We are speeding toward the halfway mark of the General Assembly. Feb. 11 is Crossover and all introduced bills in either chamber must be acted upon or left in the heart of the committee they have been assigned. While it is debatable which legislation is the highest priority for many stakeholders, there is no mistake that the Omnibus Transportation Bill (SB 890/HB 1414) may be the most consequential piece of legislation of the 2020 General Assembly.
There are some differences between the two measures, but the bottom line goals are to improve transportation and its underlying infrastructure, enhance other methods of moving people and goods in the commonwealth, and provide revenues to meet our growing needs. Passenger rail service, maintenance of aging bridges and other structures, plus investments for local transit are key components of the bill. Revenue will come from increases in fuel taxes over three years, vehicle registrations, and local taxes, including those to address full funding for Metro.
Past headlines focused on noteworthy themes of gun violence prevention, the passage of the ERA, and movement toward the repeal of impediments for access to women’s healthcare. While these issues have been significant, they are just a fraction of the many bills coming out of the House and Senate each day.
Black History Month provides all of us an opportunity to pay tribute to generations of African Americans who struggled through adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. On the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I am glad that we have taken steps toward a fairer voting process that encourages and increases access to this most fundamental right in our democracy. No excuse absentee voting has passed the Senate. We expect the House to follow suit in knocking down some of the many unnecessary obstacles to voting.
Currently under review by the Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriations, SB 219 provides for automatic voter registration (with an opt out) when an individual applies for a license or an ID card, or renews their current license. There are several bills working their way through committees that revisit the issue of redistricting. There appear to be three camps of stakeholders. One group remains committed to the bipartisan citizen legislator commission; another embraces the commission with significant changes to the original resolution; and the third is being labeled as the “winner takes all” — desiring to keep the process in the hands of the majority party at the time of redistricting. Senator Creigh Deeds is the chairman of Senate Privileges and Elections and presiding during this critical session prior to redistricting in 2021.
Public Safety remains a top priority for every legislator but often a partisan approach to policy seems to shape the issues before the legislature. Moving forward, we have advanced a ban on the use of handheld phones while driving. Last year, the ban was on using phones in work zones.
The 2nd Amendment demonstration organized by the Civil Defense League on Jan. 20 made national news. Whether intended or unintended, it was a very stressful day at the General Assembly, pitting thousands of people against each other. Hundreds of Virginia State Police and Capitol Police were joined by the City of Richmond Police to provide a safe work environment for us without incident. Fortunately, there were no Charlottesville repeats. I applaud the brave men and women who put in many hours to serve and protect everyone on both sides of the debate.
Another top issue for this General Assembly is the biennial budget. The Governor made his priorities known on Dec. 17. It is now up to the legislature to adopt its budget. Based on the outreach to my office, there continues to be no shortage of needs Virginians would like addressed. When the process is complete, the budget will be structurally sound and balanced. Expect to see serious investments in economic and workforce development, pre-K -12 as well as higher education. The Senate and House money committees will deliver their own proposals for the biennial budget on Feb. 16.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]