Local legislators: Tebow, triggermen among their bills
Every January, the six men representing the gerrymandered chunks of Albemarle and Charlottesville (and Rustburg!) head east on I-64 to participate in Virginia's part-time legislature. For 60 days, they'll strive for a budget and deal with the 2,228 bills (at last count) that the General Assembly's 140 members bring to the table, down from the 2,900 they wrote in 2008. Mercifully, most bills die in committee, but some become part of Virginia's law.
With both the Senate and House of Delegates firmly in Republican hand, do any bills rise to the wacky level of 2007's attempted ban on droopy drawers or 2008's truck nuts bill?
"I don't think there's anything stranger than usual," says Richmond Sunlight creator Waldo Jaquith. "What's notable is that the stranger legislation has a better chance of becoming law because there are more far-right Republicans. In the past, the Senate acted as a brake to the crazier legislation coming out of the House."
But that was before that body split 20-20, with Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling ready to cast tie-breaking votes.
Delegate David Toscano, who represents Charlottesville as the newly selected House minority leader, is even more dire in his predictions. With Republicans in control, he's watching for "overreach" on social issues and forsees conservative action on hot-button topics like guns, abortion, labor, and voting rights.
"Traditionally, such bills have failed in the Senate," says Toscano, aware that there's not much his severely outnumbered 32 Dems can do up against 68 Republicans.
"Our role as the Democratic caucus is to be the loyal opposition," says Toscano, who appears to be getting high marks. Republican Delegate Steve Landes, who represents a chunk of western Albemarle, calls Toscano's style "a kinder and gentler way of doing business."
"He's a great advocate for his party," says Landes. "He's more collegial than before, and I've always found him someone good to work with."
What they carry
Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds is the creator of the conservation easement tax credit, a program once lauded for protecting Virginia's rural lands– until Biscuit Run State Park showed how the rich can get bailed out with millions from taxpayers. [See related story.]
One perennial Deeds bill would try to eliminate gerrymandering. Despite all the talk of reform during last year's redistricting, it was pretty much business as usual with district lines drawn to protect incumbents rather than give, say Albemarle, one person to represent its interests. Nonetheless, Deeds is carrying a bipartisan redistricting commission bill. "I still believe it's the right thing to do," he insists.
The other senator representing a slice of eastern Albemarle– thanks to redistricting– is one of the guys whose win gives Republicans control of the Senate. Bryce Reeves, who owns an insurance and financial services business, has three insurance bills, including one that will interest earthquake-rattled constituents in Louisa: If a fire insurance policy excludes quake coverage, it must say so in writing.
Another Reeves bill raises the threshold for grand larceny from $200 to $500. "It's about saving money, not being soft on crime," assures Reeves legislative aide Erica Gouse, who pegs the savings of keeping low-level thieves out of prison at $3.7 million by 2014.
Jobs are the priority on Reeves' agenda, says Gouse, and he was tapped by Governor Bob McDonnell to carry a bill that extends to 2014 tax credits for companies that create jobs.
In the House, family law attorney Toscano has two bills dealing with adoption and one with parental rights. 'It's not unusual for me to have an adoption bill or an energy bill," says Toscano, who also has a Biscuit Run bill. His would swap a park parcel with land from Habitat for Humanity's Southwood development that would give Albemarle its long-desired additional athletic fields.
Steve Landes is touting his bills that spur economic development, particularly one with ag-forestry grants that could be used for Virginia wineries or fresh produce processing. Another bill offers grants to small businesses to create jobs.
Landes, who's on the higher education appropriations committee, says there's a lot of discussion going on about higher ed. "UVA will benefit," he suggests.
Freshman Delegate Matt Fariss from Rustburg, whose 59th District stretches from Campbell County to southern Albemarle, has the fewest bills, and two of them deal with farm equipment: dropping taxes and allowing farm vehicles to be driven 300 miles without registration.
This Republican co-owner of the Lynchburg Livestock Market handily took the district formerly held by Watkins Abbitt, despite Fariss' misdemeanor convictions for illegal hunting, DUI, or the protective order a woman took out against him, and some pesky civil judgments against him. Fariss did not return phone calls from the Hook, and according to his office in Richmond, he had to leave his General Assembly duties to head back to Lynchburg January 16 and again on January 23 to take care of some business.
Former prosecutor Rob Bell, who's running for attorney general, usually carries law and order bills, and this year is no exception. He wants to force anyone still driving after a drunk driving conviction to blow into an ignition interlock to get their car to start.
Another Bell bill redefines "triggerman." Explains Bell: "We don't want to foreclose on the possibility that the person who organized a crime may not be the triggerman." So if you arrange a murder for hire, this bill opens the option for a capital murder charge, even if you didn't pull the trigger.
The harshest of Bell's legislation hits child rapists with a bill that would change the penalty from 25 years to life in prison. "These crimes do terrible damage to a child and have a high recidivism rate," says Bell. "Even if they're quite old, they don't age out as other criminals do. The only place I believe they're safe is in prison."
Bell denies he's going heavy on the law and order due to his AG run. "They're the same sorts of bills and quantity I've done during the long session in the past," he says. Indeed, he's also carrying a so-called "Tebow bill." Named for the home-schooled Heisman Trophy winner, Bell's HB947 would allow home-schooled students an opportunity they're currently denied in most of the state, including Charlottesville and Albemarle: the chance to participate on public school sports teams.
However, the most crucial issue facing the General Assembly, says Bell, is the $19.9 billion unfunded liability of the Virginia Retirement System. "That's greater," he says, "than the general fund expenses for a whole year."
Bell says he's fond of a measure to protect against eminent domain abuse, such as what happened in Kelo v. City of New London, where private property was taken for economic development. And, interestingly, across the aisle (and in the Senate), Deeds is also up on that constitutional amendment. "It's one that really can protect ordinary people and their property," says Deeds. "When I'm 85, I'd still be proud of that."
Maybe bipartisanship isn't dead after all.