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Votes

Setting Priorities

Reston's state legislators prepare for 2006 General Assembly session.

Outing their legislative priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session, Reston's state representatives said they will introduce bills to improve Virginia's sex offender registry, protect citizens against identity theft and extend the clean-fuel vehicle exemption in HOV lanes.

But Del. Ken Plum (D-36) and Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) expect the 2006 General Assembly's biggest challenge will be to approve Gov. Mark Warner's (D) $72.2 billion budget for 2006-08.

"I'll be spending most hours of most days in committee meetings as we craft a budget," said Howell, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

Howell praised Warner's proposed budget, which would provide $518.9 million in additional spending for higher education, $625 million for transportation projects and $500 million for mental health services.

"I'm really pleased with the budget," Howell said. "The governor addressed what's been disgraceful in Virginia — and that's the treatment of the mentally retarded and the mentally ill. This budget is going to turn us into a modern care provider. We've been working toward this for almost 15 years."

Lawmakers also anticipate a possible battle over transportation funding during the session, which convenes on Jan. 11.

If the General Assembly fails to take steps toward solving Northern Virginia's gridlock woes, it's a good chance Gov. Elect Tim Kaine (D) will call a special legislative session to tackle transportation, the longtime Reston lawmakers said.

FOREMOST AMONG the legislation Plum plans to introduce this session is a bill that would extend the clean-fuel vehicle exemption for High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, such as on I-66 and I-95.

The exemption, which permits hybrid vehicles to travel in HOV lanes without any passengers, is set to expire on July 1. Plum's bill would extend the exemption for another two years.

"It's controversial because HOV lanes are filling up, but I suspect their filling up because of cheaters," Plum said. "What we ought to do is continue to promote clean vehicles."

Plum also plans to introduce a bill that would offer Virginians greater protection from identity theft, though he is still working on the details. One provision of the legislation that is finalized, however, would allow citizens to review their personal credit report without penalty.

Plum, who has served in the House of Delegates since 1982, will also push for nonpartisan redistricting of legislative boundaries.

In Virginia, the majority party draws political districts every 10 years, with the goal of creating as many safe seats as possible to preserve its power. Plum said he sees this as a flawed system because it ensures that most elections are not competitive.

"The non-competitiveness of some of these House races has really gotten people's attention," he said. Last year in Northern Virginia, only about five House races out of 22 were considered competitive.

Plum's bill would create an objective and independent commission to draw the districts.

Plum pointed out that he first called for nonpartisan redistricting in 1978, when Democrats were in the majority. "Look, I did this when Democrats were in power too," he said.

Plum also intends to once again address the issue of discrimination against gays and lesbians. For the sixth year in a row, Plum plans to introduce a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Though he is skeptical it will pass, Plum said he was encouraged that Warner's budget includes an executive order banning discrimination of state employees based on their sexual orientation.

"It's tough," he said. "But there are a lot of opinions changing out there."

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS in Northern Virginia have been struggling in recent years with complaints about too many individuals living in single family homes or apartments.

To address this issue, Howell plans to file a bill that would increase the fine for overcrowding to $2,000 for a first offense and $2,500 for a repeat violation. Though she will carry the bill at the request of Herndon officials, Howell said it could affect localities across the commonwealth.

Howell, who sits on the Virginia State Crime Commission's sex offender task force, also plans to introduce a bill that would increase the accuracy of the state's online sex offender registry.

The task force found last June that the registry — located at www.virginiatrooper.org — is riddled with inaccuracies. More than 700 out of the 13,000 total sex offenders were not living at the address listed in the registry, according to the report.

Howell's bill would also make the registry more "user friendly," allowing a Web user to map out any the location of any sex offenders living in a given neighborhood.

"Mostly, what people want is information," she said. "This is a good way for people to learn about sex offenders in their neighborhoods."

The issue of sex offenders arose in Reston six months ago, Howell said, when a registered sex offender moved into a neighborhood adjacent to Aldrin Elementary School.

The sex offender no longer lives in the area, but to address similar scenarios in the future, Howell plans to possibly introduce a bill that would ban convicted violent sex offenders from living within 1,000 yards of a school.

Similarly, Howell plans to file a bill that would require clergy to notify police or child protective services in cases of suspected child sex abuse. The bill was first introduced last year, but it died in the House after passing the Senate. Howell is hopeful it has a better shot in the upcoming session.

"It is, to me, inexplicable why we can't get this bill passed," she said. "Eighty-five percent of people in Virginia support this, according to our polling."

MARY BUFF, president of the Republican Club of Greater Reston, said she hopes Plum and Howell make an effort to bring more transportation funding home to Fairfax County.

"I'd like to see them devote more energy to bringing transportation dollars home," she said. "We have an awful lot of the state population, but we don't get nearly enough of the funding from Richmond."

Buff also said she hopes the General Assembly does not increase taxes, as it did during approval of the last budget in 2004.