After 11 years as a state delegate, Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien (R-39th) is finding the Senate to be a quieter, gentler place.
"It is different," said the freshman senator. "I was used to the fiery spirit of the House of Delegates. The Senate is much more deliberative and congenial. I want to grab the microphone and start arguing — because that was the culture of the House — but in the Senate, it's not done."
Indeed, the Senate's quietness surprised O'Brien. "Most of the work in the Senate is done in committee, whereas a lot of the work in the House can be done on the floor." Still, with all his General Assembly experience, he's way ahead of other new legislators.
"I understand the process and tempo of things here in Richmond so, hopefully, I'm able to be productive right off the bat," he said. "I've known these senators for years and they know me."
O'Brien also knows where particular offices are, where the "budget people" are and where to find the attorneys in the legislative-services offices to help draft bills. In addition, he said, "Lots of times, it would take a new legislator awhile to speak up in committee on things, but I already have that comfort level, so I can jump in without any lag time."
His experience also enabled him to form alliances immediately, and the Clifton resident has received a pleasant reception from his colleagues. "The other senators have taken me aside and explained the subtle differences of things," he said. "In a way, there are fewer of us handling the same amounts of legislation, so our relative roles here are enhanced a little bit."
O'Brien is chief patron of about 20 bills, this session, so he's already hard at work trying to get them passed. One of them would make it mandatory for any minister, priest, rabbi or other accredited religious practitioner to report suspected child abuse or neglect. "It's in response to everything that's happened," said O'Brien. "The church hierarchy can't shield a priest from police, and must report cases of child abuse to the authorities."
Another bill is aimed at foreign nationals and non-U.S. citizens, making it tougher for non-Virginia residents to qualify for in-state tuition. O'Brien also has a bill making it a class 4 felony to use or produce fake identity information to obtain a driver's license, I.D. card or other document. It also states that licenses, permits and special I.D. cards will only be issued to citizens, permanent resident aliens or those granted non-immigrant visas.
"For renewals and new applications for driver's licenses, you must prove you are allowed to be here in the U.S.," explained O'Brien. "It is a homeland-security bill. So if you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident — for example, married to a citizen — one time, at renewal, you'd have to show these documents (such as a military I.D., passport or birth certificate) and then never again."
For people here as temporary aliens, this bill would tie the expiration date on their driver's license to the expiration date on their visa. O'Brien is carrying this bill at the request of the attorney general.
In education, he has a bill dealing with the apportioning of state and local costs of meeting the Standards of Quality. "It changes the ratio so Virginia's public education makes more money and we'd be sending less to the state," he said. "It would increase our share of state money we'd get back by changing the formula." Fairfax County now gets back 19 cents, and this bill would increase that amount, over several years, up to a cap of 35 cents on the dollar.
A bill essentially the same as the one that fellow Fairfax County Republican, Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) is proposing, O'Brien has a bill addressing the renegotiation of school-system superintendent contracts. His would require a public hearing prior to the contract's final approval, a recording of how each school board member voted and ample notification to the board in the event of a proposed salary increase.
"Basically, we're pinging the [Fairfax County] School Board for not giving proper notification [to all of its members prior to approving the recent salary increase for Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech]," said O'Brien. "The school superintendent, particularly in Fairfax County, is a very important position. And when you're renewing his contract, you're making a policy comment on his performance."
He also said there should be 30 days notice to all board members. "In this case, the Republicans on the board were just given a day," he said. "Gary and I both felt, 'No way.'"
O'Brien also has a bill regarding the state's Transportation Trust Fund. He said the issue arose during discussions about the proposed sales-tax referendum for transportation projects. "The governor and General Assembly like to tap into the trust fund to balance the budget," said O'Brien. "This bill would prohibit them from using the Transportation Trust Fund for anything other than transportation."
He's proposing, as well, a bill that would allocate secondary-highway system construction funds among counties on the basis of the number of vehicles registered in each county. With more than 1 million residents in Fairfax County, this bill could prove quite valuable here.
O'Brien also has a bill limiting the real-estate tax rate. It provides that an annual assessment, biennial assessment or general reassessment of real property may not result in more than a 5-percent increase in the total real-estate tax levies for a county, city or town, with one exception. That exception would allow a locality to set its property-tax rate at a rate not to exceed the rate of population growth plus the rate of inflation in the locality, for the immediately preceding year.
O'Brien said the biggest fights in the legislature, so far, have been over the reappointment of the two federal judges. The biggest battles coming up, he predicted, will be about driver's licenses, the budget and abortion-related bills.
"The more contentious issues are usually near the end of the session," he said. This 46-day session ends on Feb. 22.
All in all, said O'Brien — whether a delegate or a senator — he's always enjoyed his time as a legislator. "It's a huge honor to be the representative of the people, in the General Assembly," he said. "This building has such a historic aura — it's where the founders of the country were — and it's really fun to be part of the process. It's the highest honor I've had."
Calling these "interesting days in America," O'Brien noted that he's also a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and is "sensitive to the feelings of the families of our soldiers, sailors and airmen who are being called up to defend our nation against terrorism. And that's something we all need to be aware of."
O'Brien may be reached at 804-698-7539. To see any bills, go to the General Assembly Web site, legis.state.va.us.