Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eminent domain reform and more from Richmond

By Sen. Mark Obenshain
With only days remaining before the General Assembly goes home, things are happening very fast, some big issues remain very much in play. In fact, the Senate may have cast one of the most significant votes of the year - a historic vote on eminent domain reform. Here, I will address a few issues, including the budget, abortion clinic safety, eminent domain reform, and gambling.

The Kelo House
The little pink house that started it all
(the "Kelo house")
Eminent Domain Reform
It was almost anticlimactic: after years of efforts and weeks of scrambling to find a way to get the resolution through this year, the Senate just approved a constitutional amendment on eminent domain reform by a 35-5 vote!

The first order effect of the Kelo case was to deprive a woman in New London, Connecticut of her family home so that the local government could turn around and sell it to a developer. The City claimed that it would result in more jobs and tax dollars. (In fact, neither has occurred since the project was never built.) The second order effect, however, was to spark a wave of new property rights protections in states across the nation - a wave on which Virginia missed out.

Today, we belatedly took the first (and hardest) step toward doing something about that, when the Senate approved a constitutional amendment on eminent domain reform patroned by Delegate Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth). I worked closely with Delegate Joannou in working to find a way to get HJ 693 through the Senate after Joannou, in an incredible performance, maneuvered it through the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections (P&E). The P&E Committee,which hears all proposed constitutional amendments, had always killed such proposals in the past, including my own SJ 307.

It took a lot of effort, a few late night sessions, and the support and assistance of property rights advocates across the Commonwealth, but I'm delighted to be able to declare victory today - not for myself, and not even for Johnny (though he deserves enormous credit for getting this done!), but for all property owners in Virginia. There's work left to do, the greatest remaining hurdle being that the General Assembly will have to adopt the resolution a second time next session, but this is a huge step forward, and puts us comfortably on the path of finally making "public use" mean precisely that. We've crossed the Rubicon.

And everyone wanted in on it. Narrower language died in subcommittee, and my motion to bring it to the floor died on a party line, 18-22 vote. HJ 693 reported out of committee on a narrow 8-7 vote, but once the outcome looked certain, the vote on passage was 31-8. And even that wasn't the end of it, as we then reconsidered the vote on passage and did it again. This time it was 35-5, with all but one of the seven who voted against the bill in committee supporting it on the floor.

It's true that the bill was amended on the floor, but I guarantee you that that wasn't what drove that many members to have a change of heart - not when the amended version still went at least as far as SJ 307, which Senate Democrats refused to even give a hearing in full committee!

Clinic Safety
The other day, the House adopted an amendment to a Senate bill on regulatory standards for health service providers - amendments requiring abortion clinics to meet the same requirements as clinics offering other outpatient surgical procedures. This really shouldn't be controversial: all the amendment does is apply the same regulations to all similarly-situated outpatient surgical facilities, regardless of political considerations.

Unfortunately, some have opposed any changes to state regulations on abortion, regardless of what those changes entail, and have thus allowed abortion clinics to fall behind on basic health safety regulations. I am unabashedly pro-life, but this amendment really isn't even about abortion. It's about safety, and I hope that my colleagues, wherever they stand on the abortion issue, will come together in supporting this sensible measure to safeguard the life and health of the mother.

Illegal Gambling
Tomorrow, the House takes up my bill (SB 1195) cracking down on gambling operators who have attempted to exploit a perceived loophole in Virginia's gambling laws. The language of the bill has changed a lot over the past few weeks as I worked with Delegates Glenn Oder and Clay Athey to find the best possible solution, but the intent is the same: putting an end to the so-called "sweepstakes stores" proliferating in our communities.

These so-called 'sweepstakes stores' try to get around our laws by bundling an insignificant product with their games. People are spending a small fortune on a few minutes of internet access or a cheap phone card so that they can play slots or video poker. It's a clear end-run on our gambling laws, and my bill, and Glenn's companion bill (HB 1584) will put an end to it.

My bill is up tomorrow before the House, and I am very optimistic about its prospects. I look forward to seeing it passed into law.

Budget Update
Our economy is beginning to grow again, and revenues are increasing, but money is still tight here in Richmond, and important services are still waiting in line for funding. So you can imagine my dismay with proposals in the Senate budget to provide more than $320 million for construction and renovations in the General Assembly complex - a steep price for facilities that are fully utilized only two months a year. This proposal is unlikely to survive the budget talks, but it really illustrates the audacity, tone-deafness, and  misplaced priorities of some in Richmond.

