I hope that you are all staying warm and dry after this most recent snow storm! Despite the weather, things continued as normal in Richmond this week.
Tuesday was crossover day at the General Assembly – the halfway point of the 2014 Session. At this point the House of Delegates has passed 944 pieces of legislation; the Senate has passed 696. After crossover, each house in the General Assembly may only consider bills that originated in the other house.
Many long time observers in Richmond have commended the House for completing the first half of the Session’s work load in an extremely efficient manner. In past years Session on crossover day has lasted well past midnight, however this year it lasted only a couple of hours.
This coming week we will work on the state budget. The House and Senate will report their separate budgets this Sunday, February 16. Once we release our budgets, we will vote for approval in our separate houses. After approval, 6 budget conferees from each house will work to negotiate a final budget that is presented to the Governor. Speaker Howell has appointed Majority Leader Kirk Cox, Delegates Chris Jones, John O’Bannon, Steve Landes, Tag Greason, and Johnny Joannou to represent the House.
Though it is hard to believe, there are only three weeks remaining in the 2014 Session. Let me give you an update on the happenings in Richmond for this Crossover week.
As I mentioned last week, I have been working on a piece of legislation that would help increase access to online programs for students across the Commonwealth. I am pleased to announce that after three years of discussion and debate, Virginia is moving forward with legislation to give parents and students the tools needed to ensure that every child has access to cutting edge technology for virtual learning.
This year I patroned House Bill 324, which establishes a new Virtual Virginia School and creates a Board of the Virginia Virtual School as a policy agency under the Secretary of Education (SOE). The School will offer both online classes and virtual school programs to all public, private, and home-schooled children in Virginia. The Virginia Virtual School will be responsible for all federal and state accountability requirements applicable to those students enrolled on a full-time basis.
We began working on Virtual Education legislation in 2010 when the General Assembly passed House Bill 1388. House Bill 1388 required the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Board of Education to develop criteria for approving and monitoring multi-division providers of online courses and virtual school programs. It also allowed localities to enter into contracts with approved private providers of such courses.
Since 2010, we have worked tirelessly on legislation to help develop a way to allow all students in Virginia to have access to public virtual school programs. In previous years, however, this legislation has failed in the Appropriations committee due to questions about the funding formula.
House Bill 324 was referred to the Committee on Education where it was reported and referred to Appropriations. Appropriations reported the bill on February 7 with a vote of 18-3. It passed in the House on a vote of 64-34.
Additionally, the House passed House Bill 1115, patroned by Delegate Tag Greason. Delegate Greason’s bill would expand access to virtual classrooms by creating the “Virtual Virginia” program within the Department of Education. Virtual Virginia will facilitate the distribution of online classes throughout school divisions in the Commonwealth.
Delegate Greason’s bill focuses on a “blended learning” concept by pairing traditional coursework with online classes. This bill would allow students to take individual online classes that their school systems may not offer. For example, it would allow a student in Highland County to take a foreign language or advanced placement class that is offered in Fairfax County. It gives students and parents greater options in their course load that they may not have in their current school.
This is a tremendous accomplishment, and a huge step for school choice in Virginia. We have worked with educators, business leaders, parents, and students for four long years on this legislation, and it is wonderful to finally see it have the opportunity to be heard and discussed on the full House floor.
There are many students in Virginia who thrive in the traditional classroom, but there are also many who do not. There is a tidal wave of technology available to enhance learning options for these students. I am pleased that the House of Delegates has come together to make sure that Virginia students are included.
Every student in every corner of Virginia should be able to grow and learn in the environment that best meets their needs, and these opportunities should not be limited based on their zip code. Virginia is a leader in so many areas, and this should be one of them. This is a great step forward and I am looking forward to the Virginia Senate joining us.
The bill must now be passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor. There is still a long road ahead, but I am optimistic that legislators will see the benefits of allowing students a virtual option.
Another hot topic of the 2014 General Assembly Session has been ethics reform. The House of Delegates this week passed a bipartisan, comprehensive ethics reform bill with a vote of 98-1.
