Delegate Mark Keam - Virginia's 35th House District

Delegate Keam quoted in Sun Gazette

This article summarizes some key legislative issues debated in this General Assembly session. Delegate Keam is quoted at the end of the article.

Despite Stormy Seas, Legislators Come Back Generally Satisfied With Session

Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) was among newcomers to the General Assembly this session. (File photo by Brian Trompeter)

by BRIAN TROMPETER, Staff Writer

(Created: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 7:23 AM EDT)

Northern Virginia's legislators say they are pleased that the General Assembly ended this year's session close to its 60-day schedule and balanced the commonwealth's budget while raising few fees and no general taxes.

"It was a very businesslike session," said State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd), one of the most senior local lawmakers. "The major concern was the budget. We knew we had to cut $4 billion more. It was very intense. We minimized the damage, but there's no denying the cuts are severe. All state programs are impacted."

Local legislators were elated with efforts that undid outgoing Gov. Kaine's proposed freeze of the Local-Composite-Index formula, which would have cost Fairfax County Public Schools about $61 million had it stood intact.

Legislators cut about $250 million from state funding for public education, but this was far less than the $600 million in cuts originally proposed by the House of Delegates.

"There is a lot of pain hidden in those numbers," Howell said. "The quality of education is likely to decline throughout Virginia."

Howell enjoyed some legislative successes, and suffered some failures, during the session. One of her victories was Senate Bill 13, which adds critical-care specialists to the roster of medical professionals who can determine when patients are brain dead. The bill is designed to facilitate organ donation, she said.

Another success, Senate Bill 14, requires General Assembly members and their immediate family members to disclose wages or salaries in excess of $10,000 paid by state or local governments or advisory agencies.

"A number of legislators were working for colleges and not disclosing it, and I thought that that was something the public had a right to know," Howell said.

Howell's biggest disappointment was that her bill requiring benefits for people with autism passed the Senate, but was killed in a House subcommittee.

"Other states [provide benefits] and help these families," Howell said. "I'm very resentful that Virginia doesn't, and I will try again next year."

State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th) echoed Howell's sentiments on the Local Composite Index and the state's budget, but said he was disappointed that Gov. McDonnell did not outline a clear vision for tackling Virginia's transportation problems.

Petersen said he has written to the governor and asked him to fast-track a proposed bus-rapid transit (BRT) project along the Interstate 66 corridor. The project, which would need a $250 million investment, could help commuters in Gainesville, Manassas and Centreville reach the Vienna Metrorail station without using the congested interstate, he said. "It's a nightmare now with the gridlock," Petersen said. "Rather than sitting around waiting for a 10-year project like Dulles Metro, I'd like to see something done now."

Petersen racked up several legislative successes during the session. Senate Bill 110 will allow localities to bring in third-party investors to facilitate loans to homeowners for energy-efficiency improvements.

Petersen's Senate Bill 116, which passed unanimously, gives houses of worship legal standing under Virginia's consumer-protection laws. Petersen said several Washington-area pastors approached him after their churches had been caught up in a marketing scheme and lost money.

Another successful Petersen initiative, Senate Bill 712, authorizes George Mason University to create a branch campus in a new free-trade zone established in South Korea. The campus still must be approved by the State Council for Higher Education.

Petersen, out of constitutional concerns, withdrew Senate Bill 402, which would have allowed localities to prohibit delivery of unsolicited newspapers on private property.

The legislation would have applied in cases where the newspapers posed safety or health hazards and the residents had written to the papers' publishers asking for delivery to cease.

"There were lots of First Amendment issues," Petersen said of the bill. "When you try to restrict [newspaper] delivery, U.S. courts aren't keen on that."

Freshman Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) said he was satisfied with the legislative session's outcome.

"I was honored to be there and enjoyed the process," he said. "I really enjoyed meeting a lot of the other delegates from all corners of the commonwealth and learning about their districts."

Keam said he was glad the General Assembly's budget cuts were not too draconian and did not harm the commonwealth's AAA bond rating.

"Considering the economic situation we faced, my goal was ‘first, do no harm,'" Keam said. "The budget we passed was about the best we could do under the circumstances."

Many of Keam's bills were killed - hardly unusual for a freshman legislator - but his renewable-energy jobs initiative was incorporated into House Bill 803, which was signed by the governor. The law allows businesses to receive $500 income-tax credits for each "green" job created (up to 350) that pays at least $50,000 per year.

Keam said he learned much about the General Assembly's inner workings during the session.

"Next year, I'll go in there with a bit more sophistication," he said.

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