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Cuccinelli Sets Agenda

Transportation, mental health among his concerns.

Beginning his fifth session in the General Assembly, state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) says one of his top priorities is to "get a good transportation bill out," and he has some definite ideas on how to do it.

"One of my bills, SB 782, would give the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority [NVTA] tolling authority so we could build and maintain roads in Northern Virginia via tolls — and keep 100 percent of the proceeds here," he said.

That way, said Cuccinelli, roads would be paid for by the people using them. Construction money would come from a private/public partnership, and the future toll money would provide a financing tool and incentive for the developers.

"It's the fastest, cheapest and most cost-effective way to add to our [road] transportation and public transportation network," he said. "Dulles Rail will probably cost $7 billion by the time it's done, but you could literally add between 300-700 miles of road in Northern Virginia for the same amount of money."

If they desired, localities and the NVTA could use their own money to accelerate road building, said Cuccinelli. "The Tri-County Connector is now Bi-County — Loudoun and Prince William — and, if they wanted to, they and the NVTA could make at least one lane of it a toll road," he said. "Or it could be a HOT [high-occupancy toll] lane, and/or it could change at various times of day — for example, when there's congestion — all to maximize the movement of traffic."

Using tolls as both a funding and an income mechanism, said Cuccinelli, "If our localities would pursue this aggressively, we could be putting in hundreds of millions of dollars a year — every year — into our local transportation system."

Part of his concern in the last session, he said, was that "there were a lot of people talking about a sales-tax increase — the same, old thing. At least now, we're also talking about the tie-in with land-use. And my bill would allow localities to turn down requests for denser zoning if the impact on the transportation system would be negative."

CUCCINELLI ALSO has a bill to protect police officers and maintain their internal rights in procedural investigations. "Currently, if there's a complaint against a police officer, they can be asked about it with no notice," he said. "So then, the officer is working off his memory."

Noting that some complaints can have a significant impact on an officer's career, Cuccinelli said police officers want to get rid of "bad cops," too. So with his bill, an officer could go before the Civil Service Review Board, like Fairfax County has.

"Or [he or she] could go before a board of officers whose recommendation would go to the chief," said Cuccinelli. "If the chief decides to impose a more severe punishment than the board suggested, than the police officer could take his case to the Civil Service Review Board — but only in those circumstances."

HE'S ALSO PROPOSING a number of mental-health bills dealing with people who are in the process for involuntary mental-commitment hearings. One of these bills would allow the specially appointed justices in Virginia Beach and Fairfax to hear juvenile, temporary, detention-order cases.

"For the last 14 months, the chief justice has instructed Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judges to hear these cases," said Cuccinelli. "Prior to then — and for years — the special justices in Fairfax and Virginia Beach heard these cases. They were the only kind of cases they judged and they have vast experience in it."

Another of his bills would allow third-year law students to prepare the petitions in these cases. "By this time, you have families at their wits' end," he said. "And having these students do it — and for free — would dramatically improve the presentation in 98 percent of the cases. Right now, the petitioners have no legal representation and prepare the petitions themselves."

Cuccinelli is also seeking some changes in the legal standard required to get someone involuntarily committed — while, at the same time, trying to add alternatives to simple, in-patient, involuntary, mental-health treatment. These alternatives would free up beds from use by inpatients because they'd be treated on an outpatient basis and, said Cuccinelli, "It's a lot less expensive."

AN ATTORNEY himself, he said that, currently, to involuntarily commit someone, he has to prove in court that a person is mentally ill and "either that he's an immediate danger to himself or others, or is immediately unable to care for himself. I'm trying to loosen up the 'immediate' requirement."

That's because, if that person gets into trouble over the weekend, for example, by the time a judge hears the case, the person may be medicated and acting normal. Then, said Cuccinelli, "He could walk away and not take his medications and the problem continues."

Actually, said Cuccinelli, "I've been working in the mental-health area since before I got elected, as a court-appointed lawyer for these defendants since 1999. And [in the General Assembly] I expect to work with Sen. Henry Marsh, a Democrat from Richmond, on this."

Still, he realizes that transportation will be this legislative session's big-ticket item for the Northern Virginia delegation. But whether the members will succeed is another matter.

"There's a recognition in the rest of the state that it's important to address and acknowledge it," said Cuccinelli. "But the crisis mentality doesn't exist in the south and southwest, so it will be challenging. I think we'll get some measures out, but the question is, 'What will they be and how effective?'"