Survivors 2004: Legislators tell all
Certainly it was the most grueling General Assembly session in memory, stretching an extra 105 days plus one, July 13 before legislators voted in a two-year budget.
Democrat Governor Mark Warner sweat it out and emerged victorious, gaining "about 80 percent" of what he wanted from the Republican-controlled legislature.
After the budget passed, Warner traveled around the state to extol the benefits of the budget, including a stop at the Smart Room over the Mudhouse in Charlottesville.
He was particularly pleased with the $1.5 billion in money for grades K-12. "Finally, the state is going to pay its share for education, hopefully putting less burden on property taxes," he told reporters.
Higher education, too, got $262 million. And mental health, where Virginia ranks a bottom-of-the-barrel number 50, came in for some additional funding.
Law enforcement officers got a raise. "It irks me, the politicians who say they're tough on crime, and we've got sheriff deputies on food stamps," complained Warner.
"Every Virginian is going to get a tax break," he said, citing the increased personal exemption and elimination of the food tax.
Of course there was a determined cadre insistent upon not raising taxes at all, no matter how close Virginia teetered toward losing its Moody's AAA bond rating or how close to the bone budgets had already been cut.
Delegate Rob Bell, for one, voted against the budget, and is dubious of Warner's claims– even the threat to the bond rating. And Bell says the $15 million in savings Virginians will see from, say, the personal income tax exemption, is miniscule compared to the $1.3 billion– "that's B, billion"– tax increase.
Weary local legislators, happy to be home, give their assessments of this year's marathon session– and the new laws that went into effect July 1.
Mitch Van Yahres
Delegate, 57th District
Most important bill (besides the budget) passed this session: Electric rate restructuring that extends the period rates can't be increased, and the Brown v. Board of Education scholarship fund for Prince Edward County, which, from an emotional standpoint, is important for people who were disadvantaged.
Most important bill that didn't pass: The 21-Day Rule, which allows those convicted only 21 days to introduce new evidence. Actually, the bill passed, but with many exclusions. For example, it's not available to those who plead guilty.
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: Real estate exemption that gives Charlottesville the authority to raise income caps for the elderly in determining property tax exemptions.
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: School health report cards, which could have helped with the health of kids in schools.
Number of your bills that passed: Four– counting the open source software bill that's being handled administratively.
Resolutions are always a shoo-in, except for one of yours: The one commending the UVA Pep Band couldn't get Senate support.
Topic that got most calls from constituents: Besides the budget, raising taxes, and stretching out the session, the Marriage Affirmation Act. Most callers wanted to kill the bill.
What's a typical bill for you to carry? Education
Perennial favorite: Increased cigarette tax (which actually passed this year)
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: Money that will be coming to localities that they didn't expect. And the DUI bills.
Stupidest bill introduced: Executing pregnant women. I couldn't figure out how they got pregnant if they're already on death row.
Describe this session in three words: Worst I've experienced– by far.
Delegate, 58th District
Most important bill passed this session: The tax increase package.
Most important bill that didn't pass: Any institutional caps on the newly increased spending.
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: The bill that imposes a jail sentence on any drunk driver with a BAC of 0.15 or higher. These "super drunks" are almost double the legal limit and cause a hugely disproportionate number of traffic accidents. We need to keep them off the road.
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: A bill that would increase the penalty for someone who maliciously kills a pet.
Number of your bills that passed: I had a lucky 13 bills pass, with another two that passed as parts of omnibus bills carried by other people.
Topic that got most calls from constituents: The tax plan and the budget
What's a typical type of bill for you to carry? Criminal justice bills
Perennial favorite: Peeping Tom increased penalties
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: Virginians will pay more when they shop, especially if they smoke after September 1. We hope that the roads will be a little safer on the July 4 weekend.
Stupidest bill introduced: Probably one of mine!
Describe this session in three words: Long, contentious, and taxing.
Senator, 25th District
Most important bill passed this session: The budget work that begins to normalize and stabilize the state's contributions to K-12 education.
Most important bill that didn't pass: A bill to change the way redistricting is done.
Bill of yours you're proudest of passing: A dedicated funding source for the Water Quality Improvement Fund and the Land Conservation Foundation. [Although the bill did not pass as a separate measure, the mechanism was incorporated into the budget.] It's the first dedicated source of significant money for land conservation.
Bill you're most disappointed that didn't: The redistricting bill
Number of your bills that passed: 18 (including resolutions)
Topic that got most calls from constituents: I received the most letters and emails regarding the budget. The most phone calls, however, were about the [proposed] King William Reservoir.
What's a typical type of bill for you to carry? Usually bills that have a local focus requested by local government or constituents, or in some way affect my district. Beyond that, I typically sponsor legislation in the areas of law enforcement, the environment, or health care.
Perennial favorite: Since '99 or thereabouts, I have introduced bills to establish a co-pay program for prescriptions for low-income seniors. A growing number of states have such programs, and it just makes sense to me.
On July 1, biggest change residents will see: This session, like the previous two, the General Assembly did not pass legislation that will have a huge impact on all Virginians. In light of that, I would suggest that the biggest difference may be tougher DUI penalties.
Stupidest bill introduced: HB 1357. As introduced, it could have shut down the legislative process to public scrutiny.
Describe this session in three words: Way too long.
Mitch Van Yahres
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO