With the sentencing of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell fresh on their minds, many northern Virginia members of the delegation to the state General Assembly expect ethics reform to be a focal point at the session beginning Jan. 14.
“I’m hoping we’re going to take what was a painful experience to watch into a positive 2015,” said Del. David Bulova (D-37). “It gives us a chance for asking how do we do things better down in Richmond, and to minimize the chance someone falls into that same trap.”
McDonnell was found guilty on corruption charges, of receiving gifts in return for political favors, and sentenced to serving two years in prison.
The General Assembly addressed ethics last year, including a bill more tightly regulating legislators’ travel, according to Del. Mark Sickles (R-43).
“When we tackled that last year, a significant number in the General Assembly really felt that however ill-advised, the governor wouldn’t be convicted,” said Del. Vivian Watts (D-39). “The conviction made everyone realize it doesn’t matter how Virginia laws have been on the books more on gentleman’s honor than letter of the law. You can be convicted under federal standards of behavior and we need to take a very strong look at what we’re doing.”
BUDGET BALANCING AND MEDICAID EXPANSION will also draw attention, according to legislators. The assembly will massage a two-year budget that was passed in a 2014 session.
“Our economy has been soft the last two years and we have required deposits to make into our rainy day fund, Virginia Retirement System, all sorts of bills to pay,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34). “There will probably be cuts across the board; almost every state agency with a three-to-five percent reduction, is probably what the governor will be seeking.”
“Expanding Medicaid may be a fight, but it’s already been fought,” said Del. Dave Albo (R-42), referring to the special session in September 2014 when the General Assembly opposed a bill that would take advantage of federal assistance under the Affordable Care Act.
“Except it’s not free,” Albo continued. “I would love to take care of the 400,000 people, what the bill basically seeks. The federal government says they have money to pay 90 percent. Just the 10 percent share for Virginia is $230 million. We’re already in the hole before we walk into the General Assembly. Where are we going to find $230 million?”
Others disagree, that passing on the federal money is too much of a missed opportunity.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said state Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37). “If people could vote without political consequences, it’s the right thing to pass. But if you touch anything to do with Obamacare, you will get challenged in a primary. I’m not optimistic. We’ve already lost over a year now where the government pays 100 percent.”
CONTINUED FUNDING for transportation and social services are hopes from some of northern Virginia’s civic and business leaders.
“We’re blessed, as recipients of some top of the line road projects in the greater Springfield area over past 10 years,” said Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. “Maintenance of those nice roads is key. If we don’t have the infrastructure maintained, adequate to future growth, businesses won’t come, and won’t stay.”
Holly Dougherty, executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce echoed the sentiment that past transportation improvements have been well-received, but continued work such as road width consistency along U.S. Route 1 from the Beltway to the Prince William County line, as well as re-synchronizing the highway’s traffic lights, is imperative. “Congestion relief will help economic development, things that give the best return to Virginia taxpayers. That will help our businesses so they’re more competitive in this part of Fairfax County.”
Whether or not they already receive much funding from the state or county, non-profit executive directors like Meg Brantley at ECHO in Springfield will be watching the budget cuts carefully. “If they did something, cut away Medicaid, that would would mean community-based organizations would need to pick up the tab for more medical programs than they do now.”
Robert Petitti, executive director at Koinonia in Franconia, said another angle to watch is whether the state can earmark money for social services agencies and sidestep the county, where he believes money gets lost.
“The money that’s given out typically isn’t geared for non-government organizations,” he said. “It could be done, it’s just do the politicians have the will do it?”
“The non-profit community can’t be looked upon to take the slack for providing services,” said Lisa Whetzel, executive director of Our Daily Bread in Fairfax. “We’re already stretched to the bone for doing more with less. We need to talk about a revenue stream, a new one, but I don’t know what that would be.”
Delegates, Senators List Top Priorities
Del. Scott Surovell (D-44)
- Securing $4 million in funding for the next round of work to implement the U.S. Route 1 transit study. That includes an environmental analysis and preliminary engineering for constructing the first two phases of median-dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) from Huntington to Fort Belvoir.
- Bill that requires every school that wants to use electronic textbooks to provide every child with a computer.
- Resolution to ratify the equal rights amendment. “My mother testified in favor of it when I was in her stomach,” said Surovell. “The reality is a lot of people in the GOP have concerns about giving women equal standing on everything that men have, consequences of birth control, reproductive policy, equal pay.”
- Surovell will be part of a town hall meeting Feb. 14 at the Mount Vernon Government Center, along with state senators Adam Ebbin (D-30) and Toddy Puller (D-36).
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41)
- Two bills on child care reform, including a focus on requiring fingerprinting and a background check, and closing the threshold loophole that allows homes with six or fewer unrelated children to operate unregulated.
- Ensuring campus sexual assaults are handled properly. HB1433 would require local law enforcement and campus agencies to report cases to the Commonwealth attorney’s office within 48 hours. “It’s all about sharing information and making sure every stone is looked under,” said Filler-Corn.
- Budget, ethics and congressional redistricting will come up at Filler-Corn’s mid-session office hours, Jan. 24., 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Peet's Coffee and Tea in Springfield.
