Someone in Richmond must really like Del. Steve Shannon (D-35th). He's a freshman delegate from the minority party in a swing district, and in this election year, he was selected to sponsor a bill to lower taxes.
"The governor [Mark Warner (D)] has asked me to be a chief patron on fully phasing out the sales tax on food," Shannon said.
As part of last year's budget deal, the tax rate on food was to drop from 4 percent to 2.5 percent, effective July 1, 2006. However, the state finds itself flush with more than $900 million in unanticipated revenues. As part of the spending plan for the money, Warner has suggested phasing out the food tax a year early.
Shannon added that the chance for passing this is good. "There's folks who have been pushing this for a long time," he said.
He expects that while in Richmond, he may be forced into taking votes on controversial issues so that doing so can be used against him during this year's campaign. "There's always gamesmanship that will go on," he said. But he is not very concerned, saying he believes that he understands what the people in his district want. "I try to really be in touch with the people," he said. "I'm not elected by the people in Richmond."
Shannon was on the Finance and Agriculture committees last year and will likely remain on them. However, much of the legislation the former prosecutor is proposing will deal with criminal justice issues.
One of the bills he is submitting is designed to deal with an issue highlighted by the trial of John Mohammed, who was convicted of murder in Prince William County for his role in one of the Washington-area sniper shootings in the fall of 2002. Mohammed could not be tried by Fairfax County, because Virginia's speedy-trial statute requires trials to begin within a set time, depending on the crime, after a suspect's arrest.
Under Shannon's proposal, the "clock" will not run in one jurisdiction if the person is being tried in another. "He can't be in two places at once," Shannon said. This will not affect the sniper case, but he hopes it will close the loophole in the future.
Shannon also plans to introduce legislation that will track people convicted of sex crimes in other states if they move to Virginia. "This is to prevent forum shopping," Shannon said.
Although the state already requires this, Shannon's bill will simplify the process and help remove some ambiguity.
When a person convicted of a sex crime moves to Virginia, his name will be posted on the Internet along with the names of those people already living here. The person will be put on the list even if the crime he committed is not illegal in Virginia. "You don't want to give convicts an incentive to move to the commonwealth," he said. "What you're basically saying is that Virginia's sex offender registry is as tough as any other state's."
He also plans to introduce bills that would increase the penalties on distribution of some drugs, known as "Schedule 3" drugs (like ketamine) and "Schedule 4" drugs (like phenobarbital). The sale of those drugs would become a felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison and or up to $2,500 in fines.
Shannon also proposes to give additional power to the state's Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. The department regulates and licenses people who work in a variety of trades, such as construction. Shannon's bill will give the department more flexibility and oversight in censuring contractors who behave improperly. "It's a good consumer safety measure," Shannon said.
He also plans to ban trucks carrying hazardous materials from using Hunter Mill Road.
SHANNON EXPECTS transportation to be the top focus of the session. He notes that different transportation plans released so far have similar goals. "Where they differ is the amount of money," Shannon said.
He also advocates increasing rail funding as one way to help with transportation. Allowing for more freight to travel by rail is one solution, he said. This would not only make more room on the highways for cars but would reduce the wear and tear that trucks put on highways. "I think there's a recognition that a lot more can be done with rail to reduce freight transportation on the interstates," Shannon said.
This would be accomplished by increasing the availability of train lines along highway corridors. "If you can get about 400 miles of rail to parallel one of these interstate roads, companies will find it cost-effective to use rail instead of trucking," he said.