According to the calendar, today is the last day of session. And it would be, too, if we had a budget. With the clock ticking down to zero, however, it looks like we're going into overtime.
We will take up a few bills in conference today, but the budget towers over every other consideration, and if we don't finish today, we will be back soon to get the job done. For now, I would like to use this last day of session to talk about what's in store for transportation this year, and to share some great news out of session from Thursday.
Victory on Clinic Safety
Thursday an unexpected victory when the Senate narrowly approved higher health and safety standards for abortion clinics. And I do mean close: in his capacity as President of the Senate, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling had to break the 20-20 tie on the House amendments to SB 924, which established the new standards.
The debate yielded more heat than light, I'm afraid, with some Democrats telling horror stories of a return to back-alley abortions and one Senator repeatedly insisting that subjecting abortion clinics to similar standards to those applied to other outpatient surgical clinics somehow will violate women's constitutional rights.
Of course none of this is true. In debate, I explained that the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (our circuit) have both held that there is a legitimate state interest in ensuring that abortion services - when they are provided - are offered in a safe setting and that legislation nearly identical to that which we passed is clearly constitutional.
Of course, everyone wants to know if this is a pro-life bill, and my answer is that it is - it's about the life of the mother.
I'm pro-life, and unabashedly so, but frankly, this bill isn't about abortion, at least not fundamentally. It's not about Roe v. Wade, or which abortion procedures are available at which stage of a pregnancy, or who pays for them, or anything like that. All this says is that clinics providing abortion services must be safe, that they should be required to comply with the same regulations imposed on most other outpatient surgical centers.
This amendment shouldn't divide us along party lines, or even along the lines of the abortion debate. Unfortunately, over the years, some abortion proponents have adopted the position that no change affecting abortion, regardless of what it does, should be considered. In this case, that rule of thumb is getting in the way of best medical practices. Whereas standards have improved for other outpatient procedures, old regulations remain in place for abortions - regulations that do not adequately safeguard the life and health of the mother.
Do I want to make abortions rarer? Absolutely! Was this bill about that? No. It's about making sure that common-sense health standards are in place for the mother's benefit - and not politically correct double standards that endanger health and safety.
The Transportation Agenda
Last year, the Secretary of Transportation oversaw an audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) which revealed a shocking $1.4 billion in unspent funds - some of it in federal matching funds for which we had not applied and some of it simply sitting, unused, in dormant accounts. This while vital transportation projects were grinding to a halt! As one of those calling for an audit, I was not surprised to find waste and mismanagement, but the $1.4 billion figure surprised even me.
This year, Governor McDonnell resolved to address the issue head-on through an ambitious transportation proposal and the creation of an innovative new Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
Although we currently suffer from a weak economy that has cut deeply into state revenues, I firmly believe that the General Assembly must focus on long-term solutions to the problems facing our Commonwealth's transportation system, and the Governor's proposal begins to do just that, with $4.1 billion in bonding authority (about $1 billion of it preexisting) for important transportation projects across the Commonwealth, as set forth in SB 1446.
The funding will go to over 900 projects across Virginia, with 16 so-called "infrastructure mega-projects" under consideration, including Route 495, I-95/395, and I-66 HOT Lanes; the Hampton Roads Third Crossing; the stretch of I-64 between Richmond to Hampton Roads; the Norfolk / Portsmouth Downtown / Midtown Tunnel; the Coalfields Expressway; and improvements to state routes and interstates crisscrossing the Commonwealth.
Details remain to be discussed and debated, but no one can doubt the importance of moving forward. Meanwhile, we're starting to develop a Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank to help direct funding for projects large and small. It's a sound concept that has, unfortunately, been poorly explained and greatly misunderstood.
Currently, state and local infrastructure projects are funded through Virginia's State Infrastructure Bank, bond issues approved by the General Assembly, the resources of the Virginia Toll Facilities Revolving Account, and the Federal Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation loan program. These loans tend to have maturity dates of twenty to thirty years, repaid through tolls, local taxes, or dedicated revenues.
When your locality begins construction of a new road, they typically have no choice but to borrow money, paying off the project over the course of a few decades. And that's not a problem, per se - if the project was truly necessary, it should pay for itself over time. Unfortunately, federal loans are significantly oversubscribed, the funding in Virginia's loan programs is limited, and the alternative, issuing Private Activity Bonds, adds an interest rate of 7%, which is way too high.
The normal route, going through the federal loan program, has its own disadvantages, as federal loans mean regulations and red tape, often holding up projects and adding unnecessary cost overruns.
The new Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank will cut through some of the red tape by offering low-interest loans, issued on a competitive basis, for state and local infrastructure projects. This is a huge step forward from the far less rigorous budget process, or subjecting local road projects to federal regulations and delays. The Infrastructure Bank, meanwhile, will be capitalized solely with state funds and not subject to federal regulations, with the Governor seeking funding from year-end General Revenues, appropriations of the General Assembly, and our dedicated transportation revenue streams.
So that there is no confusion, we will not be raising any taxes or fees create this infrastructure bank, and it is not a literal bank with an actual building or staffed with bureaucrats. It is, rather, a sound conservative an innovative way to prioritize transportation projects and cut down on the cost of debt service.
There remains, of course, much work to be done in streamlining and improving the efficiency of transportation bureaucracy, and I will continue to advocate for greater transparency and accountability on transportation, to ensure that tax dollars are used responsibly and go toward our most urgent infrastructure needs.
Today is the last day my Richmond office will be open; we will be back in Harrisonburg on Monday. As of Monday, I can be reached by phone at (540) 437-1451, or by mail at P.O. Box 555, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. My office's physical address is 2 S. Main St., Ste. 402, in downtown Harrisonburg, and as always, I can be reached via email at email@example.com
I always appreciate the many constituents, friends, and supporters who visit me in Richmond during session, and hope to see and hear from many more of you back in the district!
With best regards,
Mark D. Obenshain
Virginia State Senator