Some have characterized the 2015 legislative session as ‘boring’ due to the lack of controversial issues that have marked sessions in the past. While this may be true, boring is good because we are getting the people’s business done. For starters, we passed a budget! This is noteworthy considering that the federal government has been unable to do so in 7 years. It has been a bipartisan effort and I am proud to say that my colleagues and I have accomplished many of our goals.
Here is a brief outline of the 2015 Session accomplishments:
- Autism Insurance: Health insurers will be required to provide diagnosis and treatment for children with autism from ages 2-10. State law currently mandates coverage for children until the age of 6.
- Right to Try: Terminally ill patients gain access to experimental drugs that have not yet received FDA approval. The bill seeks to give these patients every opportunity to extend their lives.
- Opiates and Prescription Drugs Prevention: Prescription drug and opioid abuse has dramatically increased in the inner city, rural areas, and suburbs of Virginia. Moreover, the increase in usage has led to an increase of overdose related deaths. To combat this growing problem, we passed the following legislation:
- Reporting: Many overdoses could have been prevented if the proper authorities were informed in a timely matter. We passed a bill that encourages this action. The bills states that a person will not be prosecuted for minor possession and intoxication, if he reports the overdose to police and stays with the overdosed person until the authorities arrive.
- Overdose-Reversal: A pilot program will be expanded to enable law enforcement agencies to use naloxone. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that counteracts the effects of a prescription opioid or a heroin overdoes.
- Probation Monitoring: Probation officers gain access to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program to confirm that their probationers are not obtaining unauthorized opioid prescriptions.
- Drones: Law enforcement will be required to obtain a search warrant before using flying drones. A search warrant will not be required for certain emergencies and training activities.
- Surveillance: Law enforcement will be limited to retaining information collected from license plate readers for 7 days. The bill does not apply to ongoing criminal investigations.
- Uber and Lyft: The legislation establishes safety and operating regulations such as background checks and specific insurance requirements for drivers of the innovative transportation network companies.
- Ethics Reform: This bill establishes a cap on all gifts to any public official of $100, bans travel unless the travel has been determined by an ethics panel to be for education or legislative business, and allows legislators to attend civic association/charitable organizations where they may receive a gift of a meal.
- Voting: New legislation will require registered voters to provide photo identification during the absentee ballot application.
- Veterans: Many outstanding bills were passed this legislative session to help our veterans in Virginia. Here are some of my favorites:
- College Credits: Virginian veterans can now receive academic credit for qualified training and educational programs that he or she completed during their service in the Armed forces.
- Real Property Tax: The surviving spouse of a United States military member who was killed in action will be exempt from paying property taxes. The exemption ceases if the surviving spouse remarries.
- Federal Aid for Public School: The Department of Education will track students with a parent in the military. Schools with 20 percent or more students from military families can receive federal aid. The students’ identities will remain anonymous.
- We did not create a “Veterans Court” because it is already authorized under existing law. In fact, Fairfax started one this year. This does not reduce punishments or let people off their charges just because of military service. The law in the Commonwealth and the US is blind. However, it does coordinate treatments so that veterans with illnesses such as PTSD will receive the treatment they deserve and need.
- Official Virginia songs: The traditional state song will be “Our Great Virginia” and the popular song will be “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” (Note: Some have written to me asking why we are “wasting time” on things like this. I assure you that this bill took no more than 3 minutes to discuss on the House Floor.)
- Eugenics Compensation: Victims of Virginia’s eugenics program will each receive $25,000 in compensation. The state program was authorized to perform forcible sterilizations from 1924 to 1979. While monetary means will not make up for the injustice and suffering that the estimated 8,000 victims experienced, I hope this measure provides some level of comfort and healing.
Below is a list of a lot of new spending items, but rest assured, the only reason there is new spending is that your General Assembly did the heavy lifting in previous years. We have cut Billions since the Recession started in 2007. In fact, in just the past two years, we cut $1 Billion in general funds from the original budget proposed in Dec of 2013.
- Does not raise taxes
- Spends $1 billion less in general funds than the originally adopted 2-year budget proposed. Virginia’s General Fund (Discretionary) budget is at 2007 levels. We control spending and put ½ of all surpluses into the Rainy Day fund. Unlike states like Maryland, with extra income taxes on people making more than $100,000, taxes on flushing the toilet, and even grocery bags, by not expanding government, we don’t have to raise your taxes. Virginia lives within it’s means.
