General Assembly Update (Feb 16, 2012)
We have now hit the mid-point of the General Assembly session. Known as “crossover,” this is a date by which each body needs to pass its legislation over to the other body for consideration. What that means is long sessions in which hundreds of bills are considered in a single day.
As has been the case throughout the session, the debate has been fierce and the conservative agenda of the House Republican caucus has largely prevailed. The House has passed the so-called “personhood” bill, which defines life as beginning at conception, extending rights to “unborn children.” Even if this measure is found to be constitutional, the potential exists for all kinds of unintended consequences. The word “person” is used more than 10,000 times in the Virginia Code, and many thoughtful observers are concerned about the implications of this legislation for everything from Medicaid eligibility for unborn children to inheritance law.
The House rejected an amendment to ensure that the measure would not compromise a woman’s ability to use lawful contraception, a fact that raises serious questions about how far the proponents wish to take their efforts to deny families the ability to plan when they wish to have children.
The House also passed a bill that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before they can have an abortion. The “ultrasound” bill is yet another example of how some legislators have decided to increase the government intrusion into the private lives of Virginia families by requiring doctors to perform an invasive procedure which is not medically necessary and, in some cases, could actually involve the penetration of a woman’s body without her explicit consent. During debate, one Republican member suggested that the termination of a pregnancy was a “matter of lifestyle convenience,” a comment for which he later apologized.
I voted against both the “personhood” bill and the “ultrasound” bill.
The House passed two bills designed to reform the Virginia Retirement System. The first makes some minor changes to the benefits for employees hired beginning January 1, 2013 in an effort to shore-up the financial viability of the system. The second involves the creation of an optional defined contribution plan by which individuals could opt out of the defined benefit plan in exchange for participating in a new arrangement. I remain concerned about the financial implications of such an approach, but am also aware that there is a bill coming from the Senate that takes a slightly different approach. My focus in this debate is to ensure the fiscal viability of the plan for employees to whom we have made promises, and to retain the choice for those who wish to remain in the defined benefit plan. I hope that we will have several bills that allow us to meet these two goals.
The House passed a bill to extend the death penalty to another category of persons, that is, those who are involved in capital murder, but did not actually commit the killing. I voted against this, as I have done in the past.
The House passed a series of bills providing tax credits to a wide variety of groups, primarily larger companies, despite a recent JLARC report that indicates that some of the credits no longer serve their original purpose. I argued for the elimination of the coal tax credit, a measure that costs the taxpayers $31 million a year and which does little to create jobs in the coal industry. Instead, the General Assembly decided to extend the credit for another two years. I was able to prevail in getting a commission appointed to study all of these credits in greater detail. Perhaps that commission will provide sufficient political cover for the legislature to make some very hard decisions to eliminate some of these credits, which, after passed, provide a continuing drain on the State’s budget.
Now that crossover is done, we will focus on the budget and see whether we can protect and expand education funding for all levels.
On February 19th, the House and Senate will release their revisions to the Governor’s proposed budget. We will have two days to review the proposed revisions before we begin the process of debate on the House floor to offer amendments to reflect our priorities for education, jobs and healthcare.
On Thursday, February 23 beginning at 7:00 pm, I will conduct a live telephone town hall to discuss the budget. Joining me will be Michael Cassidy, President and CEO of The Commonwealth Institute, and we will discuss more closely how the budget affects our schools, VRS, transportation and the safety net. Sign up here with your name and telephone number to join the conversation on Thursday, February 23.
Thank you for this opportunity to serve you in Richmond. Your input is important to me and I invite you to share your thoughts and concerns with me on all matters before the Commonwealth. I look forward to hearing from you.