A sneak preview of the upcoming 2006 Virginia General Assembly session placed prime emphasis on two items --transportation and budget with a sprinkling of other hot issues expected to come up.
Five state legislators briefed members of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce at its annual Legislative Leaders Luncheon Tuesday at Primo's Restaurant in the Belle Haven Shopping Center. Other potential initiatives were discussed, but everyone agreed on the two top priorities facing them beginning Jan. 11 in Richmond when the General Assembly session begins.
"I'm packing spring clothing because I don't think we'll be out of there by March," said Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44). "The Senate Finance Committee is very unique and they determine which bills will be considered and not considered. Sen. Chichester has very great sway over transportation funding. If he's in favor of a bill it moves, otherwise it dies," Sen. John Chichester (R-28) is chairman of the Finance Committee.
The other state representatives who addressed the chamber included Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39), Sen. Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer (D-30), Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-43), and Del.-elect David Englin (D-45).
Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller was unable to attend due to broken bone in her arm.
"This is going to be a very interesting session. We will be putting together a new two-year budget and the big question is whether a dedicated funding stream for transportation will be approved. Whatever Sen. Chichester decides will prevail in the Senate," O'Brien said.
"It is very difficult to meet, introduce all this legislation and vote in just two months," O'Brien said.
Sickles brought a copy of outgoing Gov. Mark Warner's (D) budget with him to show those present the extent of the revenue and expenditure items the legislature will be dealing with in the weeks ahead.
"This budget is built on one-time fixes because things are so volatile and changing so rapidly," he said.
According to Sickles, the budget, provides for $480 million to get the state to the maximum set-aside for its contingency fund and $20 million in transportation spending.
"For the past three years we have been taking funds for maintenance of highways and not construction. This needs to be fixed," Sickles said.
Under transportation, he also cited the pending increase in personnel at Fort Belvoir.
"We are not even sure what the ultimate number will be. They keep changing and in some cases the numbers are secret. The geospacial operation says they don't know how many they employ," he said. "We need Fort Belvoir to respond to our transportation needs in this area."
Immigration was the issue Ticer focused on.
"I'm worried about this issue. I think a lot of legislation is going to come down that will take away the rights of immigrants," she said. "This is not going to be a pleasant discussion."
Ticer chastised state legislators who have jumped into the illegal immigration issue in Herndon. She said it is a local government issue and the legislature should stay out of it. "People who have served in local government know how to handle their problems. Most legislators have no local experience," said Ticer, a former Alexandria mayor.
Ticer, who has 17 bills for consideration, specifically cited proposed legislation on clean smoke stacks, but was quick to point out that it was not aimed at the Old Town Alexandria Mirant Potomac River Generating Station controversy.
"This addresses an overall environmental question. Mirant is on a separate track," Ticer said.
On the subject of environment, Amundson also made reference to a $250 million proposed expenditure to clean the Chesapeake Bay and watersheds.
"This is one issue on which there is no partisan split. Everyone wants to protect the bay," she said.
Amundson will also be shepherding a bill to have the state issue "Gold Star" license plates to immediate family members that have had a military service relative killed in combat. The idea for the proposal came from Greg Commons, a teacher at Sandburg Middle School, who's son Matthew was one of the first U.S. Army soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
"A few states already have created these type license plates and the language in my bill is fashioned after that language. It has passed muster in those states," she said. Puller has a similar bill for the Senate, according to Amundson.
Sickles pointed out that mental health and higher education were priorities.
"The mental health performance in Virginia has been pathetic. Now, we are finally moving to correct this," he said. "In higher education we are not meeting the base adequacy. Our tuition is the 14th highest in the nation and we are not meeting basics."
Car taxes were another issue Sickles brought up.
"We should try to get it above the 70 percent cap. But, right now we need to get more money into the fund to keep it at 70 percent for 2008," he said.
Originally, former Republican Gov. James Gilmore had proposed eradicating the tax on a step down basis. The General Assembly froze the tax phase out at 70 percent for budgetary reasons. Presently, vehicle owners pay 30 percent of the first $20,000 on the Kelley Blue Book value of the vehicle.
Englin, who will begin his legislative career next week, replacing retired Del. Marian Van Landingham (D), said prescription drug coverage for small businesses, financial aid for public employees to help them afford housing in high priced areas, and ending hunger were three areas he was concerned with.
"I'm very concerned about hunger in the Commonwealth and I plan to introduce a bill to study hunger," Englin said. "We need to have actual statistics not just speculation."
Englin's legislative initiative on affordable housing would be directed at providing a tax deduction for rent payments similar to mortgage interest deductions.
"Many public employees rent homes in the areas where they work because they can not afford to buy. They get no tax deduction for this," he said.
The chamber circulated their 2006 State Legislative Agenda. It concentrated on three prime areas, transportation, taxes and Virginia small business help.
The organization's top transportation projects include replacing Woodlawn Road, widening Richmond Highway to prepared for personnel increases at Fort Belvoir, widening Telegraph Road with improvements at the Kings Highway intersection, completion of the Fairfax County Parkway link; and bringing Metro service to Fort Belvoir.
The chamber opposes an increase in the current 17-cent a gallon gasoline tax.
The members are also seeking tax conformity, by tying the Virginia Estate Tax to the federal rates with its eventual elimination. They would also like the Business, Professional and Occupational Licensing Tax to be phased out.
In the area of small business legislative aids, the chamber cites health care costs, as their number one concern. The chamber also favors stronger safeguards for homeowners and businesses against unreasonable eminent domain proceedings, opposition to "patchwork" minimum wage requirements, and premises liability which would protect business owners from liability for acts committed on their property by third parties unaffiliated with the business.