- Eliminates $11.7 million in fees proposed by Governor McAuliffe
- Restaurant Inspection Fee
- Weights & Measures Fee
- VDACS Inspection Fee
- Underground storage cleanup deductible
- Saltwater License Fee
- Eliminates $33 million in debt proposed by Governor McAuliffe
- Provides $43 million in new funding to make sure that the Virginia Retirement system will be fully funded. Many state’s systems are going bankrupt. We eliminated the full pension three years ago and went to a 401K type plan. So our state employee retirement system will be fully funded in the future.
- 1.5% pay raise to teachers and support staff
- An overall increase of $60 million for K-12 education. Our Fairfax County School students are receiving $144 MORE in state money than in 2013.
- Includes an additional $42 million for higher education, restoring 94% of the recent cuts that were adopted last year when we had a huge budget shortfall.
- $19.8 million to incentivize enrollment. This includes my project to increase the number of in-state slots by 1,700+ at UVA, JMU, W&M and VA Tech.
- $10.1 million for financial aid
- $5 million for research
- 2% faculty pay raise
- $132 million for capital construction projects at Virginia Tech, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth University, Longwood, Radford, and Danville Community College. Virginia will only use cash to fund all college capital projects
- 2% across-the-board raise for state police and state employees, including compression for senior classified employees
- $4 million to rollback cuts to state police overtime
- 2% pay raise for state-supported local employees
- Restores $30 million in funding cuts adopted by the supplemental budget to address shortfall
- 2% pay raise for state-supported local employees
- Deposits $193 million into teacher retirement fund, saving localities over $30 million in required teacher retirement costs
Healthcare Safety Net
- $132.9 million for healthcare safety net
- Funding to provide targeted services to 22,000 seriously mentally-ill patients, including a prescription drug benefit
- Nearly doubles operational funding for free clinics – total of $6 million in funding
- Funds behavioral health community services including three new PACT teams and six new drop-off centers
- Increases funding for children’s psychiatry and crisis services
- $27 million in funding for the Governor’s Opportunity Fund; earmarks $4 million for Jefferson Lab Ion Collider efforts
- Authorizes bonds to construct two new Veterans Care Centers, one in Northern Virginia and one in Hampton Roads
- $9 million for housing & homelessness
- $8 million deposit into the Housing Trust Fund
- $1 million for rapid rehousing efforts, including $500,000 specifically for veterans
Some of Delegate Albo’s Bills:
- Medicinal Marijuana: The bill decriminalizes the possession and use of THC-A oil to treat intractable epilepsy.
- Breastfeeding in Public: My bill enables mothers to breastfeed in public places. Previously, the law only protected mothers to breastfeed on state property.
- Internet Defamation: My bill extends the statue of limitations until the identity of the publisher is discovered in lawsuits pertaining to anonymous Internet defamation.
- Marriage Certificate: My bill provides for the options of spouse, groom, or bride on the marriage license application. The bill also requires the clerk of court to retain one copy of the completed marriage license and give another copy to the State Registrar of Vital Records.
- Building Roads and Rail based on Science: (HB 1915 Delegate Albo Co-Patron) Delegate LeMunyon’s transportation bill requires the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to use scientific research during the planning process of road construction (e.g. congestion reduction).
- Missing persons search and rescue: The bill provides that all local law enforcement agencies may not maintain or establish a policy that requires a waiting period before accepting a critically missing adult report. A law enforcement agency that receives such a report must begin an investigation within two hours after receiving the report. My 2014 bill created the study. I was the co-patron this year.
- College Campus Sexual Violence: (HB 1930 Delegate Albo Chief Co-Patron) Delegate Bell’s bill ensures that victims have access to the information regarding their options and available support services. The bill also establishes a procedure to handle sexual assault charges for higher education institutions.
Overall, I am very pleased with the headway we made during the 2015 General Assembly. We covered a wide ground of issues and were able to pass a variety of bills and a balanced budget. Working together led to a very efficient session that will surely benefit the commonwealth.