Dear Friends and Neighbors,
It is hard to believe that there is only one more week left of the 2015 General Assembly. Thanks to everyone who has visited or written to me during the session.
I am pleased to report that five of my bills have now cleared both the House and Senate and are now heading to the Governor for his consideration. Bills that passed this week include:
- HB1634 - This bill supports Virginia's fast growing wine industry by allowing our farm wineries to produce port wine (yes, they couldn't do this by law until now). Today, Virginia is home to more than 250 wineries that contribute $750 million to our economy annually.
- HB1632 - This bill requires the state to develop best practices for homeowner association (HOA) declarations. For the past several years, the General Assembly has spent a lot of time debating how to deal with poorly crafted HOA declarations. Declarations are the legal documents that establish an HOA and associated voting privileges, the ability to assess fines, and meeting quorums. Unfortunately, these declarations are of widely varying quality and can cause serious problems for future property owners if not properly crafted. While my bill can't fix past problems, it will help to keep new ones from being created in the future.
- HB1653 - This bill allows a student photo ID from a private school to be used for voting purposes. This issue was brought to me by a local resident who questioned why students from Fairfax High School could use their ID, but students from Paul VI High School could not. Ironically, an employee of Paul VI can use their ID since the law allows the use of a photo ID issued by a private employer. Interestingly, a majority of 18 year-olds today do not have a driver's license - making the use of alternative forms of ID even more important.
Ethics Reform Update
Last week the House continued to move forward on ethics reform. I introduced HB1667, which would cap all gifts at $100. Exceptions could be made by the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council for travel that would provide a public benefit and would not raise the appearance of impropriety. My bill was incorporated into HB2070, which includes many of the same concepts - including the $100 cap on gifts. HB2070 passed the House 93Y-6N and is now under consideration by the Senate.
Other Notable Legislation
There were a number of bills passed over the last two weeks that I was pleased to see make it through the House. Here are just a few examples.
- Income Tax Refunds by Check - Several years ago, an amendment was snuck into the budget that requires tax refunds to be paid by debit card if the taxpayer has not chosen electronic deposit. This has been problematic from day one, with confusing and inconsistently applied rules for how to cash in the debit card without fees. After several years of trying, the House finally passed HB1286, which requires that individuals due a refund have the option of a mailed check.
- Veteran Care Centers - I am proud that Virginia is home to so many veterans and that we have two state-of-the-art long-term veteran care centers. These centers provide high quality, comprehensive care including laboratory work, x-rays, physical therapy, and many other services. However, they are located in Richmond and Salem, far from where the need is growing the fastest. HB1276 authorizes $34 million from state bond proceeds to match federal grant funds to establish a Northern Virginia Veteran Care Center. Companion legislation authorizes a center in the Hampton Roads area.
- Student Seclusion and Restraint - Several high profile cases of improper seclusion and restraint of students in Virginia schools prompted the House to pass HB1443. This legislation requires the Board of Education to adopt seclusion and restraint regulations consistent with federal guidance and to develop teacher training and reporting requirements.
Other significant bills that passed the House include measures to: change the transportation funding formula to provide more resources to our long-neglected secondary roads (HB1887); curtail the exploitive "mugshot" industry, which posts mugshots online and then removes them for a fee (HB1764); modestly improve our child care licensure requirements (HB1570); and, decriminalize the use of a specific oil derived from marijuana (which doesn't include THC) for the treatment of severe epilepsy (HB1445).
The major item left for the session will be final adoption of amendments to our budget. Virginia's budget is adopted biennially, so this year we are actually making changes to last year's budget. After significant cuts in the fall due to reduced revenue forecasts, projections have become slightly better. The House adopted its version of the budget on February 12th. On the positive side, the amendments provide for much needed increases in salaries for teachers, state police, and state employees. The budget restored $26 million for higher education funding, increased mental health services by $125 million, and deposited $99.5 million into the rainy day fund. The budget also reduced the unfunded liability in the Virginia Retirement System. Fully funding our retirement system is a major concern of mine. There were also things not to love. I was disappointed that the budget diverted unused funding for pre-K to other services rather than find a way to support early childhood education. In addition, much of the increase in funding for mental health services could have been funded by accepting Medicaid expansion. These dollars could then have been used for other core services. While I had reservations, I voted for the House budget, which passed 81Y-18N.
The budget is now in conference. I am cautiously optimistic that the final budget will be one that I can support.
I look forward to updating you on our final budget action next week. Stay safe and warm!