2012 Va. General Assembly Q&A
Members of the Henrico delegation respond to 5 key questions
State legislators have returned to Richmond for a 60-day session of the General Assembly, with questions about funding for transportation, education and the state’s retirement system taking center stage as the session began earlier this month. The Henrico Citizen invited each delegate and state senator whose district encompasses a portion of Henrico to provide their thoughts about the 2012 session. The answers of those who responded appear below.
1. What is the most important issue facing the General Assembly this year? Why?
Farrell – This year the most important issue facing the General Assembly is clearly the budget. There will obviously be high demands from certain state programs for funding as federal funding is falling back. Managing such demands in a concise and responsible manner will be the most challenging and critical issue facing members of the General Assembly this year.
Loupassi – The primary concern for us again this year will be the two year budget. These decisions will affect how our tax dollars are spent to reflect our priorities.
Massie – The most important issue facing the legislature this year is jobs, jobs, and jobs. Over the last biennium, the state increased its investments in job-creating economic development activities by more than $100 million and did not raise taxes on job creators. These investments have paid off. Virginia's unemployment rate has dropped to 6.2 percent, and is now almost 2.5 percent below the national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent. In the last fiscal year, 26,043 new jobs were created that are tied directly to efforts of our economic development agencies. With these jobs, from a total of 416 separate company location announcements, came an additional $2.9 billion in capital investment across the Commonwealth. Overall, 42,200 jobs have been added in Virginia in the last year.
McClellan – The most important issue facing the General Assembly this year is the budget, as it will set the priorities for Virginia government for the next two years. The most controversial portion of the governor’s proposed budget is the diversion of a portion of the existing sales tax from the general fund to transportation.
McEachin – In this perilous economy that is recovering, although too slowly for many people, job creation and retention would have to be at the top of anyone’s list. However, in light of the governor’s recommendation to take funding from public education to give to transportation, I would also have to say that protecting public education is now a very significant priority. Our students need to be able to go to higher education or to get vocational training so that, either way, they are prepared for the tough job market and able to compete for well-paying jobs. The basic foundation for that is an excellent k-12 education which we cannot put at risk.
O'Bannon – I believe the most important issue facing us this year is the economy and jobs. We are still suffering from a severe recession. I will be supporting Gov. McDonnell's jobs initiative to get economic development going in Virginia. We have done well with our right to work status and military presence. Going forward, we need to keep our tax base low and use all the tools we have to draw new business to Henrico and Virginia.
Stosch – Be good stewards for our constituents by adopting a budget that meets the core needs of our citizens while exercising the best sound policy judgment in difficult financial times.
2. What legislation do you plan to introduce during this year’s session?
Farrell – I am currently working with Delegate Roxanne Robinson and Delegate John O’Bannon, a doctor, to create legislation that will require public schools to have epi pens on hand in case a child suffers an allergy attack that tragically can prove fatal. I feel this is a commonsense precaution; epi pens can save lives. I also intend to introduce a bill that will require performance audits of state agencies that previously had no such audits, as I am committed to ensuring the taxpayers’ money is being spent intelligently and efficiently.
Loupassi – I have introduced legislation that seeks to codify the Rules of Evidence, which is going to positively impact lawyers throughout the state. Also, I have introduced legislation that seeks to enhance our laws relating to DUI's and synthetic drug abuse, that will protect our youth.
Massie – My broadest and most far reaching bills this year are in the area of education. First, I have introduced a school choice bill which will provide scholarship assistance to students who would benefit from an alternative to public education. Virginia, and in particular Henrico County, has wonderful public schools. However, not all aspects of public education are right for every child. This bill will empower families to have alternatives and to choose, competitively, the right educational environment for their child; families will have broader educational opportunities. Second, for students with autism spectrum disorder, I ask that the professional aides that support their daily learning be trained in behavior management. These aides typically do not receive training assistance currently prior to assuming their responsibilities. There is a broad consensus among educators and families that training is beneficial and the right thing to do. This bill will require that the training requirements be defined and funding provided.
McClellan – I have introduced three bills to combat domestic violence in Virginia: legislation to allow extensions for permanent protective orders to be issued in Circuit Courts and to require the courts to submit the protective order to law enforcement by the end of the business day; legislation to increase the penalties for stalking, creating a felony for stalking after a second stalking offense or in violation of a protective order; and legislation to permit the coverage of pets in a protective order. I have also introduced bills to expand the City of Richmond's tax amnesty program; to authorize benefit limited liability companies; to create a state-run health insurance exchange to create a marketplace for individuals and small businesses to shop for insurance coverage; to close the gun-show loophole by requiring criminal background check for firearms purchases at gun shows; and to ask JLARC to study suspension and expulsion practices in public schools.
