COVER- Some General Assembly Required
Once upon a time, the Virginia General Assembly met for 60 days to pass a two-year state budget, and then the legislators went back home. And once upon a time, Democrats dominated the legislature.
In 2004, the Republican-controlled Assembly took an extra 106 days to pass a two-year budget before Dem Governor Mark Warner got the tax increases he wanted to fund education and state employees.
His successor, Tim Kaine, was not so successful in his first try at getting the budget he wanted.
Transportation funding was what Kaine ran on, and funding Virginia's transportation for the 21st century was the mission of this year's General Assembly– at least as far as the Democrats were concerned.
However, no new taxes was the mantra of the Republicans, and they prevailed. The $72-billion budget that passed both houses June 20 included no new money for rail, infrastructure, or long-range solutions to crowded roads.
"This session was kind of a dud that ended with a thud," says Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds, whose massive district includes Charlottesville and most of Albemarle County. "Transportation was the big issue. It's clear it's a quality of life issue, particularly in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area."
"The big question is whether it was appropriate to raise gas taxes or other taxes to spend on roads," says Delegate Rob Bell, expressing the Republican POV, especially since taxes were raised two years ago. "We're running a $1 billion surplus. Spending is going up 15 percent this year and went up 18 percent two years ago. We should be able to pay for that without raising taxes."
Former Delegate Mitch Van Yahres was really glad to be out of office when legislators had to go back to Richmond for an extra three months to haggle over money.
"Looking at it from the outside view, I don't think Republicans are paying attention to the needs of the state– and that's transportation," says the long-time Dem. "They don't accept responsibility for what they're supposed to do."
Deeds predicts that failure to address transportation could cost Republicans, particularly those in congested parts of the state. "I expect the Democrats to pick up more seats in the House of Delegates," he says.
While the transportation stalemate currently dominates the headlines, another General Assembly action promises to be even more heated as citizens head to the polls in November to vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate.
Delegate Rob Bell, who voted for the amendment, cites the concern that even with a state statute that limits marriage to a man and a woman, "Other states' courts have intervened to overturn state law. We want to make sure courts are not defying the law."
"I think a number of people are afraid of things they don't understand, and they passed a bill that enshrines discrimination– and not just against gays, but against heterosexuals as well," says Delegate David Toscano, the only local legislator who voted against the proposed ban.
The amendment would deny unmarried citizens any legal status that tries to approximate marriage, and opponents fear it will interfere with unmarried people, regardless of their sexual preferences, owning property or making healthcare decisions.
Deeds, in the marriage-is-between-heterosexuals camp, voted for the amendment in 2005 and again this year, but says, "I'm troubled by the last two sentences, and I voted to strip them out."
Kaine wants legislators to return to Richmond in August to hammer out a transportation package that inevitably will entail raising taxes. Neither party is thrilled with the callback.
Albemarle and Charlottesville's representatives– Deeds, Bell, and Toscano– are all attorneys, and the extended session wreaks havoc with a law practice.
"I don't look forward to spending a lot of time in Richmond between now and November," says Deeds, whose 15th session in the General Assembly was particularly tough, coming just after he lost the Attorney General's seat last November by the smallest margin in modern Virginia history. "This is supposed to be a part-time gig. This on-and-on fouls up my ability to earn a living," he adds.
"It's very hard to maintain any kind of private life or family life when you're still in Richmond in the middle of June," echoes Bell. "This part-time job seems much more full time. And as attorneys, if we don't work, we don't get paid."
At least the Republicans and Democrats can agree on something.
The Hook checks in with local legislators for the best and worst of this year's marathon session.
Senator, 25th District
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: The sexual offender registry is going to have an impact. And the state is going to hire about 70 state troopers.
Why was it so hard to pass a budget? The scary part is one of the leaders of the House of Delegates said the short-term harm of the long session was worth avoiding the long-term investment in transportation.
Most important bill passed this session: Putting methamphetamine precursors like Sudafed behind the counter, and the sexual offender laws.
Most alarming bill that passed: The telecommunications bill that imposes taxes on satellite dishes and satellite radio, and opens the door for taxes to be levied on content received over the Internet. Also, the death tax/conservation easement bill that caps incentives on the best conservation program in the country. It's a terrible bill.
Most important bill that didn't pass: Transportation
Topic that got most calls from constituents: The constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman (Deeds voted for) and the indoor smoking ban (he voted against)
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: Campaign finance disclosure that requires IRS 527 committees contributing more than $10,000 to register with the State Board of Elections. My bill was folded into Jeannemarie Davis' and passed.
