customer privacy concerns since the law does not cover the privacy of trip data and allows a terms of service agreement (which almost no one reads) to grant the companies access to other private information. My HB2037, which would have fixed those loopholes, was forwarded to the Joint Commission on Science and Technology (JCOTS) for further study. I anticipate introducing similar legislation next year.
Several of my bills have now passed the House and are before the Senate for consideration. These include bills to provide the City of Fairfax with new affordable housing tools (HB1471), require hospitals and maternity care givers to provide new parents with information on safe sleep environments (HB1515), and establish best practices for homeowner association declarations (HB1632). My bill to create a Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (HB1725) is now moving forward as HB2267 sponsored by Delegate Tim Hugo. I am a chief co-patron on his legislation, which will be up for debate on the House floor this week. My bill to provide additional training to principals in struggling schools (HB1872) survived the Committee on Education, but was unfortunately sidetracked in Appropriations.
Next up is the budget, which will be released for public comment this Sunday. After some bad news and big cuts this past summer and fall, there has been some positive movement in the revenue forecast. As a result, we will likely see increases in funding for mental health, a roll back of previously announced cuts to higher education, and a modest raise for state employees. Pay for state employees in Virginia ranks 49th in the nation compared with compensation for private employees. More news next week on both the good and the bad.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve you! Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can be of service or if you would like to weigh in on an issue before the General Assembly.