Healthcare, education and immigration were all discussed, but once again the overriding issue at a Reston meeting was transportation.
The Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce hosted local representatives in the General Assembly, and they gave their views on the issues that will arise in the upcoming 2007 legislative session.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) said she was disappointed that last year's legislative session, which was prolonged by six months, did not yield any results in terms of transportation. "The bipartisan position of the Senate is that we have a crisis," said Howell. "We need a sustainable revenue stream for transportation of at least one billion dollars a year." Howell said senators from both parties agreed it was appropriate to raise taxes and fees to fund transportation. She added that 35 of the 40 senators are in agreement that transportation money must be provided, and that transportation should not be funded from the general fund — which provides money for services such as education and healthcare. "If transportation is funded from the general fund, money won't be there for education," said Howell.
Del. Ken Plum's (D-36) legislative aide Barbara Shearer represented him at the Chamber breakfast; Plum is on a study tour on renewable energy sources in Germany.
"It was discouraging that we went through a lot and accomplished very little," in terms of transportation during the last session of the General Assembly, said Shearer.
State Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) said he is less concerned with revenue sources than he is with making progress on transportation. He said he would do everything he could to help legislators come up with a transportation package that could serve Northern Virginia and the Commonwealth. Herring also said he was in favor of raising some taxes and fees to generate more revenue. "We need a significant new investment to maintain the quality of life," said Herring.
The chamber's chairman-elect, Mark Looney, said a solution for transportation would have to come from multiple angles. For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation would have to reform the way it operates and plans for roads. He added that more opportunities are needed for public-private partnerships to build and improve roads and new sustainable revenue sources are also needed.
LEGISLATORS DISCUSSED other bills they would introduce in the 2007 General Assembly session.
Howell, the recipient of the 2006 Child Health Advocate Award, said the legislation she would introduce is mostly health and child-oriented. She said she would consider introducing a bill that would require girls between 10 and 12 years old to be vaccinated against a virus that causes 70 percent of cervical cancers, in order to attend school. Howell added that the vaccine is 100 percent effective against the virus, and that it could be a cheap solution to an expensive illness.
Howell said that 10 years of personal work might soon come to fruition in terms of mental health legislation. The Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr., formed the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform in October. One of the commission's goals is to study ways to help young people with mental health problems before their problems spiral out of control. "There is a lack of [mental health] services for people, and I made a promise I would work on this," said Howell. "I think [the forming of the commission] is the most encouraging thing I've seen since I've been [in the Senate]."
The Town of Herndon asked Howell to introduce a bill that would make it a statewide criminal offense to employ an undocumented person. She said she is skeptical about introducing such a bill, but that she has never turned down a town that has asked for a bill to be introduced. Bob Van Hoecke of the Regulatory Economics Group, a consulting firm with offices in Reston, said employers do not have a central database to look at, which would allow them to determine who is documented and who is not. "The employer [therefore] has to be an expert on documentation," said Van Hoecke.
Matt Brennan of Brennan and Waite PLC asked who would pay for this legislation, and how? "This is an expensive process. What's the goal of this," said Brennan.
Howell said most of the members of the General Assembly believe the documentation issue should be debated on the federal level. Another issue Howell discussed briefly was that of voting machines. Once again, she said she hoped the federal government would step in and regulate the issue. "It is unclear if [the machines] are doing what they're supposed to do, but it's very clear the people don't trust them," said Howell.
WHILE HOWELL'S legislation will largely focus on healthcare, Shearer said Plum would introduce educational and technological bills among others. "Energy is going to be one of the most serious problems we will face," said Shearer.
According to Shearer, another of Plum's main concerns is the Start Strong initiative. The initiative is seeking ways to publicly fund preschool. In January of 2006 Gov. Tim Kaine established the Start Strong Council; Plum is on the council.
Howell said there are documented advantages of preschool, but that some members of the House of Delegates believe the initiative to be publicly funded baby-sitting. Kerrie Wilson, CEO of Reston Interfaith, commented that the initiative is a head start for children, not baby-sitting.
Shearer said Plum is also working on legislation that would better protect people from identity theft. However, she said, the issue needs further study as it is a relatively new problem.