Short Session Begins in Richmond

Short Session Begins in Richmond

Lawmakers face 3,000 bills in 45 days.

The short session of the state’s General Assembly in Richmond promises to be a heated one with Arlington representatives bringing some controversial arguments to the floor surrounding education, gun control, transportation and the environment.

The county released its legislative agenda at the close of 2004 after weeks of ironing out the details with its staff and local lawmakers. It includes a proposed moratorium on the state’s death penalty and a support for a move lifting the ban on same-sex marriage. Yet taxes and transportation top the list of county priorities. Feeling the financial pinch of the funding crisis that has plagued other communities with Metro lines, lawmakers are pushing to double the Northern Virginia Gas Sales tax from 2 percent to 4.

“Metro is the number one priority,” said Jay Fisette (D), Arlington’s newly elected County Board chairman.

Gov. Mark Warner (D) is planning to allocate more money for transit in the state’s budget. The key, Fisette said, is ensuring that translates into Metro money.

“Metro is something that really distinguishes Arlington from much of Virginia,” he added. “And the tax, it’s a user fee. If people are going to be on the roads and not public transportation, they’ll have to pay a little extra to do that. But for people who use Metro and who are not adding to congestion on the roads, it won’t effect them at all.”

The tax increase is endorsed by the state’s department of transportation.

The county is also seeking to erase the sunset clause on a local five percent occupancy tax for hotels, a vital means of generating revenue. That tax generated, according to county statistics, an estimated $765,000 last year alone but it expires in January 2005 unless it is renewed in the House. That money is used to support tourism but county officials expect some resistance from the hotel industry.

ARLINGTON’S STANCE ON EDUCATION is sure to turn heads in Richmond this month. Local lawmakers are rallying to support a proposal that will offer in-state tuition to students from foreign countries who are still awaiting their citizenship or asylum status from the government. In the last 2004 session, a bill denying that tuition passed. The push to counteract that law was spurred by one Guatemalan student, Brian Marroquin, who was delayed from entering a state-funded college because his document had yet to be processed.

“This kid has got a driver’s license, a social security card, a card that lets him into the office for his internship at the Department of Energy, give me a break,” said Del. Al Eisenberg.

Eisenberg will take several bills to the Assembly this month including a comprehensive ban on assault weapons including sniper rifles with a range of more than one mile that many law enforcement and homeland security agencies have called a potential terrorist weapon. Eisenberg pointed out what he sees as an inherent contradiction to the state’s gun control policies.

“It is easier for a teenager to buy an assault weapon in Virginia than it is for that same teenager to buy a revolver,” he said.

His agenda also features a bill involving another aspect of crime, high speed chases. After the deaths of three Washington-Lee High School students in 2002 after they reportedly fled from a police pursuit, Eisenberg’s bill would place guidelines for police officers throughout the state to follow when chasing a suspect. The bill only allows pursuit under specific circumstances, incidents that demonstrate a “clear and present danger,” Eisenberg said, like when a suspect has committed a violent felony or any crime involving a gun. It further demands that police undergo an accredited training course on pursuit techniques and that during a chase, officers must stay in constant radio contact with supervisors who can advise them on what to do. According to Eisenberg, 3,300 Americans died during high-speed pursuits between 1991 and 2001. Of those, 40 percent were bystanders who had no involvement in the chase. In Virginia, he added, 60 people have died in that same 10-year span during police pursuits with the same percentage of bystanders suffering fatal injuries.

The state’s justice system is the focus of much local legislative attention this session as Del. Adam Ebbin puts forth a budget proposal for more funding to public defender’s offices.

A proposed death penalty moratorium, according to Fisette, is aimed not at abolishing the practice but at revamping the way those cases are reviewed.

“There are proven imperfections in the application of the policy,” he said. “The moratorium is meant to give us time to really look at the death penalty in the Commonwealth and not to put it back into action until it be shown that the innocent aren’t going to be put to death.”

IN THE WAKE OF the Nov. presidential election and the long lines Arlingtonians faced at the polls, voting has become a priority for several Arlington lawmakers. Sen. Mary Margret Whipple said she plans to submit a bill giving anyone over the age of 65 the ability to cast an absentee ballot if they want one. Ebbin is proposing a bill that will allow Virginians to cast absentee ballots without having to provide a reason. Another bill will allow voters to cast ballots at satellite polling places.

Responding to a recent union dispute involving an employer who reportedly paid laborers with faulty checks, Ebbin is putting forth a bill that would increase the penalty for bouncing a paycheck in the Commonwealth.

Ebbin’s agenda also includes a measure to create a new fatality review panel to study the rate of deaths occurring as the result of elder abuse or neglect. By creating the panel, Ebbin hopes the state will gain a better understanding of how broad the problem is.

“By establishing teams to gather statistics, we’ll have the data to make recommendations to the state,” he said.

Talking taxes and county revenues once again, Ebbin plans to submit a bill that will let the county to charge a lower interest rate on deferred real estate taxes than the current rate set by the Internal Revenue Service.

He also proposes a measure to create a new advisory committee focused on expanding bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways.

A TRIP TO THE BATHROOM could get a little pricier if a bill that Eisenberg and Whipple plan to put forward, that Whipple calls a “user fee” on water usage, specifically toilet flushes. The money, amounting to $1 per week from each household, would be used to improve water treatment plants that release waste-water in to the Chesapeake Bay.

“The loss of the bay’s integrity and vitality is a greater cost than any tax could be when you take into account the costs of the resulting lost revenue in the fishing industry and the health problems caused by pollution,” said Eisenberg.

Polls conducted by both Republican and Democratic research teams in Sept. 2004 found that an estimated 63 percent of Virginia voters favor the measure, mostly in response to on-going concerns about pollution. Yet many in the county government, according to Fisette, oppose the flush fee “at least in its current form”.

Del. Bob Brink reports that he is sponsoring a bill that would require faxes in Virginia to be accompanied with contact information to reduce “spam faxes,” advertisements and scams sent over fax lines.

Brink is also reintroducing a bill that would establish offices of the inspector general in cabinet level agencies to offer more government oversight.

The county’s plan of attack in Richmond includes another much debated stance, opposition to laws banning same-sex marriage or limiting the ability of same-sex couples to enter into contractual agreements like wills and civil unions. In 2004, the General Assembly passed the Reaffirmation of Marriage Act, effectively banning same-sex marriage and anything else resembling same-sex marriage, like civil unions, from the Commonwealth. Arlington lawmakers expect more legislative proposals placing even greater limitations on same-sex couples.

“I think anyone who votes for it had better look over their shoulders and had better ask themselves if they’ve ever violated any of the norms or laws surrounding marriage,” said Eisenberg. “They need to ask themselves if they’ve ever committed adultery, abandoned or divorced a spouse. I’d be interested to know what their answers to that might be.”

Conservative politicians, according to Fisette, are pushing the issue this session simply to capitalize on public opinion.

“It’s overkill at this point,” he said. “It’s a political football at this point. It’s redundant to keep putting these bills on the floor of the General Assembly, each one more hateful than the next.” Four bills will reach the General Assembly in during the session aimed at placing more constraints at same-sex couples.

Yet the most vital debate in Richmond, Fisette added, is a fight for authority. Under the “Dillon Rule”, the state policy dictating that city and county governments can only exercise powers granted to them by the General Assembly, Arlington’s power is limited.

“In most states, local authorities can almost do whatever they want unless the state tells them they can’t,” he said. “In the Commonwealth, we don’t have that ability. Arlington and many other communities here are all galvanized to oppose challenges to what local authority there is.”