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Votes

General Assembly Convenes; Local Officials Pare Down Bills

As the 2003 session of the Virginia General Assembly begins, legislators warn of budget cuts and an agenda that is to the right of center.

"We can expect to deal with issues such as parental consent for abortion instead of focusing on new revenue sources and the other major issues that are confronting the Commonwealth,” said Delegate Brian Moran, (D-46) who is the chairman of the Democratic Caucus. “We are willing to talk about funding programs for children from conception to birth but we are facing cuts in programs that serve those same children once they are born like social services, mental health services and public education.”

Governor Mark Warner’s budget outlines additional cuts, totaling $2 billion. “He has said that funding for basic education is not going to be cut,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45). “However, the categorical grants for at-risk students are vulnerable. Last year we fought back a move to put all of that money into a block grant but I think it is going to come up again this year. That would force localities to decide which of these important programs is more important than the others and make the cuts at the local level. Alexandria would be hurt by this because our school system gets little money from the formula and more from the categorical grants.”

Van Landingham is still recovering from surgery and will begin chemotherapy next week. “I am feeling well,” she said. “I get tired but am ready for the session.”

She will introduce very few bills this year and will concentrate on her work on the Appropriations Committee. “I am introducing legislation that would preserve the funding that we have been able to get for our English as a Second Language programs over the years,” Van Landingham said. “I have always just added it in during the budget discussions but I am hoping to get this legislation passed to at least protect that funding at its current level, fully realizing that it doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of our ESL population.” Current funding pays for two ESL teachers per one thousand students.

Van Landingham is carrying a bill for the City of Alexandria that would allow the city to use money from the recordation fees on real estate sales to establish an open space fund. “It’s an up hill battle,” she said. “There are those who look at anything like this as a tax increase and are just not going to vote for any such bill.”

WILL THERE BE any increase in the regional gas tax to fund transit or any increase in the state’s tax on cigarettes to fund either education or mental health programs? “Again, I just don’t see it,” Van Landingham said. “We are going to have to make some very hard decisions about the role of government. There are those who say we do too much but aren’t really willing to tell us what exactly we should stop providing. At the same time, they want to keep cutting taxes. I’m not really sure that many of these folks really understand what government does.

“The governor did a pretty good job of making cuts and I really don’t see us making any substantial changes,” Van Landingham said. “We will move some small pots of money around a bit but they will be very small pots because that’s all we have. In the end analysis, we will pretty much end up with the governor’s proposed budget.”

Like Van Landingham, Moran is carrying fewer bills this year than he has carried in the past. His focus is working with Democratic members of the House to manage the governor’s agenda. “We have the VDOT reform bill, which is very important,” he said. “I think that will have a good deal of support because almost everyone agrees that VDOT needs reformed. That should also, in the long run , save money.”

MORAN IS CARRYING a bill for the Commonwealth’s attorneys that would leave open ended the amount of time that persons who are charged with a capital crime can be incarcerated and treated with the goal of restoring them to competency to stand trial. “I would certainly hope that will pass,” Moran said. “It makes a lot of sense and I haven’t heard that there is any real opposition to it.”

Moran is also involved in sponsoring legislation that would look at the creation of a redistricting commission. “Iowa and New Jersey have this kind of a system and it would allow us all to avoid what we go through every 10 years when we redraw the district boundaries for the legislature,” he said.

The commission would responsible for redrawing those boundaries after each census in a nonpartisan manner. In Iowa, a computer model is used. The new census numbers are plugged into a program and the computer draws the new map. “Depending on your point of view, the system has worked really well or not in Iowa,” Moran said. “This last election, there were a number of incumbents competing with each other in new districts. The races were much closer. It really does take much of the politics out of the redistricting process.”

Police officers could be allowed to use the HOV lanes to get to work if one piece of Moran’s legislation is passed. “There are a number of police officers who live in one jurisdiction and work in another,” he said. “This bill would just give them the right to use the HOV lanes to get to work more quickly.”

Like Van Landingham, Moran does not see any tax increases coming this year. “I think that all of those bills are pretty much DOA,” he said. “It’s an election year and too many people ran on a no tax platform. We have serious education and transportation needs and there just isn’t enough money to fund them. That just somehow doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to seeking new sources of revenue.”

SENATOR PATRICIA "PATSY' TICER (D-30) is only introducing eight new bills this year, whereas, in 2002, she introduced 30. “There’s just no money to fund many of the initiatives that I have carried in the past so there just is very little point,” she said. “I am trying to focus on those little things that have some hope of passing.”

One of those is a bill that would include foster parents as victims under the victims rights and assistance act. “This would allow foster parents to legally be considered as victims,” she said. “This would mean that they could submit victim impact statements, be allowed to remain in the courtroom during trials and just generally be treated as victims.

“This is the right thing to do because when a child is killed like Katelynn Frazier, her foster parents were certainly affected,” she said.

Ticer will also carry a bill that the Department of Motor Vehicles would like to see passed. “It would make using a false name or address to obtain a driver’s license a class six felony instead of a class two misdemeanor,” she said. “The penalties are much greater for the felony and might make some people stop and think before using someone’s else’s name and address in order to obtain an official driver’s license. This has national security implications as well, of course,” she said.

Ticer is also carrying a bill for a constituent who was video taped in her own apartment without her knowledge or consent. “This is just a terrible crime and we want to see those who engage in such activities listed as sex offenders,” she said. “The way the bill has been drafted, it says that the criminal would be listed on the sex offender registry after the third offense but I think it should happen after the first.”

TICER HAS SOME hope that there will be a small increase in the state’s cigarette tax. “I think it could happen,” she said. “I think that there will be some discussion with the tobacco industry and they will be willing to accept a small increase that really won’t amount to much and this may pass,” she said. “I would not support designating these funds because what happens if we have better financial times and don’t need this money for mental health or education, for example? I would rather see it left undesignated.”

Hate crimes legislation, which has failed for the past several years, is, once again on Ticer’s list. “I have carried this bill for a number of years and am carrying it again,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do but I don’t have much hope that it will pass.”

Neither the legislators nor Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley are optimistic about the city’s legislative package. “This year’s legislative package is mostly defensive,” Donley said. “We understand that the outlook is not good for many of the bills but it is better to advocate for something and lose than not to advocate at all. We must begin the dialogue and get the members of the General Assembly on record on these important issues. They are not supportive of local government and they expect us to fund more and more of the state’s programs while giving us less and less latitude to find revenue sources. I am very concerned about public education. Last year we were largely able to make up the deficits but it is unreasonable to expect that we will be able to do that this year.”

The General Assembly session begins on Jan. 8, and will adjourn at the end of February.