Five of Loudoun’s legislators brought the topics of air pollution, wineries and funding to the table during the Chamber of Commerce’s annual General Assembly Post Session Breakfast.
"This is their chance to tell us what went on during the legislative session … and what will be on the calendar next year," said Robert Sevila, board chairman for the Loudoun Chamber, to introduce the two senators and three delegates.
Sen. William "Bill" Mims (R-33th), who spoke first, said half of the 2,000 bills the House of Representatives and Senate brought to the floor passed during the 2003 session. He saw 27 of the 36 bills he sponsored pass, including a bill that will increase fines and penalties for driving-under-the-influence offenses and a bill aimed at preventing identity theft by limiting how personal information is disseminated.
"People were surprised we were able to balance the budget," said Mims, who represents eastern Loudoun.
Mims feared that with the budget shortfall from late last year, additional cuts would have to be made during the 2003 session. The adopted budget ended up exempting education and mental health funding as it had the previous year. "It was heartening to me that some unmet needs could be dealt with," he said.
Mims mentioned a bill that will allow farm wineries to engage in interstate commerce and reciprocal marketing. Presently in Virginia, wine can only be sold through state-certified wholesalers. "The new legislation will protect direct shipments without going through a cumbersome distribution system," he said.
THE SECOND SPEAKER, Sen. Russell Potts (R-27th), continued with the topic of winery distribution, since his district, which includes western Loudoun and areas to the west, has 17 wineries. "Shipping legislation is important to our district," he said.
Potts mentioned one of his bills that will provide senior citizens and low-income residents access to free or low-cost prescription drugs through the Healthy Lives Prescription Fund. "For many seniors, that is the most expensive item they have to live with is their prescription drugs," he said.
Next to speak was Del. Thomas Rust (R-86th), who represents the Sterling area.
"We have to completely change the way we do business in Virginia," Rust said, adding that the current taxing system is too limiting and is based on a rural economy. The agriculture industry was prominent in the county until the 1980s and 1990s, when technology became the major industry, another delegate said. In a rural economy with property as a major resource, the state allowed local governments to generate revenue from property taxes, which now carry the burden for budget funding.
"Tax restructuring will be a major effort," Rust said. "I think you will see things that will make you happy beginning in January."
Tax restructuring is expected to be enacted within the next 18 months, Mims said.
Del. Joe May (R-33th) mentioned a bill that will reorganize the state’s information technology system to save $100 million of the $1 billion the state spends each year on computers and technology, savings that can be used elsewhere in the budget.
The state depends on computers "for the delivery of services. Our real objective is to improve that service delivery," said May, who represents Goose Creek to the west. He chaired the two committees that heard the bill and helped rewrite the legislation for it.
ONE OF MAY’S bills addresses the possibility of Northern Virginia becoming a non-attainment area by aiming to reduce pollution from vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined the region to be over the 164-ton limit for oxides of nitrogen by four tons. The region was previously at the serious non-attainment level, but a lawsuit initiated by several environmental groups pushed the region to the severe level.
"That requires much more draconian measures to reduce air pollution. If we don’t adopt such measures, we could face a freeze on federal funding for highway improvements," Mims said. "We have not yet lost funding."
Beginning in January 2004, a small instrument package will be used to identify gross polluting vehicles, 10 percent of the vehicles used on the region’s roadways. The state will require early emissions test for the vehicles, normally required every two years.
"We’re just barely into the severe non-attainment in Northern Virginia, and this holds out real promise for immediate relief," May said.
Del. Robert Marshall (R-13th) talked about one of his bills that did not pass, which he plans to reintroduce at a later session. Marshall, whose district includes Middleburg and parts of Dulles South, proposed using $110 million of the auto insurance tax to float loans for construction projects aimed to reduce traffic congestion. The state collects $1 billion each year from the tax.
"We let localities contribute and public-private partnerships," Marshall said, adding that several projects already have been identified, including rail to Tysons and the Virginia Railway Express.