Legislature prepares for work

Published 8:07 pm Monday, January 4, 2016

Suffolk’s leaders in the General Assembly are gearing up for a 60-day session beginning Jan. 13 in which they will complete a two-year budget and mounds of other work related to running the state.

Hampton Roads — and Suffolk in particular — is well represented in the budget process, with Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones (R-76th) serving once again as the House Appropriations Chair and Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd) serving as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

“It’s going to be a long session,” Jones said, summing up his duties, which include carrying the House’s budget bills. “It would be my hope we could emulate last year and get done early or at least get the budget done on time.”

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Jones said McAuliffe’s budget proposal has some structurally sound elements, including the 100-percent funding for the Virginia Retirement System for state employees and the required rainy day deposit.

However, he indicated the Medicaid expansion that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called “necessary and inevitable” will not happen.

In other business, Jones said he plans to propose a “top-to-bottom” review of the community college system to ensure it’s meeting the needs of the state.

“It will be a real busy session,” Jones said.

Sen. John Cosgrove (R-14) said he would like to see education funding rise this year.

“I would like to get our funding levels up to 2008 levels as soon as possible,” he said.

What Cosgrove considers his most important bill this session aims to clarify language in the code section that grants real estate tax relief on the primary residence of the surviving spouse of a military member killed in action.

He has a constituent in a locality other than Suffolk who was denied the tax relief by her commissioner of the revenue, because her husband did not die immediately after being struck by an IED in Afghanistan.

“We want to be very clear in the code that they qualify,” Cosgrove said. “That’s my most important bill this session.”

He’s also planning a bill to get the General Assembly out of the business of regulating menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, instead leaving that to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates all other seafood harvesting.

“There’s no reason for us in the General Assembly to be the ones responsible for regulating that little fish,” Cosgrove said.

Delegate Rick Morris (R-64) also is planning a bill that would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly violate the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“I think it’s very, very important that we get this FOIA bill to where it’s actually usable,” Morris said. “We need to work with the citizens, not against them.”

Morris said he already plans a few changes to the bill, because he is “trying to work with the local governments to get a bill that’s workable.”

Morris also plans a bill to require that closed meetings be recorded and that the recordings would become available to the public once the condition that required the closed meeting is no longer valid — for example, if City Council met privately to discuss a business expansion that has not been previously announced, the meeting recording would become public once the expansion has been announced.

Morris also plans bills to give students due process rights when they’ve been kicked out of school, to legalize the sale of raw milk and to eliminate the stormwater fee.

“Maryland repealed it,” he said of the stormwater fee. “I don’t see why Virginia can’t have the same standard.”

Other legislators representing parts of Suffolk have pre-filed bills as well.

Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-77) has introduced a bill that would require elections for mayor, City Council and School Board to be held in November. Suffolk already holds its local elections in November, but cities and towns have the option to choose May instead, and many do.

Delegate Matthew James (D-80) has not yet pre-filed any legislation. This year, he is assigned to the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources; Appropriations; and Health, Welfare and Institutions committees.

Sen. Louise Lucas (D-18) has pre-filed a bill that extends the sunset of the 30 cents per 100 pounds excise tax on peanuts grown and sold in Virginia from July 1, 2016, through July 1, 2021. The proceeds from the tax are used for promoting the sales and use of Virginia peanuts.

Sen. John Miller (D-1) has pre-filed no legislation. He is assigned to the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources; Local Government; and Privileges and Elections committees.

Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3) has pre-filed the budget bills in his role as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He also is on a number of other committees, including Commerce and Labor, Courts of Justice, Rehabilitation and Social Services and Rules.

More information on the General Assembly can be found at virginiageneralassembly.gov.