George Pettit came to ask about guns. Why, he wanted to know, had Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34th) included a question on her recently mailed questionnaire to ask if the state should limit people who have a concealed weapons permit to one gun per month?
Devolites Davis quickly polled the crowd and found that only three of the nearly 100 people who had come to a Jan. 29 town hall meeting at the Old Courthouse in Fairfax thought that residents should be able to buy more than one gun a month. “Eighty percent of my district is in favor of stricter gun regulations then I voted for,” she said.
The meeting, conducted by Devolites Davis and Del. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-37th), was a wide-ranging discussion of state issues. The politically savvy crowd came armed with the numbers of bills that they wanted their legislators to support or oppose [see sidebars].
The meeting opened with Devolites Davis explaining what is happening in the state Senate this session. The $900 million surplus in the state budget is mostly spoken for, she told the crowd. “About two-thirds are obligated” she said. A portion must be placed in the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” and another chunk must go to the Water Quality Fund.
Rising Medicaid costs, she said, are eating up a substantial amount of state money. “The discussion this year will be how to spend that remaining third,” she said. A general agreement exists that the state should accelerate the phase-out of the sales tax on food, which was approved in last year’s budget.
Other parts of the surplus may be used for one-time transportation improvements and paying off debts incurred in past transportation projects. This brought her to the discussion of a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would create a firewall between the state’s general fund and transportation fund. In lean budget years, transportation funding, which typically comes from the gas tax and other fees paid by car owners, is sometimes used to balance the general fund budget.
A proposed amendment would forbid that practice from occurring. However, Devolites Davis' Senate colleagues are also proposing an amendment that would forbid using general fund money for transportation projects. Devolites Davis disagrees with the Senate amendment saying it removes flexibility from budgeting. “In my mind, why not use those for one-time transportation payments?” she said.
Devolites Davis also explained the bills she is sponsoring that would overhaul the regulation of assisted-living facilities. Several audience members stood up to commend her on her efforts, along with those of Del. Vivian Watts (D 39th), on the issue. Devolites Davis’ plan includes requiring more licensed administrators and increasing the budget for inspectors, among an array of other changes.
Finally, Devolites Davis discussed her proposals to outlaw spyware and “phishing,” two practices used in computer fraud and identity theft. Both of these are ways of gathering information about computer users. The gathering of the information will not be illegal per se, Devolites Davis explained. “What we’re making illegal is the malicious intent,” she said.
PETERSEN ALSO started with a discussion about transportation issues. The state, he said, has not done as good a job as it should have in providing funds for transportation projects. He noted that about $80 million of the budget surplus will go to Metro and the Virginia Railway Express.
He also expressed support for a plan that would allow localities to start transportation projects without the assistance of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
He also called for a more reliable source of funding for transportation projects. “I think eventually, we have to raise the gas tax. Is this the year? No,” he said.
Petersen discussed several education initiatives he had been working on. One would create “Chartered Universities.” Any state university, such as the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech, could apply for this status. If it were granted, those universities would have less state regulation of their programs in exchange for lower funding.
In order for this to be successful, and for Petersen to support it, a mechanism would need to be in place that would maintain relatively low in-state tuition rates. "Whenever I go on these campuses, I always remind them that the people own the buildings, not the school," he said.
Petersen had proposed a scholarship program that would have created a fund to pay the first year’s college tuition for Virginia high-school students who finish in the top 5 percent of their class and go to a Virginia state school. The measure was defeated.
Another proposal to mandate all-day kindergarten statewide has been tabled, meaning it is in a sort of “limbo” until a vote is taken on it.