Richmond Report: Fifth Week
Last Saturday, I hosted a town hall meeting with State Senator Chap Petersen. This was my second public meeting of this year, and I was pleased that so many people joined us.
Chap and I spent an hour and a half with constituents discussing various bills in the legislature and answering questions from constituents, including topics on ethics, mental health, Medicaid, family farming and firearms.
I want to thank the Town Councilmembers and staff for allowing us to host the meeting in the Town Chambers.
Once the General Assembly session concludes in mid-March, I will hold another town hall meeting to answer more of your questions in person.
This week in Richmond, the House and the Senate each moved several major bills that will now be sent to the other chamber.
Next week is "crossover," which is the day following which the House deals exclusively with Senate bills that passed, while the Senate deals with House bills we sent over to them.
Here are some bills that received a lot of attention this week that will survive crossover:
Grading Schools: Both the House and Senate agreed to delay by three years implementation of the A-F grading system to rate all schools in Virginia with a simple letter. This "reform" idea was proposed by former Governor McDonnell last year and became law over my strong opposition. I am very pleased that both Republicans and Democrats now agree that this was a bad idea and that we should delay the program.
SOL Reform: The House Education Committee on which I serve passed a bill which is a good first step toward reforming the Standards of Learning for our kids. The bill which I am co-patroning would reduce by 23% the number of SOL tests for students in grades 3 through 8. The bill also creates an advisory group which will work on changes for high school students, which is where the major reform is needed. We expect legislation to deal with high school reforms in the next legislative session.
Ethics Reform: Last night, the House Courts of Justice Committee on which I serve unanimously passed a comprehensive ethics reform bill that addresses gaps in conflicts of interests laws that govern elected officials in Virginia. The recent circumstances surrounding the former Governor exposed the obvious fact that our laws allow for very loose interpretation of what constitutes a "gift" to lawmakers and their families. House Bill 1211 creates an ethics board — the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council — which will now review and post online all of the disclosure forms filed by lobbyists and elected officials, as well as provide formal opinions, education, and training. The bill also requires filing of the disclosure forms to be done twice a year instead of the current annual requirement. Most importantly, the bill prohibits tangible gifts to lawmakers with a value of more than $250 from lobbyists, certain disclosure thresholds are reduced from $10,000 to $5,000 and gifts to immediate family members of lawmakers are made subject to disclosure.
Sunday Hunting: Virginia remains one of only a handful of states that prohibit hunting on Sundays. Both the House and Senate have passed bills that will allow for hunting on Sundays on limited circumstances, such as on private property and away from places of worship. In 2011, I carried legislation to do this, so I was pleased to vote for the lifting of the ban.
Name of East Sea: The amount of attention this bill received was a surprise to most members. The bill simply would require that the next time the state board of education purchases textbooks, it select a version that includes both names of the body of water between Korea and Japan, as our Standards of Learning already requires to be taught. However, because of the historic nature of the dispute over the names, some constituents felt very passionate about this bill. On the House floor, I explained this history and why I believe this bill was properly before the legislature.
The House also acted on two more of my bills this week:
House Bill 837 reforms the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to require government agencies to post on their respective websites a general statement explaining that reasonable charges may be made to the public for FOIA requests not to exceed actual costs incurred.
House Bill 829 prohibits the willful use any software or device to electronically falsify records of cash registers and other point-of-sale systems in order to evade state or local sales taxes. Use of these sophisticated "zappers" is gaining popularity as an easy way for unscrupulous vendors to skim the cash register tills, and my bill would make this a crime.
I'm looking forward to returning to Richmond next week for the second half of this legislative session. We'll be tackling the budget, Medicaid expansion and many other challenging issues which I will report to you on a weekly basis.