Del. Dave Albo (R-42)
- Bill that would change the wording of “prescribe” to “refer” as it relates to doctors giving patients access to medical marijuana. This only allows for cancer and glaucoma. It would benefit people like those with Dravet Syndrome, epilepsy that begins when children are infants, who claim marijuana extract helps reduce seizures. “It doesn’t get you high,” said Albo. “Who am I to say you shouldn’t have access to something that helps your kid?”
- Bill that would give people the opportunity to decide whether their marriage certificate says “spouse and spouse” or “bride and groom.”
- Working on preventing people from developing a dependency on oxycodone prescription drugs. One idea is putting prescriptions in a health network that allows multiple doctors to see once a prescription has been made and filled, so patients can’t take advantage of getting multiple medication fills.
Del. Mark Sickles (R-43)
- Making sure we don’t cut K-12 education spending. “And and if possible, not cut higher education spending any more,” said Sickles. “I hope we don’t.”
- Making the current pre-kindergarten program more “user-friendly,” Sickles said. “Fairfax County didn’t use all the slots, money allocated to us under that program. The school board had good reasons, I’m not criticising them. But we need to make it more flexible and inviting for them to take the money.”
- Bill that allows terminally ill patients to consent to use pharmaceuticals that haven’t been fully tested.
- Sickles will host a town hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Jan. 24 at the Thompson Center in Kingstowne, along with senator George Barker.
Del. David Bulova (D-37)
- Introducing legislation regarding the difference between a “tangible” and “intangible” gift, and making sure there’s a cap on both types.
- Working on getting away from schools being ranked on an A through F scale. “That doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Bulova. “Let parents come in and assess all the strengths and weaknesses, the progress students making, parent-student ratio.”
- Introducing legislation that would limit how companies like Uber and taxis use personal information.
- Bulova will co-host a town hall meeting with state Sen. Chap Petersen Jan. 31 at Fairfax City Hall, 9-10:30 a.m.
Del. Vivian Watts (D-39)
- Mental health, particularly making sure there is adequate training for professionals, not just process and and procedure reforms. “We’ve got to address the long term staffing issues,” said Watts. “We don’t have accountability — the preventative nature of keeping people from going into crisis.”
- Human trafficking, focusing on the issue of a person who’s been convicted of a crime, often a sex crime, they committed in direct relation to their being trafficked.
- Working on maintaining adequate funding for transportation. “Congestion starts the minute you try to get out of your driveway,” Watts said. “We’re working hard to get a credible study so we have widespread understanding, the credibility of a funding formula that guarantees a funding stream to local government.”
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34)
- Bill S696 would put a strict limit on gifts by banning tangible or intangible gifts over $100, other than from friends or family.
- Working on a homeowners bill of rights, so people that live in a homeowners’ association are afforded due process, are notified about hearings and have a right to be heard.
- Bill assisting small businesses in being targeted for government contracts. To qualify as “small” they would have to both generate less than $10 million in revenue and have 300 employees or fewer.
- Petersen co-host a town hall meeting with Del. David Bulova Jan. 31 at Fairfax City Hall, 9-10:30 a.m.
Sen. George Barker (D-39)
- Bill that would allow students in all grades to retake their SOL shortly after the first exam if they don’t pass. Currently this is an option for high school students only. “It helps their confidence, keeps them involved in school,” said Barker. “And it’s a more accurate assessment of how schools are doing.”
- Working on a mental health study commission, lasting from 2014-2017, that looks broadly at the whole system. Interim reports come out at the end of 2015.
- Bill trying to get more money directed to secondary roads, especially roads that operate as primary roads but are classified as “secondary.”
- Sen. Barker will host a town hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Jan. 24 at Thompson Center in Kingstowne, along with delegate Sickles and senator Adam Ebbin (D-30). An additional meeting in Prince William County will be at 10 a.m. on Jan. 31 at the James J. McCoart Administration Building.
Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37)
- Minimum wage bill: “It’s so critical to get money in the hands of people who will spend and not invest it,” said Marsden. The three-year proposal would raise wages $.75 first year, $1.10 the second year and $1 the final year, reaching $10.10. “It keeps everyone on a level playing field. Maryland and D.C. already have higher minimum wages.”
- Bill averaging legislators’ salaries used for calculating retirement over 10 years, as opposed to the current method based on the final three years of service. Marsden says this would minimize the temptation to lure legislators to administrative positions to “manipulate the balance of power.”
- Working on getting the Department of Corrections, state police to provide the 24,000 registered sex offenders in the state more information on rules such as where they can live and how they can travel.
- Senator Marsden will host a town hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Feb. 7 at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.
Sen. Linda Todd “Toddy” Puller (D-36)
- Working on bills to help veterans, including a problem docket to help veterans and people with mental health problems with specific issues.
- Supporting expanding Medicaid. “I don’t know how hard that’s going to be or if it will go anywhere,” said Puller. “It’s just ridiculous to not get more people covered by health insurance.”
- Working on congressional redistricting, hoping to facilitate more diversity in the governing body.
- Puller will be part of a town hall meeting Feb. 14 at the Mount Vernon Government Center, along with state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) and Del. Scott Surovell (D-44).