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A Chaotic System But The Best We Can Devise

January 26, 2018

Each General Assembly session I marvel that we get so much done.  Typically, over two thousand bills and resolutions are introduced and we must reach a decision on each within a forty-five day or sixty day session.  Plus, the whole state budget must be reviewed and revised. 

To the public and to many legislators this seems chaotic.

The way we cope with all this is by relying on standing committees and subcommittees.  Legislators tend to serve on the same committees year after year so we develop subject matter expertise.  Bills are often introduced year after year so we will have studied them previously and can move rapidly.

Public comment is almost always heard on every bill.  The chair will ask "Does anyone wish to speak to this bill?" and we listen to testimony from the public.  The chair will also ask if any committee members wish to speak.  Then we vote, usually at that moment. It is fast, probably dizzyingly so for the public.  We now cast our votes on electronic voting machines which also speeds up the process.

I serve on more committees and subcommittees than any other Senator.  I serve on five standing committees, while most senators serve on three or four.  They are Finance, Courts of Justice, Education and Health, Privileges and Elections, and Rules.  Two of those, Finance and Courts, meet at least twice a week. In addition, I serve on the Public Education Subcommittee of Education and Health as well as four Finance Subcommittees.

It is an honor to serve on so many committees but it has a real downside:  I am rarely in my office. People who stop by to visit me are usually disappointed.  Fortunately I have a great aide, Karol Straub, who meets with constituents and others and writes notes for me about their concerns.

All full committee meetings are being live streamed and you can watch them here.  They are also being archived so you can watch them at your convenience.

There is one serious flaw to the current system that no one has yet been able to adequately resolve.  What happens when we have to present our own bills to a committee on which we don't serve?  We must leave our own Committee and go to another room somewhere on the Capitol campus. In the Senate we can leave proxies.  We can designate a committee colleague to vote for us in our absence.  In the House, they do not allow proxies so if a Delegate has to leave a committee to present their bill elsewhere, their vote cannot be cast.

This week has been even more hectic than usual.  Several of my own bills have been heard and voted on.  Some have passed Senate Committees and the Senate; some have failed.

Two of my top priority bills are still alive.  I have two bills dealing with student loan debt.  One requires student loan servicers to be licensed. The bill (SB 362) outlines acceptable practices and prohibited practices.  Virginians have over $30 billion in student debt.  They deserve to be protected from predatory and incompetent servicers such as Navient.  The other student loan bill (SB 394) sets up a Student Loan Ombudsman Office.  This Office will provide individual advice to borrowers, provide students with current information on lenders, and provide online help with the lending processes.

Another top priority bill (SB 442) was defeated in Committee.  This bill would have strengthened our laws limiting access to firearms by children.  It was aimed at preventing teen suicides. Unfortunately, the Republicans voted against it.

SB 797 which prohibited possession of firearms by people with active permanent protective orders against them for stalking is still alive.  It has been sent to Finance where it will depend on whether we can scrape together $50,000 to fund it.  I am not kidding.

So far, my only bills to pass the Senate are the tourist transient occupancy tax bill for Arlington County and a bill to update the screening instrument used to determine sexually violent predators.  A bill requested by Arlington to clarify language for deferred taxes, has also passed.  Others have been stricken, been defeated in Committee or have not yet been heard in Committee.

Next week we will begin a close focus on the budget.  So far the various subcommittees have been absorbing information about various programs and the McAuliffe budget.  Soon we will receive Governor Northam's suggestions and begin making changes.  As the ranking member of the Finance Committee and as a budget conferee, that is when the outrageously chaotic schedule begins for me!

Please continue to keep me and Karol informed on matters of concern to you. I read every email and am briefed on every visit.  Your views truly do influence my thinking.