I chose to co-patron and support this legislation, which would reform and update Virginia’s ethics, transparency, and disclosure laws. House Bill 1211, patroned by Delegate Todd Gilbert, would impose a $250 gift cap, create a statewide ethics advisory council, update several aspects of the financial disclosure system, and implement a mandatory ethics training requirement for elected officials.
Over the last year, the confidence that Virginia’s citizens have in their elected officials has been shaken. The issues that have been raised must be addressed in order for Virginians to maintain trust in their representatives. For that reason, a bipartisan group of legislators have worked hard on this legislation to ensure that we promote greater transparency and strengthen accountability in Richmond.
The bill we passed may not be a perfect bill, and it may not have solved all of the problems. It is, however, a huge step in the right direction. More importantly, it strikes a good balance by enacting significant reform without penalizing honest public servants or discouraging our best citizens from seeking office.
Mental Health Reform
In the last several years, Virginia has too often witnessed the devastating effects of gaps in mental health coverage. The tragedy that has stricken the Deeds family has once again urged us to look closely at improving our mental health system.
We’ve passed a strong package of mental health reforms to ensure all individuals and families experiencing mental health crises have access to needed services and support. The legislation that we have advanced will give law enforcement greater flexibility to respond to mental health crises.
Additionally, legislation passed the House unanimously to establish a psychiatric bed registry. This online registry will provide real-time information on the availability of psychiatric beds for patients who need further treatment.
Focus has been on increasing capacity and availability of the many great Virginia resources and quality services. I hope this legislation will continue to gain support in the Senate.
My Legislation – Post Crossover
I’m pleased to report that this year I patroned 10 bills that passed in the House of Delegates. Additionally, I was chief co-patron of one bill that passed in the House. These bills are:
HB 107 - makes the Highland County Maple Festival the official festival of Virginia.
HB 190 - allows athletic trainers to administer oxygen in emergency situations.
HB 264 - allows social service boards to get the proper legal representation they need.
HB 322 - makes changes to the charter of Monterey that they requested.
HB 324 - creates a Virtual School system that gives parents and children more options.
HB 520 - changes the make up of the Council for Comprehensive Services for At-Risk Youth and Families.
HB 521 - changes the terms that members can serve on the Council for Comprehensive Services for At-Risk Youth and Families.
HB 522 - changes the appeals process for families with at-risk children.
HB 1086 – allows students with special education needs to access virtual education options.
HB 1150 – allows distilleries to use copper or stainless steel pots.
HB 977 (Patron:Rust) - Extends from five business days to 10 business days the deadline for a teacher to request a hearing after receiving written notice of a recommendation of dismissal.
Detailed information on all of these bills can be found at virginiageneralassembly.gov.
Despite the weather we’ve had we were still fortunate to see a number of constituents in Richmond this week.
Dr. John Downey and representatives from Blue Ridge Community College met with Savanna on Monday. She was also able to meet with Marie Rothwell and student representatives from the Augusta County 4-H program.
On Wednesday, we were able to meet with insurance agents William Weeks and David Johnson, who were in town for insurance lobby day. We were also able to meet with representatives from the Greater Augusta Association of Realtors, as well as representatives from our local Farm Bureau.
We enjoyed our time with Alan Richardson representing Invista in Waynesboro, as well as Kathleen Heatwole and representatives from Augusta Health in Fishersville.
If you plan to be in Richmond over the next few weeks, you're welcome to stop by for a visit.
Though appointments are not required, they are strongly encouraged. To make an appointment please call Savanna at 804-698-1020.
While we are in Session, we will be operating out of our Richmond Office. To contact us in Richmond, please call 804-698-1020. You can also reach us by email at DelDBell@house.virginia.gov. If you would like to send written correspondence, you can mail it to Post Office Box 406, Richmond, Virginia 23218. You can also fax it to 804-698-6720.
While we do our best to respond to every email and voicemail as quickly as possible, during Session we get sometimes hundreds of calls and emails each day. Therefore, it can often take some time to filter through everything. We appreciate your patience and understanding, and assure you that we will work to get back to you as promptly as possible.
We look forward to hearing from you over the next few weeks!
As always, I thank you for allowing me to serve as your Delegate.