General Assembly Heats Up

General Assembly Heats Up

Arlington representatives balance success, failure in Richmond

As he slipped in his last few bills at the last minute, Del. Bob Brink said that so far, this General Assembly session has been about one thing: holding the line.

Brink’s bills have a single focus, he said: protecting quality of life in Northern Virginia while the state makes major budget cuts. “The concentration, as we expected, has been largely on the budget crisis that we’re facing and what we’re going to do to meet that while maintaining essential services,” he said.

Arlington’s Assembly delegation arrived in Richmond on Jan. 8, for the start of this year’s six-week Assembly session, predicting that the state’s $1.5 billion budget shortfall would prove the most important and most divisive issue – one that would threaten programs Arlingtonians depend on.

Now, a third of the way through the session, with all bills filed, lawmakers say their predictions have come true. “We still haven’t been able to do a lot with the budget,” said Del. Karen Darner (D-49). The problem, she said, is that although the budget looms as the largest priority, many lawmakers are more concerned with reelection.

PRIOR TO the start of the session, James Almand (D-47) had higher hopes for increasing state funds. “I think there will be a substantial effort to look for other revenue sources,” he said. Increases in cigarette and gasoline taxes looked like two obvious targets, but now lawmakers say Arlingtonians shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31) is sponsoring a bill to raise the cigarette tax by 60 cents statewide, which would raise Virginia’s rate, currently the lowest in the country, to the national average. After two weeks in Richmond, Whipple had a prediction: “I would say that the mood is against it.”

Brink agreed. “Frankly I don’t hold out much hope for a number of bills that would raise the cigarette tax,” he said.

Some bills from Arlington lawmakers have already been defeated. Darner sponsored a bill that would have added additional factors other than Standards of Learning test scores to accreditation standards for public schools. “This is one of those things where I’ll come back in 2008 and tell them ‘I told you so,’” she said

Whipple also suffered defeat, with a measure that would have allowed the DMV to delay car registration for drivers with multiple unpaid parking tickets. The problem with the bill, according to those voting against it, was that it failed to allow for the tickets being accrued by someone other than the owner of the car, such as a teenage child. “I said, ‘I’d have a pretty serious talk with that kid.’ I didn’t seem to get anywhere,” Whipple said.

TIME IS MONEY, and with budget problems, the state needs to improve efficiency, especially if lawmakers are unwilling to increase taxes.

“There are a couple of things that can be done [to solve budget problems],” said Brink. “You can impose cuts in various kinds of programs. Another thing you can do… is to look at how you can save money by making the government run more efficiently,” he said.

If Assembly members can’t find ways to do those two things, they’re left with a scary prospect, Brink said. Without increased revenue or efficiency, they will have to cut services like aid to nursing homes, parents of retarded children and schools, he said.

Keeping that from happening will be his focus over the next four weeks. “There’s a lot to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s a real challenge.”

Protecting services that affect quality of life is the only issue this year that comes close to the importance of the Regional Sales Tax Referendum for the Northern Virginia Delegation, said Brink.

The delegation, composed of Assembly representatives from throughout Northern Virginia, has met twice in Richmond to discuss strategy. Environmental quality, primary education and George Mason University are of vital importance to quality of life here, Brink said, and the delegation will have to fight to keep funding as the Assembly struggles to make fiscal changes.

A DIVIDED DELEGATION from Northern Virginia could affect a major Assembly decision in the next several weeks. Darner is sponsoring a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to attend state colleges and universities and qualify for in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria.

The topic has been a source of contention in Arlington, and will prove to be a divisive issue when it comes before the Assembly this week. Darner can count on support from some in the Northern Virginia Delegation, but Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39) is bringing a counter-bill to the Assembly.

Debate on the two bills should take place during the next two weeks, as the Assembly speeds up to work through hundreds of pieces of proposed legislation.

Darner postponed consideration of several bills last week to attend services for Charles Monroe, but is back in the swing of Richmond. “Next week we’re going to really be moving along,” she said.

Darner is skeptical of the House’s ability to work through all the legislation. The problem, she said, is that many delegates up for reelection bogged down the Assembly with fluff legislation that would help their campaigns but provide no substantive help for Virginia.

On the Senate side, Whipple expects more timely conclusion. She expects all of her bills to be heard. Some will pass without controversy, while others, like the cigarette tax increase, have an uphill battle.

“That’s always the case,” she said. “You have to be prepared for mixed results.”