Del. Tom Rust (R-86) and Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) held a community meeting Saturday, March 19 to review legislation passed and denied during the 47-day General Assembly session.
Although slated to be a question and answer session for citizens to speak with the state senator and delegate, the only people present for the majority of the meeting were town manager Stephen Owen, town attorney Richard Kaufman, council member Dennis Husch and his wife Nancy Husch and planning commissioner Bill Tirrell.
At the first meeting, held Jan. 15 to hear from constituents before the session, multiple residents expressed concerns about issues including transportation, gay and lesbian rights, the death penalty and teen driving.
During Saturday's meeting, Rust ran through legislation passed that he supported.
Although the assembly was unable to do much for teachers last year, Rust said, this year it approved a three-percent increase in pay. At the local level, Fairfax County Public Schools will receive $7.1 million more than expected, of which $3.2 million will go toward teachers' salaries.
For public safety, because there are no forensic labs in the area to assist in crime solving for police and prosecutors, the assembly voted in favor of the construction of a new lab to be built at George Mason University in Prince William County.
The assembly also voted for the designation of $50 million for Chesapeake Bay clean up each year, and $10 million to go toward land conservation.
Overall, the Commonwealth’s budget was approved 98-1 in the senate and 40-0 in the house, Rust said, adding they were also able to reduce the food tax by two and-a-half percent to begin July 1 of this year.
HOWELL PREFACED her speech by stating that 3,300 pieces of legislation were reviewed in 47 days; she said this year was called a “lackluster” and “calm” year by her legislative counterparts.
She viewed it as “a tale of two houses” because the senate and house were looking to pass very different legislation.
“The House of Delegates has new, inexperienced legislators who are young and have little experience in serving community offices or town government,” she said.
She pointed out that Rust, because of his prior local government experience, stands out from his colleagues and is highly respected and listened to when he comes before the senate to speak.
“The senate is controlled by moderates that have been there a long time,” she said. “There is an older republican leadership that is inclusive of democrats who share the vision for where we want Virginia to go.”
Because the house and senate bodies are so different based on experience and relationships, Howell said this year’s session reflected that.
“It’s a really different feeling and tone,” she said. “This session I think you’ll see a difference.”
One example she gave of this was the “Droopy Drawers Bill,” which was approved by the House of Delegates and quickly defeated at the senate committee level. Although Rust said the piece of legislation made worldwide news and was an "embarrassment," he said the delegate who proposed that bill was only trying to represent constituents in Norfolk and proposed multiple pieces of legislation geared toward improving the quality of life.
In addition, Howell said the House sent 25 pieces of legislation trying to restrict abortion — all of which were defeated in the committee level of the senate.
Photo-red cameras — set up to catch vehicles running red lights — would not continue to be funded and a constitutional redesign to allow prayer in public schools was defeated at the senate committee level, Howell said.
In the house, a proposal to ban cell phone use by teens while driving failed as did Howell’s bill that would have prohibited selling alcoholic beverages to people carrying visible guns.
Howell, who was extremely disappointed that her open-carry bill was denied, said the bill passed unanimously at the senate level and was shot-down within five minutes in the house in an 18-4 vote.
“There’s a clear difference in the perspective between the house and senate,” she said.
REGARDING TRANSPORTATION funding, Rust and Howell agreed the assembly should have done more this year to garner funding.
“Transportation was a huge discussion for all of us,” said Howell. “It’s going to become a major issue in most of the house [election] races.”
She added that good questions for constituents to ask delegate candidates running for office is what do they plan to do, or what are they prepared to do, about transportation?
As the only member of the audience to ask any questions, Bill Tirrell asked about transportation and financing.
“Is there activity in progress,” he said, “to look at the entire tax structure of the Commonwealth?”
Rust said although there are proposed sales tax increases over more areas to try and reduce other taxes, those proposals are still very controversial.
“I have a spoken commitment from the Speaker of the House that he’s going to look at it,” he said about a possible tax restructure. “There will be an attempt this year to come up with a comprehensive rewrite of the state tax code.”
In addition, Howell said the assembly has no choice but to seriously approach funding for transportation issues at its next session, despite new or returning delegates.
“Regardless of it being an election year this year,” she said, “there will be an importance put on transportation funding.”