The 2014 General Assembly regular session has concluded, except for resolution of the 2014-2016 state budget. My focus continues to be on fostering an economic environment in Virginia in which businesses can grow and create jobs. Improving transportation, education, and increasing transparency and accountability in government are also top priorities.
The House of Delegates and Virginia Senate passed similar, but not identical, budgets before the regular session ended. As you may know, the proposed expansion of the Medicaid program in Virginia is the main issue in disagreement. The General Assembly will reconvene in a special session on March 24th to address the budget. I’ll have more to share on this topic in the near future.
Some highlights of the 2014 regular session of the General Assembly follow, including summaries of some of the ten bills and resolutions that I introduced that passed the House and Senate. Unless noted, I voted for all of the measures that are mentioned. More details may be found at http://
Jobs and Opportunity—Legislation passed this session to help align education and vocational training with workforce needs in Virginia, and to facilitate matching people with particular skills to employment opportunities. The state’s research and development tax credit was also expanded to promote research and development, primarily in technology companies.
I introduced several bills this year related to reforming Virginia’s tax laws for both individuals and businesses. With the budget and other urgent issues before the General Assembly, the leadership decided not to move forward with tax reform this year. I expect to re-introduce tax reform legislation during the 2015 session, as I believe reforming the state’s out-of-date tax code is the most significant step that can be taken to make Virginia a better state for job creation and business expansion. I have discussed this issue with Governor McAuliffe, and he also supports tax reform.
Ethics Reform—Accepting tangible gifts greater than $250 by elected and certain appointed government officials is now prohibited. Reporting other gifts, including “intangible” gifts of travel and entertainment, will take place twice a year rather than annually as currently required. A new commission will oversee the implementation of the state’s ethics laws. I had hoped this legislation would have been more restrictive, especially related to intangible gifts, and I expect this will be an issue during the 2015 session. Please note that taking any official government action in exchange for anything of value has been, and will continue to be, a crime in Virginia.
Separate ethics legislation I introduced also passed this year. House Bill 1212 prohibits gifts and contributions to the Governor and his political committees of any amount above the $50 reporting limit from businesses seeking economic development grants or loans from the Governor’s discretionary business opportunity fund.
Mental Health—A series of bills were approved to ensure that a person in need of mental health care will not be turned away from a state mental health facility. Specifics include expanding the capacity of the state’s mental health facilities and creating a database listing facilities that have space or are at capacity.
Transportation—As a member of the Transportation Committee, I and other committee members reviewed the implementation of legislation passed during the last two years to improve our transportation system, especially the 2012 law I authored that requires tax dollars to be directed to projects that offer the greatest congestion relief in Northern Virginia.
Three of my transportation bills passed the House and Senate during the 2014 session: House Bill 793 requires a congestion impact analysis be performed when land use changes are proposed in Northern Virginia the better coordinate land use and transportation planning; House Joint Resolution 122, requires Virginia’s statewide transportation plans incorporate the latest in transportation technology being developed by American entrepreneurs and businesses; and House Bill 311, which is a re-write of the entire state transportation law for the purpose of clarity and conciseness, to help reduce needless litigation on transportation issues. HB 311 was a result of nearly two years of work by the Code Commission, of which I am a member.
Education and “SOL” Tests—I am also a member of the House Education Committee, which considered a wide range of education issues this year, especially Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. House Bill 930 was approved by the House and Senate to reduce the total number of Standards of Learning Tests in grades 3 through 8 from 22 to 17 tests starting with the 2014-15 school year. There is a consensus that student achievement can be adequately measured with fewer tests, based on many recommendations received from teachers, parents, and school administrators.
The House and Senate have each passed similar budgets for the next two fiscal years, beginning July 1, 2014. Each budget includes record levels of K-12 public education funding for Fairfax and Loudoun County schools, more than $600 million and $280 million per year, respectively. Please note that Fairfax schools have more than twice the number of students as Loudoun, which accounts for the difference in funding amounts. Additionally, the General Assembly gives broad latitude to local school boards to use the money as needed. The budget does not specify teacher salaries, class sizes, etc., which are issues left to local control.
With respect to higher education, the House version of the state budget includes funding specifically targeted for more capacity for in-state students and Virginia’s most competitive public universities. It is my hope this provision will remain in the final version of the state budget when it is approved.
The General Assembly also passed House Bill 851, a bill I introduced to increase the penalty for assaulting a school employee. This legislation was based on a recommendation of the Governor’s School and Campus Safety Task Force.
Other bills and resolutions I introduced that received bipartisan approval by the General Assembly pertain to:
Expanding the state’s “Whistle Blower” Act—Presently, only employees of state agencies may receive the benefit and protection included in state law for “blowing the whistle” on waste, fraud, or abuse of tax dollars. I introduced House Bill 439 to extend the law to all citizens of Virginia. Whistle blowers are eligible to receive up to 10 percent of the money recovered by the state, without limit, as a result of the whistle blower’s actions.
Helping home owners associations and residents resolve disputes–House Bill 791 includes a “no surprises” rule in which home owners must be given written notice before HOA rules are enforced. It also specifies that disputes may be resolved in General District Court, rather than Circuit Court. General District Court is generally a less expensive proposition for the parties involved.
Reviewing the Virginia Freedom of Information Act—House Joint Resolution 96 requires that the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council conduct a formal review of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. “FOIA,” as it is commonly referred to, provides the legal right for citizens to access government documents and attend government meetings. There are more than 170 exceptions to this law. The FOIA Council will review the exceptions to determine if they are really necessary. I am the vice-chairman of the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council, and will help organize and direct this work.
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Your comments and questions are welcome related to this report, and on any matter pertaining to state government during the course of the year. I often speak to local groups in Western Fairfax and Eastern Loudoun Counties about state public policy. Please feel free to contact me if you know of an organization that might want to offer a speaking opportunity. I may be reached by return email, email@example.com, or by phone at 703-264-1432.