McEachin – I am introducing a variety of bills in areas from good government to job creation to protecting our environment. My bills include a Buy American act to encourage goods to be produced here in the United States, helping to create jobs here. I also have the Birth Control Protection Act to ensure that contraception is legal and allowed. I am introducing a bill that would not allow a convicted DUI driver to start the car until he breathes into an instrument to demonstrate he is not intoxicated. These are just a few of the bills I will be introducing to improve Virginians’ lives.
O'Bannon – I plan to introduce legislation to improve access to healthcare and increase transparency in what things cost in healthcare.
Stosch – I will serve as the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and President Pro Tempore of the Senate and as a result not sponsor legislation outside of the budget, bond bills or tax reform.
3. Do you agree with Gov. McDonnell’s plan to increase the percentage of sales tax revenues dedicated to transportation from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent and to increase the use of one-time funds for transportation? Why or why not?
Farrell – There is a deficit in maintenance funding for transportation. While this may be a good first step, I understand that his proposal alone is not going to solve all the Commonwealth’s transportation problems; however it may be a step in the right direction. The issue of transportation improvement will require many approaches going forward.
Loupassi – I support the governor's proposal – it is one-eighth of one-percent of our budget. It is money that is sorely needed for our roads, both maintenance and new construction. The road system is a primary government obligation. We should fulfill our obligations.
Massie – I believe that there is a relationship between transportation, the improvement of our state-wide economy and jobs creation. If you have a world class transportation system then you have a world class state. Drawing corporate relocations to Virginia with an effective transportation system will generate new jobs which will boost our economy. I have not had the benefit of the General Assembly debate regarding the Governor’s specific transportation plan and therefore my position on the plan is yet to be determined.
McClellan – I have always opposed efforts to divert general fund money away from education, health and human services, and public safety in a time when those services face cuts. My deepest concern with this approach is its impact on our educational system. On the surface, the governor’s budget looks great, providing $438 million in total new state funding for public education for the next biennium. However, three quarters of this new money is for increases in the state’s share of teacher retirement. It does not fund aid to local school divisions at levels recommended by the Board of Education. And it diverts funding from public to private schools through tax credits. In total, the governor proposes policy changes that reduce K-12 funding over the next 2 years by about $280 million. I have consistently remained open to looking at any sustainable, dedicated revenue source outside of the general fund, so long as it does not disproportionately impact those who can least afford to pay them.
McEachin – I disagree with his plan. The base sales tax has always been designated for the General Fund where the money goes for public education. Removing this money will harm public education and will be just a small, ineffectual band-aid on our transportation problem. We need a longterm solution to the transportation crisis and it will have to include a revenue stream dedicated to that problem.
O'Bannon – I generally support Gov. McDonnell's plans for transportation. I believe Transportation is a core function of government.
Stosch – The governor's present proposal is not one that would increase the sales tax; rather his proposal is to use more of the existing sales tax collection for transportation. Thus, the proposed added $100 million for transportation, if successful, will need to be allocated in the budget in competition with other demands. The one time funds will be allotted from the revenue surplus from the prior year which is required by law. Transportation is so important to moving people and goods that everyone is looking for the best solution and as the budget is evaluated those decisions can be best made.
4. Will you support legislation to overturn Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining? Why or why not?
Farrell – I am carefully looking at this important issue. Currently, I am thoroughly studying the several recent economic and environmental studies that have been released regarding the issue before I take a stance.
Loupassi – I would like to hear all of the evidence on that before I make a final decision. I would say that I am leaning towards the need for further study of the issue.
Massie – I consider jobs and the economy to be the number one issue for the Commonwealth to address in the upcoming session. Uranium mining may provide some of the economic solution if it can be done safely. Study reports are now available and we should use this upcoming year to thoroughly review the issue and assess the level of safety. However, the regulatory process can be moved forward this year in parallel with the review so that, if the decision at the end of the review year is to permit uranium mining, some groundwork will have begun already.
McClellan – I do not support legislation to overturn Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining. I agree with the legislators representing districts adjacent to the Coles Hill uranium deposit that we need additional time to review recent studies on uranium mining. In particular, I am concerned with the results of a statewide analysis by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that Virginia faces “steep hurdles” to ensure that uranium can be mined and milled safely in Virginia.
McEachin – I am very concerned about lifting the ban. I will need to see facts and evidence that there is no threat to public health or to the environment by the lifting of this ban. Right now, I have not seen that proof. As a matter of fact, I have seen many troubling questions and issues raised abut he long term safety and efficacy of lifting the ban. I will be listening carefully to all the arguments but with a critical ear toward safety.
O'Bannon – I have listened carefully to the debate and the information on this issue. I believe we have an obligation to use our natural resources if it can be done safely. I'll be reviewing all of the information with an open mind. I do support nuclear energy as safe and reliable.
Stosch – The answer to the legislative support of this important issue will be best resolved only after weighing the substantial economic benefits to Virginia with any risk relating to extracting, storing and transporting the materials. The General Assembly members will need to have extensive hearings and study before an informed decision can be made.
