Virginia Senate Republican Caucus

The Obenshain Report - March 25, 2010

ajohnston's picture
Wed, 2010-03-24 20:00 -- ajohnston
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Health Care, My Bills, and
a Blueprint for Reform

Although I write primarily to recap some of my own legislation from the recently concluded 2010 session of the Virginia General Assembly and offer a blueprint for reform going forward, the big news of the week is, of course, the passage of the health care bill, and while I do not intend to dwell on that issue here, I would be remiss if I neglected it altogether. Democrats are jubilant, but the American people have good cause for alarm at the government takeover of this significant sector of the economy.

No one contends that our current health care reform is unnecessary, but government takeover is not reform. Moreover, it is imprudent, at best, to add an enormous entitlement program at a time when massive debt is required to fund the ones we already have. To help make the program "balance," the health care bill places an enormous new burden on the states starting in a few years. And you thought this year's budget process was painful...

Here in Virginia, Tom Perriello, Gerry Connolly, Bobby Scott, and Jim Moran voted for ObamaCare, and I'm sure the voters of Virginia, the majority of whom adamantly opposed this bill, will hold them to account at the polls on Election Day.

After that digression, let's get back to the subject of this email. Although I updated you on portions of my legislative package throughout session, I would like to quickly recap my bills.

Legislative Successes

I am pleased to report that eleven of my bills are on the Governor's desk, and while a number of others were bottled up in the Democrat-controlled Senate, I look forward to reintroducing many of them at a later date. First, some legislative successes from this past session.

Public Education

Although cuts to public education were minimized in the final budget, they remain very real, so mitigating the impact of any such cuts was among my top priorities this session. I patroned several bills designed to ease the burden on school systems by relaxing unnecessary mandates and providing school divisions with greater flexibility in spending the state funding they do receive.

Two of my bills, Senate Bills 352 and 354, delayed the adoption of new accreditation standards and allow school divisions to administer locally-selected Limited English Proficiency (LEP) assessment tests, respectively. The former gives schools an additional year's reprieve from the expense of adopting new standards at a time when funds are scarce, and the latter allows schools to choose from a variety of available, qualifying LEP tests (or to develop their own), which may be better suited to a particular locality and is often much more cost-effective. Both bills passed unanimously and will be signed into law by Governor McDonnell.

I also introduced a budget amendment to convert lottery funds into an education block grant. Currently, lottery funds are used for a panoply of education-related programs, some legitimate, others some legislator's pet project. Converting the funding into block grants would allow local school divisions to put the money toward their own top priorities. Unfortunately, this amendment didn't make the final budget, but the conferees did choose to pare down the list of programs, putting the money toward some more urgent needs.

Taxes and Local Government Issues

At the request of Rockingham County, I carried SB 355, a bill that clarifies rental property taxation issues, eliminating potential double taxation by some localities and allowing counties like Rockingham to exempt businesses with small-scale rental operations (for instance, a grocer that rents a few DVDs).

I also patroned SB 137, a bill that provides commissioners of revenue with access to voter rolls for use as one tool among many in determining residency for tax purposes. Active voter registration status alone is not sufficient grounds to declare an individual to have taken up residence in a given locality, but it certainly ought to be considered a factor in that determination.

Also on the local government front, I introduced SB 632, a technical bill that modifies the window of time in which developers owe proffers to a locality. Although not, perhaps, a very exciting bill, it is designed to help encourage economic growth and development. All three bills passed both chambers with overwhelming support and await action by the Governor.

Melendez Bills

Last year, the Supreme Court, in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, ruled that the right to confront one's accuser means that a defendant must be able to question a lab tech who analyzes blood work, conducts drug testing, or the like. In the past, what is known as a "certificate of analysis" had been sufficient.

The General Assembly convened in special session last year to address issues created by the Supreme Court's ruling, creating a framework by which certificates of analysis remain adequate provided that the defendant waives the right to cross-examine the technician or analyst, and providing for the use of video conferencing to allow techs to testify remotely in many cases.

This session, I worked closely with the Attorney General's office in carrying three bills – Senate Bills 385, 386, and 387 – that tied up a few loose ends from the special session.

Courts Bills

This session, I carried several bills that were recommendations of the Boyd-Graves Conference, a nonpartisan panel of litigators from across Virginia whose purpose is to improve Virginia's civil litigation process. I am a member of the Conference and have carried many of its bills over the past seven years. Senate Bills 382, 383, and 384 emerged from the Boyd-Graves conference; any attorneys reading this (and those in need of a sleep aid) may wish to review these bills, all of which passed.

Blueprint for Reform

Although a number of other bills met their demise in the Democrat-controlled Senate, I believe a number of them to be an important part of any reform agenda. Allow me to highlight five proposals I consider key to any comprehensive blueprint for reform:

Reforming State Procurement Practices

Current Policy: Virginia's Small, Woman-, and Minority-Owned (SWaM) Businesses set-aside program is one of the most aggressive in the nation, with a 40% procurement target and many requests for proposals (RFPs) sent exclusively to SWaM-qualified vendors, an anti-competitive measure that curtails competition and imposes higher procurement costs that spread our tax dollars thin.

My Proposal: Open bidding to all vendors, creating transparency on what contracting with SWaM vendors may cost above the qualified low bid, while continuing to allow agencies to enter into SWaM-preferred contracts at their discretion provided total project costs are not inflated by more than 3% above low qualifying bids (SB 691). This would, in essence, cap the price that we are willing to pay for these preferences – right now, we have preferences, but we have no idea how much they are costing Virginia's taxpayers.

Divesting the ABC Stores

Current Policy: The state maintains a retail and wholesale liquor monopoly, a holdover from the early days after Prohibition which restricts competition and consumer choice.

My Proposal: Divest or privatize the Commonwealth's distilled spirits monopoly by auctioning off package store licenses authorizing the retail sale of alcohol beverages. The auctions would be allocated on the basis of population and the price of the licenses would be adjusted every five years. The new revenue could, as Governor McDonnell has proposed, be dedicated to transportation improvements (SB 443).

Protecting Private Property

Current Policy: Although Virginia enacted strong statutory protections in 2007 in response to the Kelo case, there have been continued efforts to chip away at or circumvent these provisions.

My Proposal: Enshrining eminent domain reform in the Constitution of Virginia by means of an amendment narrowly defining the term "public uses" and establishing that property may not be taken if the primary purpose of the taking is private financial gain or benefit, an increase in tax revenues, or an increase in employment, and that no more property shall be taken than is necessary to achieve the stated public use (SJ 27).

Funding Transportation ResponsiblyCurrent Policy: Presently, 0.5% of the 5% sales tax goes to the Transportation Trust Fund; another 1.25% goes to local education funding, 1% is returned to localities, and 2.25% is deposited into the General Fund.

My Proposal: Once the state posts 3% revenue growth and this growth is adequate to cover the cost of the transfer in any given fiscal year, the share of the sales tax dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund for non-food purchases would permanently double (to 1%), the difference coming from the General Fund, which is reduced to a 1.75% share (SB 132)

Securing the Vote

Current Policy: Any person identifying themselves by affirmation may cast an untraceable ballot, a policy open to voter fraud

My Proposal: Require all voters to show some form of ID (which can include a utility bill, government check, etc.) or cast a provisional ballot, a sensible, non-intrusive step to combat voter fraud that has been consistently upheld by the courts (SB 134)

I think these are common-sense proposals that Virginians of all political stripes should be able to get behind, and I will continue to advocate for them in Richmond.

I would like to hear your ideas for reform as well, so please email me at mark@markobenshain.com with your ideas and suggestions.

Mark Obenshain
Virginia State Senator