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: A recount bill. Now recounts are left at the discretion of the court, and judges have ruled against them because the state doesn't require recounts– even in the closest election in state history.
Number of your bills that passed: 7 out of 21 (33%)
What's a typical bill for you to carry? Criminal justice bills that arise from my being a prosecutor, and conservation bills
Perennial favorite: Redistricting, for the fifth straight year. I'm convinced that it'll pass eventually.
Silliest bill introduced: One that dealt with the littering statute and said litter included cigarette butts. Well, duh. The problem is if you say that but don't say tin cans or bottles or specify everything that's litter.
Describe this session compared to 2004 in three or fewer words: Unfinished business
Delegate, 58th District
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: The sexual offender bills (which I hope most won't see), cable competition so consumers aren't stuck with channels they don't want, and the repeal of the estate tax in 2007
Why was it so hard to pass a budget? The fight over something big– the question of whether it's appropriate to raise taxes to spend on roads
Most important bill passed this session: The budget. The individual sex offender bills.
Most alarming bill that passed: The cap on land conservation easements will restrict the number of people who use it– not a positive thing for a program that was working.
Topic that got most calls from constituents: The Home Serenity and Tranquility Act that would have stopped Saturday soccer if the noise was bothering neighboring residents
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: The sex offender bills– the one that will keep sex offenders from volunteering in schools like the Santa in Madison, increased sentences in crimes involving the abduction of minors, and better monitoring of sexual offenders
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: The eminent domain bill. The House was trying to restrict abuses and couldn't come up with an agreement with the Senate.
Number of your bills that passed: 12 out of 35 (34%)
What's a typical bill for you to carry? Criminal justice bills like the DUI bills last year, probably because I was a prosecutor.
Perennial favorite: Peeping Tom. My fourth bill– that makes the third offense a felony– finally passed. Peeping sounds funny, but it's not if you're a single woman or a senior.
Silliest bill introduced: The Home Serenity and Tranquility Act
Describe this session compared to 2004 in three words: No higher taxes.
Delegate, 57th District
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: More traffic– because we couldn't pass a transportation bill.
Why was it so hard to pass a budget? The Senate and the House couldn't find a way to compromise.
Most important bill passed this session: The most significant is embedded in the budget– money for raises for state employees and capital investment for universities and colleges.
Most alarming bill that passed: The marriage amendment
Topic that got most calls from constituents: That issue
Most important bill that didn't pass: The transportation plan. And the eminent domain bill. Again, the House and Senate can't see how to compromise. And it's not like we [Democrats] control them.
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: The charter amendment for affordable housing in Charlottesville. And I got to participate as a freshman in rewriting an adoption statute that will make adoption easier.
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: A minimum wage bill that didn't get out of committee. It would have raised it to $6.15 an hour the first year, $7.15 the second.
Number of your bills that passed: 4 out of 6 (67%)
What's a typical bill for you to carry? Narrowly tailored and pragmatic, designed to get passed
Silliest bill introduced: The Home Serenity and Tranquility Act
Describe this session in three words: House Republican discipline
Delegate David Toscano PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Delegate Rob Bell
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Senator Creigh Deeds
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
SIDEBAR- Batting .667: Toscano scores big in frosh term
David Toscano had been eying the reliably Democratic 57th District seat in the House of Delegates since– well, at least since he left City Council in 2002. But first Mitch Van Yahres had to retire, and that announcement didn't come until 2005.
Toscano handily won the seat, and his first time at bat in the General Assembly came in this year's 24-inning session.
"If he's a rookie, he came right up from Triple A and is knocking the ball all over the park," says Republican Delegate Rob Bell.
Toscano spent 12 years on City Council, including a term as Charlottesville mayor. "His background makes it hard to compare with someone who's 26 and on their first job," says Bell. "He's a practicing attorney, and he didn't try to carry 30 bills."
Indeed, Toscano got four of his six bills passed, including a charter bill for affordable housing in Charlottesville that requires a two-thirds majority, sending his batting average soaring to .667.
"The highlight was to get a charter bill passed that takes 67 votes as a freshman in the minority party," admits Toscano.
So what was it like, getting the long-awaited seat in the House of Delegates?
"I knew [bills] would come at me fast, but they come faster than I thought," says Toscano. "You don't have a lot of time to get things passed."
And after working on budgets for 12 years, Toscano chafed at the lack of control he had over the state budget as a freshman member of a legislature where seniority matters.
