Ready for Richmond

Ready for Richmond

General Assembly session starts this week, focusing on taxes, transportation concerns.

Looking ahead to the 2006 session of the Virginia General Assembly, newly re-elected Del. Vivian Watts (D-39), Dave Albo (R-42) and Mark Sickles (D-43) are prepared to return to Richmond with a focus on transportation and taxes.

Before the session begins, Albo said he’s already working on between 40 and 50 bills he plans to introduce, many concerning judicial matters.

“As chair of the Courts Committee, my workload has gone up considerably,” said Albo, who defeated political newcomer Greg Werkheiser last November.

Among the bills Albo has been preparing in the past year is a piece of legislation based on “Jessica’s Law,” written to ensure harsher punishment for repeat sex offenders who choose children as their victims.

Under the new law, violent sex offenders would receive a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison, Albo said. Additionally, those offenders who could be permanently confined for repeatedly breaking the law would be expanded to include a wider group of violent offenders, he said.

Turning to the recurring theme of taxes, Albo said he plans to file a bill that would repeal the car tax.

“Back in 1999, the legislature made an agreement to repeal the car tax when we had enough to be fiscally stable,” Albo said. “We had a huge surplus with this last budget, so it’s time we live up to that promise.”

He also plans to introduce a bill that would put a cap on real estate taxes, limiting any increases to 5 percent every year.

The overall focus of this year’s two-month session is likely to be transportation, Albo said.

“I have to admit, I’m very disappointed that Gov. (Mark) Warner (D) had a $2 billion surplus and didn’t spend hardly anything on transportation,” Albo said.

With the possibility looming of a special session that would deal with any issues that were not dealt with during the two month regular session, Albo hopes it’s not needed.

“If we need a special session, it would be to discuss raising taxes to pay for transportation,” Albo said. “There may be a political maneuver to get a special session, but in essence, it means we couldn’t get our work done in the time allotted.”

Some potentially controversial bills await the delegates as they return to Richmond, including one that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman and another bill that deals with clearing voter registration information with social security numbers to ensure illegal residents aren’t trying to vote with false information.

Included as a part of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year is a clause that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, Albo said.

“This will probably be stricken from the budget right away,” he said. “If not, if it’s approved, it would expand the definition of protected classes. If it’s expanded to protect people based on sexual orientation, the next thing you know, it would include discrimination based on weight or political beliefs,” he said.

The question is not discriminating against someone who is gay, he said, could be equally used by heterosexuals. “A law like this ends up turning into frivolous litigation,” Albo said.

HEADING BACK for her 10th year in Richmond as a delegate, Watts has prepared legislation to ensure harsher sentences for gang-related crimes.

A new bill for this year is one that would equate brandishing a machete with carrying a handgun, she said. “Currently, the penalty for carrying a machete is the same as what it would be for carrying less dangerous weapons, but it can be just as deadly as a firearm,” Watts said.

She also plans to introduce a bill that would institute a pilot program for treating mental illness among senior citizens.

As people get older, the way their depression or other mental afflictions are treated can change, Watts said. “We want to make sure the whole spectrum of services are available, so I’ve worked with community services boards to develop a pilot program here” to find a way to make sure those needs are studied and met, she said.

Additionally, Watts is working on legislation that would allow people who are over the age of 65 to cast absentee ballots in person for elections without obtaining prior approval from their polling place.

“This legislation would allow people to go to their government substation and drop off their absentee ballot in person,” she said. “This would help keep back the long lines we saw during the 2004 presidential election and make things go more smoothly,” she said.

A handful of ongoing issues should return to the debate this year, Watts said, including reworking how tax money is distributed to public school systems based on the economic and taxation power of cities and counties.

Watts said she is working with Albo, among other law makers, to make punishment more strict for people who commit sexual crimes against children.

“If a sex offender has custody of children, we need to make sure the penalties are stiffer without ambiguity to protect the child,” she said.

In the ever-popular realm of taxes and transportation, Watts is expecting to support legislation that would allow up to the first $100,000 of assessed value of a home to be exempted from taxes for owner-occupied properties. She, however, feels a special session to discuss transportation-dedicated revenue may be warranted.

“The complexity on this issue is so great, it’s better to have a comprehensive focus, especially for the integration of land use issues that relate to transportation problems,” Watts said.

Legislators need to find a way to provide ongoing revenue to fund transportation projects, she said.

“Putting the surplus into identified needs will help, but we need to secure ongoing funds,” Watts said. “Not acting to secure those funds is hurting Northern Virginia.”

On average, Northern Virginia is getting 24 percent of the construction and transportation funding available in the budget, but only 10 percent is spent on routine maintenance, she said. “We are losing 50 cents on every dollar by not receiving adequate funding for transportation needs in general,” she said.

The method used to determine how much money each locality receives, both for education and transportation, needs to be modified, Watts said, adding that the last time the funding equation was modified was over 20 years ago.

RETURNING FOR his third session with the House of Delegates, Sickles said he's ready to start work on what will prove to be an "interesting" two months in Richmond.

"I'm hoping to focus on the budget and transportation package, especially in regards to what will happen in response to the growth at Fort Belvoir," said Sickles.

In addition, he is working on introducing legislation that would dedicate 75 percent of any year-end surplus would go into a fund for transportation, "once the Rainy Day fund is at its constitutional maximum," he said.

Another bill would increase the amount of tax revenue that is returned to individual localities from 1 to 5 percent, at the rate of 1 percent each year, to help provide relief from property taxes.

"This is not a new idea, I've campaigned on it during all three campaigns," Sickles said. "Many people have championed this idea, now it's my turn."

Sickles said he plans to vote against many of the "socially conservative" bills that will be introduced during the upcoming session.

Additionally, Sickles is working on a bill that would require hospitals to inform patients if a surgical tool intended for one-time use has been sterilized to be used again.

"If a tool used for brain surgery to remove some kind of disease, if it's not properly sterilized, that disease can be passed on to another person," he said. "This bill would not prohibit that practice, it would just require hospitals to let the patient know."

Like Albo, Sickles hopes the General Assembly is able to complete its work during the initial two month session, without being called back later in the year for a special second session.

"We need people with the courage to do the right thing," he said. "If we can't find a productive and firm way of funding transportation in the 60 days, the governor will call us back. I'm very curious to see what the session will produce in this regard, I hope it's reasonable."