5. How do you propose handling the state’s $400-million budget surplus?
Farrell – First of all, the Governor has taken a good first step at addressing the issue of VRS underfunding by proposing in his budget the largest contribution to the program in state history. Still, other changes are necessary and a number of options must be considered to ensure the solvency of the VRS going forward, and this will be a matter of debate at the General Assembly Session. It is time to stop kicking the can down the road on this issue.
Loupassi – The governor has made a number of fair proposals, which will require additional government support as well as employee contribution. These are
necessary and appropriate moves to protect the health of the Retirement System.
Massie – I believe that the underfunding of the VRS needs to be resolved by an “all of the above” approach. We need to reform VRS in order to fix it. Areas to consider, singularly or in combination, in the reform approach are a one-time funding boost, increasing the retirement age, increasing the state’s and/or the employee’s contribution levels, offering a defined contribution plan alternative and reducing certain payout benefits.
McClellan – As recognized in JLARC’s recent study of retirement benefits for state and local employees, part of the reason VRS is underfunded is the General Assembly’s tendency to pay less in payroll-based contributions than necessary to fully cover the costs of the plans. The General Assembly should begin funding VRS at the levels recommended by actuaries and retirement plan experts and certified by the VRS Board of Trustees as necessary to cover the costs. The problem was exacerbated in 2010 when the General Assembly essentially borrowed $600 million from VRS to balance the last budget. We should repay that money as quickly as possible. We should also dedicate portions of any year-end surplus to repaying the $600 million.
McEachin – The solution to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) problem is not to resolve it on the backs of hardworking state employees. Workers who have dedicated their careers to the Commonwealth and to serving all of us should not now, as they near retirement, be expected to absorb an additional burden. We need to respect those employees and their commitment and dedication. Our Commonwealth is efficient and low-tax. Part of the reason we can accomplish this is because of the hard work and perseverance of state employees.
O'Bannon – Our VRS retirement system is very important to our state employees and teachers. Unfortunately it will take some sacrifice on the part of all the entities involved including the State of Virginia, local government, and the employees to make it fiscally sound. It's probably not fair to ask any one of the stakeholders to make all the sacrifices. I'd favor changes which do not negatively affect current employees to the extent possible.
Stosch – The budget introduced by Governor McDonnell provides for the largest infusion of new funds in the retirement system in memory to make up for losses in the investment values over the last three years and underfunding deposits. My goal will be to ensure that retirement obligations to state employees, teachers and others dependent on the VRS system are met. Since it is agreed that significant changes will be required in the system, I anticipate a number of efforts to change the program for future employees and perhaps institute an option 401(k) type plan prevalent in private companies.
The threat of bad weather didn’t keep visitors away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden July 10 for the facility’s weekly Flowers After 5 event (which pairs music and food with a chance to stroll the garden) and its monthly Fidos After 5 (which allows dog owners to bring their pets with them to enjoy the evening). > Read more.
Thanks in part to a $10,000 gift from the Western Henrico Rotary Club, another bright pink Jeep modified to travel extremely rough terrain has been delivered to Midwives For Haiti so that more pregnant women in the quake-ravaged country will have access to prenatal care and a greater chance of surviving childbirth.
The funds were raised at the annual casino night held in February, club president Adam Cherry said. The Rotary Club also helped purchase the Virginia-based charity’s first pink jeep three years ago. > Read more.
Canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts soon will have a new access point to the Chickahominy River. VDOT, the James River Association and Henrico County Parks and Recreation are teaming up to establish a new site in Eastern Henrico.
The James River Association negotiated the deal with VDOT to procure official access to the area located just east of I-295 on North Airport Road in Sandston. The site includes a park-and-ride commuter lot bordering the Chickahominy River and has been an unofficial launch site used by paddlers for years. > Read more.
Take in a show at several locations this weekend! West End Comedy will provide laughs at HATTheatre; the production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” will close Sunday; and the youth theatre company CharacterWorks will present “Footloose” at The Steward School. Another show perfect for the kids – “Despicable Me 2” is playing at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center tonight. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
‘Earth to Echo’ aims to become this generation’s ‘ET’
It’s no secret that all found-footage genre movies are the same. Grab a couple of characters, give one of them a camera, and expose them to something supernatural that’s content to lurk just off-screen until the last five minutes. Everything else will just fall into place.
But that formula isn’t particularly family friendly, if only because that thing waiting a few feet to the left of the cast is usually plotting their violent doom.
That’s what sets Earth to Echo apart from the pack. It, too, follows a group of characters armed with a camera and a tendency to encounter unknown life forms. But all those familiar parts have been rearranged just enough to make it suitable for a much younger audience. > Read more.
An eclectic array of events are taking place this weekend throughout the county. In the West End, we have the Richmond Wedding Expo, the Under the Stars Family Film Series and Henrico Theatre Company’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” In the eastern part of the county, we have a blood drive at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, Gallmeyer Farm’s annual Sweet Corn Festival and an origami workshop at Fairfield Library. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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