Misplaced priorities have, at times, come to characterize Senate budgets, though I'm pleased to report that we're definitely making progress from year to year.

Earlier last week, the two chambers designated conferees to work on reconciling the House and Senate budgets. Two of the Shenandoah Valley's own, my friends Delegates Steve Landes and Beverly Sherwood, are among the House conferees. The Senate conferees are Democrats Chuck Colgan, Dick Saslaw, Janet Howell, and Edd Houck, along with Republicans Tommy Norment, William Wampler, and Walter Stosch. These seven Senators, and their counterparts from the House, will be meeting in coming days to issue a "conference report," the consolidated budget both chambers vote upon.

Virginia's constitution requires a balanced budget, but there are a number of ways to achieve balance. Both budgets include issuing bonds and other debt instruments - and to some degree, that's okay - but as things now stand, the House budget does a better job of balancing the accounts without kicking costs down the road.

Fundamentally, we need to be looking for structural spending reductions. I sometimes liken our budgets to a balloon: we let some air out in the lean years, cutting five or ten percent across the board, then re-inflate it once revenues pick up again, when we should be looking at permanent changes to its shape and size. We need to change the way government operates; when revenues are back where they were before the recession, we shouldn't view the intervening years as a mere policy interruption. The budget should look different than it did before. We can address some of these issues this year, and next year - a budget year - we must take them up in earnest.

It is my hope that the conferees will find a way to resolve the differences between the House and Senate positions. Allow me to outline, as briefly as possible, what some of those are (here's a one-page bullet point summary, if you're interested):

  • The House would accelerate by $42 million the Governor's proposal to begin restoring the deferred payments to the Virginia Retirement System, while the Senate reduces those repayments by $54 million
  • The Senate proposes depositing $20 million in the nearly broke Rainy Day Fund, compared to the $64 million deposit proposed by the House
  • The Senate adds $100.6 million in K-12 education and roughly $100 million in additional health care expenditures beyond the Governor's recommendation
  • Both the House and Senate budget reject the Governor's proposal to require state employees to make a 5% contribution to their retirement while simultaneously receiving a 3% raise, the Senate zeroing out the proposal and the House increasing the raise to 5%
  • The House "unwinds" the accelerated sales tax - prepayments required of companies to provide a one-time revenue boost - while the Senate leaves it in place  
All in all, the House does a better job of achieving structural balance, though the shorter-term focus of the Senate budget offers a superficially appealing opportunity to restore more funding to education and public health. It should, of course, be noted that both budgets include significant restorations in these areas, though the Senate budget goes farther than the positions adopted by the House and Governor McDonnell.

Meanwhile, although it isn't part of the budget, both chambers approved issuing about $3 billion in bonds to finance the Governor's transportation plan. All states issue bonds for many capital improvement projects, and Virginia is one of the most conservative in its approach to bonding (with about $12 billion in outstanding bonds at present), giving us some room to work with - but also setting a standard we don't want to erode.  (Remember, unlike the federal government, Virginia doesn't print money to cover its spending habit - it operates with a cap under which it can borrow no more than it can service with 5% of its revenues.)

That we can move forward with transportation improvements without raising taxes is very heartening. Still, this was something many of us wrestled with, and as Virginia moves forward with the plan, we will all need to work hard to ensure that we keep our fiscal house in order.

The next time you hear from me, we should have a budget conference report in our hands. Until then, I want to thank all those of you who visited me in Richmond last week, including members of the JMU Student Government Association; a large group of eager young Future Farmers of America; students (and cadets) and administrators from JMU, BRCC, and VMI; and the Warren County Teen Republicans, who spent a day in Richmond observing the workings of the General Assembly, though, given their private meeting with the Governor, their time spent visiting with me probably wasn't the highlight of their trip.

As always, I enjoy hearing from constituents and friends from across the Commonwealth, so feel free to call (Richmond number 804.698.7526 through the end of session) or email (mark@markobenshain.com) with any ideas, questions, or concerns.
With best regards,
Mark D. Obenshain
Virginia State Senator

P.S. I encourage you to review my one-page budget summary for a quick overview of the key issues facing the General Assembly as the budget goes to conference.

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