|Sen. Saslaw speaks to constituents at a Legislative Town Hall.|
Three members of the Virginia legislature who represent the Annandale/Mason area – Sen. Dick Saslaw, Sen. Dave Marsden, and Del. Kaye Kory – gave a progress report on the session Feb. 7.
Saslaw spoke in defense of the so-called Dominion bill, which passed the Senate Feb. 6. The bill would protect Virginia Dominion Power from state review of utility rate increases for the next five years in light of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement calling for states to reduce carbon emissions to certain levels by 2020. That requirement means Dominion might have to shut down some of its coal plants.
While some electrical rates could rise, the base rate will remain the same. Dominion will absorb $82 million in costs that will not be passed on to consumers and will not pass along costs resulting from snowstorms, hurricanes, or other natural disasters.
Saslaw said Virginia has tougher standards than some other states and is being unfairly penalized because it already has lower pollution levels. He also noted the League of Conservation Voters and Southern Environmental Law Center support the bill.
The Dominion bill also calls for Virginia to move toward solar energy. “It’s huge for Virginia to say solar is in the public interest,” Marsden said, as the coal industry has been so dominant in the commonwealth.
Several taxi drivers showed up at the Town Hall to urge legislators to ban on Uber and other app-based ride-sharing services or at least make them subject to the same regulations as cab companies. They complained Uber has an unfair competitive advantage resulting in lost income for cab drivers.
Several bills are under consideration to permit Uber, Lyft, and others to operate in Virginia but would require drivers to have liability insurance and would impose other rules to ensure the safety of passengers, such as requiring background checks of drivers.
Kory said two of the education-related bills she supports are moving forward. One would let local school systems set their own calendars. The other would expand the types of conditions requiring individualized educational programs for students in special education to include dyslexia.
Kory said Virginia will be one of the first states to allow ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) accounts. Congress enacted the ABLE law in December permitting families to set up tax-deferred custodial accounts to help people with disabilities cover housing, healthcare, and other costs.
Objections to a bill allowing children of immigrants who meet certain criteria to be eligible for the in-state tuition rate at state colleges have been voted down, Kory said, so this measure will take effect.
Marsden cited an important bill passed by the Senate that allows epileptic children to have access to certain type of medical marijuana that is effective in reducing seizures.
According to Marsden, legislators can get things accomplished without having to pass a bill – and that’s often the only way to make progress when a lawmaker is in the minority party.
For example, Marsden had been working for six years to make sure the 21,000 people on Virginia’s sex offender registry are given an easy-to-understand document outlining the 37 pages of the Virginia Code that affect them. Unable to get a bill passed, he was able to convince state officials to produce a pamphlet spelling out the regulations applying to sex offenders.
In another example, Marsden failed to get the General Assembly to pass a bill outlawing fox penning, an inhumane practice in which hunters shoot foxes within a fence-enclosed area. Instead, he got the attorney general to cut the number of foxes allowed, which is making the “sport” less economically viable, and as a result, fox penning businesses are starting to close.
Marsden’s attempts to pass a bill aimed at reducing concussions among high school football players didn’t succeed, but he was able to convince the state organization that oversees the sport to limit full-contact practice times.
Following the conviction of former governor Robert McDonnell, the General Assembly is expected to strengthen ethics laws. Bills under discussion would limit gifts to public officials to $100 or less and cap intangible gifts, such as meals and tickets to sports events.
Mason Supervisor Penny Gross, who was in the audience, urged the lawmakers to exclude people appointed to boards and commissions from stronger financial disclosure rules. That would discourage people from volunteering for those positions, she said.
Among other issues that came up during the Legislative Town Hall:
- Several bills aimed at curbing gun violence, including a requirement for background checks at gun shows, were defeated. A bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for a child 4 years old or younger to use a firearm also failed.
- The Senate passed a bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protect women’s rights, but the measure is expected to die in the House.
- Bills addressing campus rape, in response to the high-profile incident at the University of Virginia, are still in play. One bill that would require colleges to report sexual assaults to the police within 24 hours has been subject to privacy concerns among advocates of victims’ rights. Kory said her bill to designate April as Sexual Awareness Month in Virginia is likely to pass.
- Saslaw supports legislation that would allow localities to impose a tax on plastic bags, but it isn’t expected to pass.
- A measure, promoted by ultraconservatives, calling for the U.S. Constitution to be rewritten, has been rejected, Saslaw said. Had it passed, he said, “every nut job in America, on the right and the left,” would come forward to redo the Constitution.
- In response to many complaints he’s received from constituents, Saslaw reported that Annandale Road will be repaved in 2015-16.
According to Marsden, there’s a real divide within Virginia, although just about everyone supports the concepts of liberty, freedom, equality, and justice.
People in the rural, southern parts of the state stress liberty and freedom, which means they believe people should be allowed to shoot a gun anywhere and let their dogs poop wherever they want, for example, he said. In heavily populated Northern Virginia, equality and justice take precedence, and people are more likely to understand the need for regulations.“That’s our challenge in Richmond,” he said. “We have to incorporate all four words.”