Transportation issues will be a sure source of debate during the upcoming General Assembly session; the Northern Virginia region, according to state Sen. Janet Howell (D - 32), is the third worst in the nation in terms of congestion.
Since transportation has the greatest effect on her constituents, Howell is planning on introducing a transportation revenue enhancing bill, as well as a bill for a constitutional amendment to protect the Transportation Trust Fund.
The revenue enhancing bill would increase the money put into transportation. She said the Senate is likely to pass some revenues, although she is not sure how much, but that the House of Delegates will likely defeat it. The protection of the transportation trust fund would make sure the money set aside for transportation could not be used in other areas. Howell said the state is more than a billion dollars short on transportation every year, and that there is a backlog of $20 billion on transportation projects.
Tracey White, the president and CEO of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce said she hoped Howell and state Del. Plum (D-36) would be able to secure transportation funds. The chamber is traveling to Richmond on Jan. 19, to reiterate its concern about the area's transportation. White said it would be good if the governor's current transportation plan passes through the General Assembly, but that Northern Virginia would get a small amount of the $987 million proposed. According to White, the money would be a "one-time infusion" and would not solve the long term traffic problems. On its Jan. 19 trip, the chamber will meet with colleagues from other chambers around the state, and attend a hearing with Governor Warner himself.
COMMUNITY LEADERS and Reston residents met with their state legislators to express views on local issues that may be affected by the Virginia General Assembly's 2005 session. The session is set to convene on Jan. 12, and Plum said he hoped to see greater bipartisan cooperation than what he saw in 2004.
Howell said she was happy to see moderates in both parties working together in the Senate last year. She thinks she will see more of the same in the House of Delegates this year.
Plum and Howell hosted a public hearing at Reston Regional Library on Wednesday night, Jan. 5 to get input from their constituents. More than 50 people attended the meeting at the library to discuss health, education, transportation, environment, and other topics.
ALTHOUGH TRANSPORTATION is the top issue for her constituents, according to Howell, one of the top-priority bills to be introduced by her is the governor's bill on assisted living.
Howell said last year saw a major exposé in assisted living facilities. She said the mentally ill were mixed in with elderly people, as well as those recently released from prisons. There are also no staffing standards in the assisted living facilities. Howell will introduce a bill that will set staffing standards, and educational standards for the people running the facilities. Any outbreaks of violence within the facilities would have the owners fined between $500 and $10,000. She has the backing of many advocate groups and the administration, as this is a governor's bill.
IN TERMS OF HEALTH ISSUES, Plum's primary bill is to introduce legislation to increase the number of metabolic or genetic disorders newborns are screened for. Plum's proposal would triple the number of disorders screened from nine to 30. He expects a good deal of support for the proposal.
"It is a pretty popular issue to take up," he said.
Howell is also planning to introduce a health-related bill, the creation of an immunization registry.
"One quarter of all immunizations are repeats," said Howell, which is one of the reasons for the bill. The registry would allow the patient, the patient's health care provider, the patient's school system, and the Department of Health to access immunization records of an individual. Besides the fact that 25 percent of immunizations are repeats, and therefore unnecessary, and probably unhealthy, having an immunization registry would also be helpful in a case of an emergency.
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) asked the two legislators to continue doing a good job of securing state funds to help Fairfax County play its role as a leader in providing quality care for its residents. She said the issue of equity is involved in requesting funds.
"The cost of care in Northern Virginia is not the same as in other parts of the state," she said. Hudgins added that a substantial amount of state's revenue comes from Northern Virginia.
Another health issue brought up at the meeting was that of habilitative versus rehabilitative care.
Rehabilitative care is when a person is treated for an injury, or an illness that can be traced back to a certain moment. Habilitative care, however, is treatment for an injury or an illness that cannot be traced to a single moment. It can very well be something a person is born with. Danielle Bussell urged Plum and Howell to introduce legislation that would follow what the state of Maryland did in 2000, when it mandated insurance companies to provide habilitative services to children up to the age of 19. Current Virginia law mandates these services for children up to the age of three.
"If these services are needed beyond age three, or a child is diagnosed with developmental difficulties at a later age, many insurance companies deny coverage for this treatment," she said.
Lynne Ganz, an occupational therapist who treated Bussell's daughter, said it was a myth that children with disabilities could recover without therapy.
EDUCATION ALSO was cited as a priority by residents.
School Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) asked the legislators to push for legislation that would allow school boards to decide when to open their schools after the summer vacation. In 1986, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law prohibiting schools from opening before Labor Day. The "Kings Dominion Law," according to Gibson is detrimental for Virginia's students enrolled in IB and AP classes. Other school systems begin their school calendar earlier, and their students are allowed more time to prepare for the nationally scheduled AP tests.
Gibson also criticized the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The law requires that schools pass standardized tests in 35 different categories. If a school does not meet the standard in one of 35 categories, it is considered as a school needing improvement. If one school in a school system does not meet the criteria, the whole school system does not meet it either. If a Title I school, a school with a large percentage of students on free or reduced lunches, does not meet the criteria, then the school system has to offer the students from that school an option to transfer to another school. The problem, according to Gibson, is that the students who opt to leave their schools are not the ones on free or reduced lunches, but affluent students, which begins to create a gap between schools in terms of income and achievement. Gibson said Virginia was "penalized" by the introduction of NCLB, because it already had strong accountability standards.
For more information on No Child Left Behind visit the U.S. Department of Education NCLB Web site at http://www.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml?src=pb
A LOCAL ISSUE is the soon-to-come tree-cutting along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD). Claudia Thompson-Deahl, Reston Association's (RA) environmental resources manager, said that an estimate of 2,000 trees in Reston will be cut by Dominion Virginia Power. The company has the right-of-way on the trail, and it claims that the trees must be cut in order to properly maintain the power lines running along the trail. The plan is to clear a 100 feet of trees on the sides of the trail.
Thompson-Deahl presented photographs of what the company has done so far in Vienna. She warned the W&OD would become an asphalt road instead of a shaded trail once Dominion Power was done cutting down the trees.
"Reston is a heavily treed community," she said, "any help from you [Howell and Plum] for coming up with a more rational pruning plan would be appreciated."
The Reston Association's executive vice president, Milton Matthews, said RA understands Dominion Power must do some maintenance work, but the proposed plan is too drastic. He said some sort of a compromise could be reached with the company. As far as the company's work in Vienna goes, he said, "We don't want that to happen in Reston."
HOWELL MENTIONED another bill she will introduce, to outlaw guns in restaurants. Under current Virginia law, restaurant and bar patrons can take a gun into the establishment as long as it is not concealed. Howell would like to see guns out of liquor-serving establishments.
Since 2005 is an election year, the whole House of Delegates is up for re-election and the gubernatorial election will take place in November, both Plum and Howell warn that candidates may use the floor time for personal promotions. Plum said there is a tendency in an election year to promise tax cuts. According to him, that is not possible to do, as there is simply not enough money.
Howell said many delegates would introduce "brochure bills," to enhance their standing with the voters, because of the election year. She added that the most controversial bills during the session are likely to be those introduced by the social conservatives. For example, she said, they will try to introduce a bill that will require a woman who miscarries to report the miscarriage within 12 hours, or be charged with a misdemeanor.