When Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) heads to Richmond this week for the General Assembly's session, he is going down with a clear goal in mind. His top priorities will be to bring more transportation funding to Northern Virginia and to help localities manage growth.
"I will carry the message to the General Assembly," he said. "The failure to add transportation funding threatens the community and the quality of life that we enjoy in Northern Virginia."
Herring said the transportation issue in Northern Virginia has reached a "crisis point" and that he is determined to be a part of the solution. He believes that any revenue used for transportation needs to represent a significant, long-term, reliable source, but is staying open to ideas of what that source should be.
"Passage [of a package] is what's important," he said. "The most important thing is that we address the problem," he said.
The senator said he believes that the General Assembly can pass a comprehensive transportation package during this session, something it failed to do last year.
"I am going in with an open mind and will look for common ground," he said. "The lines should be clearly drawn."
While Herring will be working diligently on finding a common ground with his fellow legislators, he will also be focusing on more than 30 bills that he believes are important to bring before the assembly.
Transportation and Growth
In an attempt to bring Northern Virginia more money for roads and transportation, Herring is proposing a bill that would direct more statewide transportation funding to areas with the most traffic congestion.
"To me it makes the most sense," he said. "Much like education funding, the principle is to direct the money to where the congestion is the worst."
While Herring realizes that passage will be an uphill battle, he said the statewide bill would not require more money for transportation, just those localities that needed it would get a bigger piece of the pie.
"It would mean a more than 15 percent increase for Loudoun County, even if the money remains the same," he said.
Herring said he believes relieving traffic congestion in the county is not only about more money, but about finding alternatives for commuters. He will put forth a bill this session that will provide incentives for employers who encourage telecommuting, such as a tax credit. Herring said, however, that the tax credit would be modest, only enough for a company to purchase the equipment that would allow an employee to work from home.
The idea for the bill came from a bill that was introduced in the Atlanta area, which, Herring said, has many similarities to the greater-D.C. area.
"I am trying to find some common sense solutions," he said.
Herring is also putting forth a bill that would allow high-growth jurisdictions to levy impact fees on developers.
"If a locality is growing at 1 or 2 percent per year, it is not difficult for the local community to keep up," he said, "but when a locality grows at 6, 7, 8 percent per year, it is very difficult for localities to keep up and it creates an unfair tax burden on existing residents."
Herring's bill would allow for a credit to go to developers who offer proffers on a residential rezoning, so that the development community would not have to pay the locality twice.
Youth and Public Safety
Last year, both Herring and Del. David Poisson (D-32) were appointed independently to the Virginia Substance Abuse Services Council, which was created to bring agencies from around the state together to discuss important issues. Herring and Poisson were both concerned with the prevalence of underage drinking in the state and were shocked by statistics that said 90,000 youth have problems with drinking and that the average age a youth first uses alcohol is 13.
Herring said that while both the federal and local governments are focused on preventing underage drinking, there is no attention at the state level.
"That needs to change," he said.
This session, Herring will introduce a bill that will allocate approximately $2.4 million to be distributed to local community services boards, so they can develop local strategies to combat underage drinking. The bill will leave the types of strategy and implementation up to the local governments and, if a locality has already developed strategies, the money will go to the implementation of those programs.
"This coincides with what I hear my constituents telling me," he said. "It is in no way to take away the role of parents, but parents can't be everywhere all the time. This is that extra support."
Herring also hopes to close a couple of loopholes in the state law with two public safety bills he is putting forward. The first bills deals with driving under the influence (DUI) convictions. Under the current law it is possible that a person who has had their license suspended because of a DUI conviction who is caught driving can claim they did not receive notice of the suspension from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Herring's bill would give judges the authority to revoke a person's license on the spot for up to a year.
"This way there will be no time lag between the time a person is convicted and the time they are officially notified of the suspension," Herring said.
Another loophole that Herring hopes to close is with domestic violence cases. In juvenile and domestic court, a defendant has an automatic right to appeal their case. In deferred finding cases, however, where a defendant has acknowledge there is enough evidence to convict him, he accepts a probationary period, during which time he cannot commit the same crime again. If a defendant does, he or she will automatically be found guilty of the deferred offense.
Herring said it was becoming apparent that many defendants in domestic abuse cases were accepting the deferred finding, knowing that if they violated the probation and were found guilty, they would automatically get a chance to appeal.
"It was two bites at the apple," Herring said.
His bill would not allow people charged with domestic abuse to appeal if they choose to enter in to deferred finding, but would allow them to withdraw their deferred finding plea within 10 days of filing if they wanted to appeal.
"It would end the ability for some people to abuse the deferred finding process," Herring said.
Several of the bills Herring is bringing before the General Assembly this session, come directly from requests from people in the county or as a result of issues currently being faced by residents.
As a direct result of the battle between the Town of Leesburg and its own-of-town residents over water rates, Herring is proposing a bill that would allow for third party oversight when towns serve more than 1,000 out-of-town residents.
"I have been following the story all year," Herring said. "I felt I had done everything I could do at the local level."
Herring's bill would not involve setting rates or telling towns what the rates should be, he said, but would make sure that everyone's concerns could be heard. Under the bill the out-of-town residents would be able to petition for a third party overview. If the committee finds the rates to be unfair, the bill allows the county to convene a special three judge panel to set the rates.
"The state law seems to allow for the town to ignore concerns of customers outside of town," Herring said. "It seems to me to be unfair. This gives their political voice [the county] a seat at the table."
Another of Herring's bills will require that at least one member of the State Corporation Commission be present at all public hearings regarding proposals to increase tolls and where to locate transmission lines.
The bill came about because Herring was surprised to find that no members of the commission were present at the public hearing he attended about the location of transmission lines in the county.
"It undermines the confidence in the process when members of the decision-making body conducting the hearing do not show up to hear the public," he said.
Herring is also introducing a bill that would improve the timeline in which local governments have to take action on a bill. Herring wants to give the board, as well as the Planning Commission more time to look at land-use applications. He hopes to avoid forcing local governments to recertify their decisions time and time again, something the Board of Supervisors were required to do several times throughout 2006.
"This is coming at the request of the county," Herring said. "They've asked me to take a look at it."