That may not last, predicts state Senator Creigh Deeds. "He doesn't come to the table with rookie jitters," says Deeds. "He's one of the brightest people, and he has a good grasp of the process and issues. I think he'll end up in the leadership if he stays in the House. People have a lot of respect for him."
"He probably gets along with Republicans better than I did," observes Van Yahres. "That helped him get that charter bill passed."
Van Yahres notes one negative of Toscano's first stint in Richmond: "He got a lousy office compared to what I had," says the now retired legislator. Seniority matters.
Freshman Delegate David Toscano plays well with others, according to fellow legislators in the General Assembly.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
SIDEBAR- Boy next door? Colleges collect sex offender data
Are college and university campuses hotbeds of registered sexual offenders?
Virginia's General Assembly just passed a law that requires colleges to turn over to state police personal information of students– 420,000 this year– for cross-checking against state and federal sexual offender registries.
The law, which goes into effect July 1, passed the House and Senate unanimously, but some legislators are saying they weren't aware of the provision for handing police the personal information of thousands of newly accepted college students.
State Senator Creigh Deeds carried a bill that required sexual offenders to re-register every 90 days, which was folded into the bill that passed. "I don't know where that language came from," says Deeds. "It wasn't part of my bill."
"It's part of a trend of sharing information about individuals that's gotten out of hand," says Kent Willis, director of ACLU of Virginia. "It is an invasion of privacy. It's essentially a criminal background check on every student entering college. Why not do a random criminal check on anyone going to the grocery or renting a DVD?"
Actually, the new law also requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to turn over personal information any time a Virginian applies for a license or a change of address.
Willis blasts the "looking-for-needles-in-a-haystack" approach to law enforcement. "In the end, hundreds of thousands of students will go through criminal background checks to find the one or two offenders," he says. "The presumption in our society is that you're innocent until proven guilty."
After laptop thefts have compromised millions of armed services members' personal information, Willis also worries about so many Social Security numbers being collected. "Any time agencies share information large-scale, there's the problem of identity theft," he says.
Police met with college representatives June 19, and Colonel Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, describes how the data swap will work. "When a student is accepted, the college will forward descriptive information– name, date of birth, gender. We're trying to stay away from Social Security numbers."
After the student info is checked against the sexual offender registry, it will be destroyed. "I would suggest we may not have it more than a couple of minutes," he says.
Registered sex offenders can attend college, even if there's a hit. "They're required to re-register within 72 hours," of moving to the campus, explains Flaherty. "If they do, the information is thrown away."
Around 91,000 eligible students enrolled in Virginia colleges, universities, community colleges, and trade schools in 2005, says Elizabeth Wallace, spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
The law might not have saved the life of Taylor Behl, the 17-year-old VCU student whose remains were found last fall in Matthews County. Although the man accused of her murder, Benjamin Fawley, was later charged with possession of child pornography, none of these allegations preceded Behl's enrollment, and Fawley was not on the sex registry. And in any event, he wasn't a student.
Another criticism levied at the new law is that the cross-check– done after a student is accepted but before enrollment– dodges the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents colleges from sharing students' personal information.
In 2005, that would have been 420,000 names, because a student who has been accepted by a Virginia college but decides not to enroll is still run through the registry. And students who are accepted at multiple schools will be checked with the registry multiple times, says Wallace.
"I look at this matter as a balance between two priorities that the university has long held: protecting our students' privacy and creating a safe and secure environment for them," says UVA spokesman Carol Wood. "We will work with the state police as they continue to develop their process for implementation, and as a state institution we will follow the law."
Backers of the bill are unable to provide an estimate of the numbers of improperly registered sex offenders on campuses. Delegate David Albo (R-Fairfax) knows of no nightmare scenarios and says there probably aren't that many registered offenders between the ages of 18 and 22 entering college.
"At the same time we were doing a sex offender study, we were doing a college campus crime study, and it seemed a natural fit," says Albo. "We wanted to make sure women are not living next to sexual predators they don't know about, so that's why we decided to require colleges to hand over the information to state police so they could make a check."
Protective-parent legislators apparently played a role in the law as well.
The Hook was unable to reach state Senator Kenneth Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), the bill's chief sponsor, by press time, but he told the Washington Post, "I have two kids in college right now. You're going to have a... hard time explaining to me why my daughter is living next door to a sexual offender. My guess is every parent out there would have the same expectation that I do."
State Senator Kenneth Stolle doesn't want his college-age daughter living next to a sexual offender.
PHOTO FROM THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY WEBSITE