Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39th) is in his 15th General Assembly session — 11 as a delegate and four as a senator — and he says transportation tops everyone's to-do list.
"Clearly, transportation is the highest priority," he said. "The consensus is that it's finally the time to address transportation funding in a major way."
AT THE moment, though exactly how to solve the state's transportation troubles is a huge item of contention between the legislature and Gov. Tim Kaine. But O'Brien, 54, of Clifton, was pleased that Kaine appointed Pierce Homer from Prince William County as the new Secretary of Transportation.
Said O'Brien: "It's a recognition by the governor that he'll be sensitive to Northern Virginia's transportation needs."
Noting that Kaine's his fourth new governor since he's been in office, O'Brien said things are "usually a little turbulent" during a new governor's first few months at the helm. But he expects everyone to quickly get used to working together.
"The new players in the administration will make life interesting," he said. "But the governor's appointed many seasoned, Richmond folks."
Also new this session is the General Assembly's location. "The capital is under construction in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown settlements in 1607," he explained. "So we're meeting in the Patrick Henry building, next to the governor's mansion, in temporary quarters."
O'Brien's a member of the Senate Transportation, General Laws, Privileges and Elections, Rehabilitation and Social Services committees, and all the bills he's proposing this session are policy-related.
FOR THE fourth year, he's proposing a constitutional amendment to dedicate all funds in Virginia's Transportation Trust Fund to transportation. "It was one of Gov. Kaine's campaign pledges," he said. "But the Senate Finance Committee always defeats it."
O'Brien is also carrying a bill prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers under 18. "I am convinced that drivers under [this] age are drivers in training, and their time behind the wheel is all about gaining experience as a driver," he said. "Any distractions to that new driver are extremely dangerous and disruptive to that training."
He said the number of teen accidents involving cell-phone use is increasing because they also use their phones for instant messaging, text messaging and looking at videos. "But teens in training should not be allowed to do that," he said. "All of this is aimed at trying to help teens gain experience, without getting into accidents and having fatalities."
Although, admittedly, it would be a tough law to enforce, O'Brien said that if cell-phone usage played a role in a teen accident, it would then become a secondary offense. "I think it's an important statement of the policy of the Commonwealth," he said. "And it's a big tool for parents in demanding that their kids comply."
He also has a bill requiring parental involvement in school-based, driver-education programs. And he said it's already being done in Stafford and Prince William counties.
"The schools require parents to come for a session and learn about parents' responsibilities [in this area]," said O'Brien. "This was brought home to me this summer when four 16-year-olds [all in the same car] were killed in an accident in Bedford, Va."
He said the parents didn't know that teen drivers that age are only allowed to have one passenger. So his bill would be a way of informing parents of the rules for teen drivers in Virginia — especially those under age 18.
O'Brien is also offering a resolution to study the cost/benefit of restricting truck use on certain state roads during rush hours. This would help roads such as Routes 28 and 29 and Braddock Road. "The point is that there might be a way of easing traffic by having a two-hour ban on certain roads," he said.
Regarding a bill to regulate the towing industry, as chairman of a study on towing, O'Brien said what's troubling to many people is the nonconsensual tow. "I think it's necessary to have that," he said. "But who are the people doing the towing? Do they have insurance? What are their fees?"
His bill establishes a towing board at state level to monitor the practices of towing companies and individual towing drivers. And it allows the state to do police background-checks of the drivers.
He also proposes a bill making it a felony to drive without a license after the third such offense.
"IT WOULD give that person some jail time," said O'Brien. "It's an increasing problem, and many of them don't have car insurance, either — and they have a higher proportion of accidents."
In the realm of education he's proposing a bill providing immediate, in-state tuition benefits for military dependents of service personnel in combat areas. "I think this is a fine and appropriate benefit," he said. "Expenses go way up when a family member is deployed overseas, and this is the least we can do to provide assistance to their families at home."
In the family-services area, O'Brien's carrying a bill to reform child-adoption law in Virginia. "I was chairman of a study on adoption reform, since the last session," he explained. "Most adoptions in Virginia are step- and foster-children adoptions, and there's a way to speed up the process."
Regarding infant adoptions, he said, "Now, both birth parents have to agree to the adoption. The mother has to find the birth father and, often, that's difficult. This bill will shift the onus to the birth father [to make his wishes known to the birth mother] regarding his parental rights."
O'Brien also proposes a resolution requesting the state Auditor of Public Accounts to conduct a study to find out how many illegal aliens are in Virginia and analyze their associated costs. Currently, he said, "The number discussed depends on who's saying it."
He said costs in emergency rooms and schools, plus those resulting from uninsured motorists, are rising, so the state needs a better idea of the magnitude of the illegal-alien problem. "In the General Assembly, there'll be lots of bills on how to deal with illegal immigrants," said O'Brien. "And yet we don't have a good idea of what the number is."
ANOTHER BILL would provide relief for families of service men and women serving overseas. It would mainly help Virginia National Guardsmen and reservists whose families don't have the typical military infrastructure around them to provide services and benefits.
"There's a request for $1 million from the budget to set up the infrastructure [to enable] local businesses to provide their goods and services to military families at a reduced rate or free," said O'Brien.
He's proposing, as well, a bill that would allow judges to include "virtual visitation" — e-mail, instant messaging, etc. — in child-custody proceedings. "Suppose there's a divorce with joint custody, but the wife has primary custody because the children live with her," he said. "It's reasonable to think the dad could communicate with his children when he doesn't see them. This gives him the legal authority to do that."
AS FOR taxation, O'Brien has a bill dedicating half of last year's sales-tax increase to transportation and half to public education in the localities where the revenues were generated.
That way, he said, "Money raised from the sales tax in Fairfax County would be spent here for local transportation and public education." Unfortunately, he added, "People from the rest of the state will say no. But you have to continue to hammer this home every time."
O'Brien's also carrying a bill to eliminate the estate tax in Virginia. "It costs about $150 million, and the federal government is trying to eliminate it, as well," he said. "It sometimes prevents the owner — who's already paid taxes on his business — from passing it on to his heirs, if they can't afford the estate taxes."
Regarding public safety, he's introducing a bill to enhance the prosecution of criminal street-gang members. Explained O'Brien: "It's a request from Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court to allow more sharing of information about juvenile gang members with police and the court system."
In the realm of government, he's proposing a bill to "professionalize" local election boards. "In the past election, two election officials were family members of the candidates," he said. "Leslie Byrne ran for lieutenant governor, and her husband Larry was on the election board. And in Gate City, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's mother was on the election board down there — and this shouldn't be allowed."
O'Brien also proposes a resolution to study Virginia's implementation of the "Real I.D." Act passed by Congress. "It requires everybody to establish legal presence by showing documents saying you're authorized to have an I.D. card," he said. "All the governors are up in arms about this, and Virginia has to pay the cost of implementing it."
SO HE wants to find out what options the state has regarding this act. "What's the cost of doing this?" he asked. "And is there a cheaper way of proving someone's I.D. and authorization?"
As always, said O'Brien, he feels honored to be involved in yet another General Assembly session. And he says it's both interesting and exciting discussing taxes, having a new governor and working in a new building.
He's also hoping for visitors. Said O'Brien: "We love to see the people we represent come and see us — particularly students."