As the 2003 General Assembly session commences, Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-35th) said that one of the goals will be to fund state services and programs while continuing to trim the budget.
"We have so much cutting to do," Devolites said, adding that Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) budget cuts included some one-time fixes. "If we don’t make the budget structurally sound, then we’ll have more trouble in fiscal year 2005."
To compensate for cuts in services such in public safety, education and social services, legislators are considering equalization legislation, which would give counties the ability to charge other taxes such as a cigarette tax, hotel tax and a meal tax. Currently, only city jurisdictions such as Fairfax City have that ability to charge other taxes.
Revenue coming from the other taxes could ease a county’s dependence on real-estate tax revenue. At a recent town meeting sponsored by Devolites in Vienna, constituents were concerned about increases in real-estate tax rates due to higher financial assessments, particularly as it concerns senior citizens on fixed income.
"I need to be able to trust that the Board of Supervisors … would truly lower real-estate taxes if they’re able to generate their other taxes," said Devolites, weighing her opinion on equalization legislation.
While equalization legislation as a method for bringing more money to counties is still up for debate, Devolites said that Republicans would not consider raising taxes to ease budget cuts.
"The Republican majority will not clearly look at raising taxes," Devolites said.
For the 2003 session, Devolites intends to introduce 27 bills, two of which are for her key priorities. One bill, on Internet spamming, would increase the penalties in an effort to stop obscene and pornographic spam. Devolites worked with the attorney general and several Internet service providers to craft the legislation, which would make the sending of obscene spam into a Class 6 felony, by tying the offense into the Computer Crimes section of the criminal code. Upgrading the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony could result in jail time and fines for the offender.
As a misdemeanor, offenders are subject to fines but not jail time. Despite fines as high as $1 million, Devolites said that doesn’t deter offenders from sending obscene and pornographic spam.
"They look at that as the cost of doing business," Devolites said.
The other legislation that Devolites will push deals with public access to court records on the Internet. A few courts in Virginia allow citizens to view court records remotely, or online. Most of these records have Social Security numbers, as well as financial information such as credit card numbers. The first bill would be a continuing resolution to study further public access to court records, using federal funding. A second bill would let clerks provide a subscription service for anyone who wants to look up records remotely. Citizens would have to pay, using a credit card.
"It removes the anonymity of those who have access," Devolites said.
A third bill would protect personal information in divorce records, which currently aren’t available online. In property settlement agreements, information such as insurance policies, mortgage loans, financial institution account information and Social Security numbers are available throughout the document. This bill would propose putting this information into a cover sheet, which the public would be unable to access. The public could, however, access other portions of the record.
"That information [would] not be accessible to anyone, online or at the courts," Devolites said.
If constituents want to contact Devolites, she suggested they call, e-mail or write to her office. They can also respond to a questionnaire that she sent recently to constituents, which asks their views on issues such as party registration, sexual orientation recognition, and fees for home construction.
"That gives me a really great idea on where they stand," Devolites said.
She also suggested that constituents track legislation online at leg1.state.va.us. Constituents can find bills by bill number, subject and author.
To contact Devolites, e-mail del_Devolites@House.state.va.us or call 800-889-0229. Constituents may also write to Del. Jeannemarie Devolites, General Assembly Building, P.O. Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218.