Prepping for General Assembly

Prepping for General Assembly

Transportation funding, immigration and gay marriage are expected to be the most contentious issues in Richmond this year.

Arlington delegates and senators are set to introduce a bevy of bills today as the Virginia General Assembly legislative session kicks off, during which time lawmakers will have to make difficult decisions on transportation funding, immigrant rights and the legality of gay marriage.

During the 60-day session legislators will vote on more than 3,000 bills, and this year the General Assembly will craft the state’s two-year budget.

All six state legislators who represent Arlington- two senators and four delegates- are Democrats. The Senators are Mary Margaret Whipple (31) and Patricia Ticer (30), and the four delegates are Al Eisenberg (47), Bob Brink (48), Adam Ebbin (49) and David Englin (45).

The top priority of several of the legislators is to secure a permanent source of funding for Metro. The proposal gaining the most traction is a quarter-cent hike in the sales tax in order to raise an additional $50 million.

“It is absolutely crucial that we get a dedicated source in order to ensure continued reliability and efficiency in the system,” Brink said.

Metro is the only transit system in the country without dedicated funding, and U.S. Rep Tom Davis (R-11) has introduced legislation that would provide $1.5 billion if Virginia, Maryland and Washington can secure a consistent revenue stream.

Immigration figures to be one of the most contentious issues to come before the General Assembly this year. Republican lawmakers are thinking of introducing a number of measures that would restrict programs and services for undocumented workers.

One possible bill would forbid publicly funded day-labor work centers, like the Shirlington Employment and Education Center, unless they require proof of legal residency. Republicans may re-introduce legislation that would bar undocumented immigrants from attending state universities and colleges, or at least require them to pay out-of-state tuition.

“These bills are mean-spirited, unfortunate and unnecessary,” Eisenberg said. “This is part of a strain in the American psyche that feels the need to place unnecessary barriers in the way of people trying to come into this country.”

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY is expected to vote again on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage and civil unions. The measure passed both houses last year, but has to be approved again before it can go to a referendum.

Opponents of the ban, which include all of Arlington’s legislators, are working to alter the language to make it less restrictive.

“I’m hopeful that the General Assembly will look carefully at the language that was passed last session and not do an over-reaching amendment that will do more than its sponsors claim,” Ebbin said.

Lawmakers will address new ways to keep up with the expanding costs of Medicaid, including one proposal that would create medical savings accounts.

“We have to handle these rising costs and make sure we don’t jeopardize Medicaid recipients,” Brink said.

In particular interest to Arlington, legislators will be asked to codify the new affordable housing compromise crafted by county officials, developers and housing activists.

“Part of the agreement is that it would be codified because the developers want that extra comfort,” said Pat Carroll, the state legislative liaison for Arlington. “Because it’s a compromise and the business community supports it, we hope it won’t have any difficulty.”

Another priority for Arlington officials is to secure increased funds in Northern Virginia for additional psychiatric hospital beds. They hope to raise the daily rate for inpatient beds, so that hospitals have a greater incentive to take in more psychiatric patients.

Arlington’s County Board members are asking the General Assembly for a pay raise, because there is a cap on how much the five members can earn.

WHIPPLE IS planning to introduce several energy bills, including one that would require electric utility companies to phase in the use of renewal sources of energy.

She will put in a bill to increase the tax on gasoline from 2 to 4 percent to help pay for Metro costs, but may drop the measure if the sales tax increase passes.

Whipple also is crafting a number of housing bills, one of which would dedicate a portion of the recordation tax when a resident sells a home to a housing trust. Another would provide a tax break if the owner of an apartment building sells it to a non-profit or tenant cooperative, which will then dedicate some units at below-market rates.

Brink will attempt to direct the joint commission on health care to study the need for interpreters in area hospitals.

“There is a real problem in making sure that people whose first language is not English get accurate health care information,” he said. “Often a child has to be the interpreter and that is a terrible burden to place on young children.”

He is considering introducing a modified version of a homeowner tax relief constitutional amendment that would exempt 20 percent of a home’s value. In order to take effect, the amendment would have to be passed in 2007 and 2008.

Another bill of Brink’s would require official campaign literature to clearly identify who is releasing the information.

Ebbin’s priority this session is a bill that would mandate each state agency to designate an existing employee to review policy decisions affecting senior citizens and adults with disabilities.

“Studies have shown that we are not prepared for the huge growth in the senior population,” he said. “There are special needs for seniors in everything from transportation to employment.”

He would like to create a task force to prevent human trafficking and increase the penalties for such crimes. Another bill of Ebbin’s would obligate school districts to inform parents that their children’s contact information is available to military recruiters unless they opt out of the program.

Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47) will be the co-chief patron on a bill that would raise Virginia’s minimum wage. It has remained unchanged, at $5.15 an hour, since 1997. Eisenberg’s bill would increase the minimum wage by $1 each of the next three years.

Eisenberg is expected to propose a measure that would ensure law enforcement agencies taped the interrogation of minors.

“This protects officers against claims of abuse and reduces the risk of an innocent person being convicted,” he said.

He will also be the main co-patron of a bill that would make the state phase in a fleet of hybrid vehicles.