The General Assembly adjourned its Regular Session sine die late Saturday night. The members are back home briefly, then will return to Richmond on March 21 for a Special Session, which will be limited to electing new state judges and finally passing the biennial Budget Bill.
There has been a lot of ink spilled this session over high-profile social issues, such as the notorious "ultrasound" bill. There is no doubt that the Opening Day coup by the Senate Republicans – which put all levers of power in the hands of one party -- caused the legislature to have an "unbalanced" tilt this year. That was unfortunate.
However, there were areas of bipartisan agreement and progress. For me personally, it was my most productive session since I joined the Assembly in 2001.
I had six bills pass the Assembly which are now before the Governor. They included the following:
SB 160, "the Cost-Effective Public Buildings Act," which requires new state buildings to use energy efficiency standards, such as LEED, in order to conserve natural resources and save taxpayer money. This bill was supported by various environmental groups and matched a policy previously adopted by the McDonnell administration.
SB 164, which toughens penalties against persons who conspire with judgment debtors to fraudulently transfer assets so as to thwart lawful collections. This bill was supported by the Virginia Creditors Bar and Virginia Bankers Association.
SB 171, which allows Fairfax City and 64 other cities and towns to tailor their VRS pension benefits for first responders (police, firefighters, and EMS personnel) to better reflect the unique stresses of that service. This bill was requested by the City and its professional firefighters.
SB 627, the "Solar Freedom Bill," which allows homeowners to install solar panels on their residences in planned communities, as long as the installations conform to HOA regulations on placement and design. This bill was requested by the solar industry and the environmental community.
In addition, I sponsored SB 622, which made it a crime for responsible adults to fail to report egregious events of child sexual abuse. Previously, "mandatory reporters" only faced a $500 fine for failing to notify authorities when they had actual knowledge of overt sexual abuse. That is too weak. My bill was eventually "rolled into" SB 239, sponsored by Senator Stuart (R-Stafford), and passed the Assembly.
As we approach the special session, I am focused on two Budget items of particular interest to northern Virginia. The first is the restoration of the "cost of compete" supplemental funding for our public schools, which was withheld by the Governor’s original budget. That money ($64 million) allows our schools to compete in the D.C. area labor market, which is distinctly more expensive than downstate equivalents.
The second item is the revitalization of our Housing Trust Fund, a revolving loan fund designed to help Virginians achieve home ownership, with money from the national banks’ settlement on the foreclosure fraud cases.
Virginia is due for nearly $70 million this year from the settlement proceeds. Rather than see that money spent on ongoing state programs, it should be used as it was intended – to help "underwater" Virginia homeowners refinance their above-market mortgages through the Trust Fund.
By saving these homeowners thousands of dollars annually in unnecessary interest payments, Virginia can directly free up millions (if not billions) of discretionary spending, which can reinvigorate our entire state economy.
Hopefully, those solutions will be part of our final State Budget. If so, it will be worth the extra couple weeks of waiting.