This Saturday Senators Dick Saslaw and Dave Marsden and I held a joint legislative update town meeting at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.
Before I continue with this column, I must thank the more than 100 people who attended. We were pleased that so many folks are following the actions of their state government.
We discussed transportation, women’s reproductive healthcare, school safety, the Governor’s education initiatives, Medicaid reform and expansion, and legislation expanding voting opportunities.
The actions taken by the General Assembly so far on every one of these issues has been largely repressive and negative.
We also briefly discussed the bill passed by the House which allocates funding to study the feasibility of Virginia minting its own currency. This was in the context of bills which strained credulity.
Then someone asked if the General Assembly had accomplished ‘anything good’. That question took me aback for a moment.
I immediately realized that it was a great question that needed to be asked and answered. Here is my response: Yes, we have passed a few pieces of legislation that I believe are helpful to the citizens of our Commonwealth.
Here is the list that I presented:
1) elevating texting while driving to a primary offense, i.e. a driver can be stopped for texting while driving as a distracted driving charge (currently, texting while driving can only be charged when a driver is stopped for a different traffic violation. This is an important distinction that will address a serious safety issue. I have proposed legislation designating texting-while-driving as a primary offense for several years, only to have it voted down. It took a bipartisan agreement and at least one death proven to have been caused by texting-while-driving to get us to this point.
2) allowing police to cross jurisdictional borders when pursuing someone charged with human trafficking. Human trafficking is a growing problem in Virginia, especially in Northern Virginia, and this permission will assist the police in following perpetrators more effectively
3) giving our teachers a 2% raise. Teachers have not had a statewide raise in salary for 5 years. Although this raise requires a local match, it is a notable addition to the state budget and towards properly rewarding teachers across the Commonwealth.
4) requiring immediate intervention in algebra classes when students show deficiencies in computational skills.
All of the above are positive actions that your General Assembly has taken to date in this session.
Now I will present a quick summary of one of the issues which falls into the category of ‘not very good’–women’s reproductive healthcare. Women’s reproductive healthcare includes contraception, access to safe abortions, and most importantly access to health insurance covering reproductive health through the coming health insurance exchange and Medicaid reform implementations. Unfortunately, the majority party in the House has attempted to silence all debate on reproductive healthcare and succeeded. The last opportunity to right the wrong voted into law last year by repealing the mandated ultrasound procedure without the consent of either the doctor or the patient–was defeated with a party line unrecorded voice vote in a late Friday afternoon subcommittee meeting quietly scheduled and held with little notice. It is not surprising that no press was present to document the meeting. Many advocates attended and testified including the Virginia Medical Society, whose representatives stated that the General Assembly should not mandate medical procedures and intervene between a doctor and patient. All legislation presented was dismissed with the same party line voice vote,even the very reasonable proposal requiring the patient and doctor’s consent before an ultrasound could be performed. I was extremely disappointed that this debate and ensuing vote was not held more publicly.
Decisions about coverage of women’s reproductive healthcare in insurance exchanges and under reformed Medcaid were pushed off for another day. I understand that keeping social issues which were controversial last year out of the spotlight is an attempt to build a more moderate image for the majority party before the November elections. But shoving social issues aside does not make those issues disappear. The same issues will be raised in the fall elections and in 2014 session, perhaps more publicly and with more regard to voters’ opinions.
The dire need for a coherent and long-term transportation plan is ongoing. We all want to pass a bill that seriously addresses the transportation needs that exist across the state. The House and Senate have passed very different plans. The final decisions on a joint bill will be made in a conference committee whose members will attempt to craft a compromise acceptable to the majority of legislators. The conference committee’s plan will be voted upon by both Houses of the General Assembly and then sent to the Governor. If the Governor vetoes or makes amendments to that plan, the legislation will return to us during the Veto Session on April 3. As you can see, we have a ways to go…and miles before we sleep. (apologies to Robert Frost)