Policy and Politics Along the Pike #3

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It has been a whirlwind week and a half as I’ve met with activists, advocated on behalf of constituent needs, taken part in press conferences, spoken at events, and worked to move the Democratic Caucus agenda forward.  I also ended the week with a speech on the Floor in opposition to legislation that would suppress voting in Virginia. 

I’ve also been lobbying to ensure that my own legislative package is passed.  I’ve introduced twelve pieces of legislation and eight Budget Amendments addressing issues of vital importance to the 49th District and the Commonwealth. 

My Legislation – Over the past week, I presented four of my bills before Committees and Subcommittees, including:  

  • HB 782 to the Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee 
  • HB 784 to the Transportation Subcommittee #2 
  • HB 789 to the Commerce & Labor Special Committee on Energy 
  • HB 780 to the Transportation Subcommittee #1 

HB 782 would allow for legal immigrants who have lived in Virginia for less than five years to receive prenatal health care coverage under the state Medicaid and FAMIS programs.  Prenatal care has been proven to improve the health outcome of the child and would reduce the neonatal and long-term health costs for which the state of Virginia is already paying.  This bill is a common sense solution that is supported by the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Virginia Interfaith, the March of Dimes, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

HB 183 is an identical bill that was introduced by Delegate O’Bannon (R-73rd). Because the House does not allow identical bills to be incorporated, Delegate O’Bannon has agreed to Chief Co-Patron HB 183 with me and HB 782 was passed by indefinitely.

I am happy to inform you that HB 183 reported from the Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee with only one nay vote and should be brought to the Appropriations Committee shortly. In the coming weeks, I will keep you updated on the progress of HB183. Working closely with Delegate O’Bannon, I am hopeful that this bipartisan bill will be passed by the House of Delegates. 

HB 784 would require drivers of motorized vehicles to exercise due care to avoid colliding their vehicle with pedestrians and bicyclists, even when the driver has the right of way.  In recent years, Virginia has averaged more than 2,400 pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and 94 pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities annually in reported traffic crashes. Virginia is one of just four states missing an important "due care" provision contained in the Uniform Vehicle Code. 

If enacted, this “due care” requirement should reduce the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists by helping to educate motorists that they have a legal duty to avoid colliding with pedestrians and bicyclists whenever feasible. 

This bill would also help improve justice for pedestrians and bicyclists who are injured or killed by a driver who could have avoided the collision if he or she had devoted full time and attention to the task of driving. 

Although both drivers and pedestrians have a common law duty to use due care, the provision as a whole would be strengthened by a statutorily enumerated duty to use due care. 

When assessing liability, a “due care” provision makes it clear that a driver cannot avoid liability simply because he or she had the right of way.  Indeed, pedestrians are admonished not to “carelessly or maliciously interfere with the orderly passage of vehicles,” not to “enter or cross an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic,” and not to “step into a highway . . . at any point between intersections where [their] presence would be obscured from the vision of drivers,” yet drivers are not cautioned to use reasonable care not to strike a pedestrian. 

After I presented HB 784 to the Transportation Subcommittee #2, I organized several groups to speak in support of the bill, including the Virginia Transit Association, the Virginia Bicycling Federation, and Fairfax County.  The Virginia State Police were also not opposed to the bill.  In fact, no organization or citizen spoke in opposition to the legislation.  Despite this fact, the bill was passed by indefinitely by the Subcommittee 4-3.  The Subcommittee is made up of five Republicans and two Democrats. 

Interestingly, despite the Subcommittee recommendation, when the bill was brought before the Transportation Committee the next morning it only failed by a close vote – 12-10 – with three Republicans supporting the bill.  Although HB 784 is done for the session, I will definitely bring it back up for consideration.  I am hopeful that this commonsense provision will eventually pass and bring Virginia in line with the rest of the U.S. 

HB 789 would support the creation of new renewable energy facilities in Virginia by directing the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to consider price stability along with cost-effectiveness, economic development, and service reliability goals when reviewing plans for new electric generation plants. 

Let me say at the outset that with this legislation I learned what a joy it is to stand with the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and the Southern Environmental Law Center on an issue of importance.  I also learned what it feels like to have a bill killed by Dominion Power… 

Currently, most renewable energy projects cannot compete with traditional fuel sources on cost effectiveness.  HB 789 would require the SCC to take into account fuel costs and ways to control those costs as a part of the SCC approval process.

As the utility-regulating agency for Virginia, the mission of the SCC is to balance the interests of citizens, businesses, and customers.  As part of this mission, it is the SCC’s responsibility to deny or approve any new proposals for new electricity generation plants. 

Currently, the SCC takes into account several considerations when making these decisions regarding new electrical plants – mainly: 

1)       the cost effectiveness of a proposed project,

2)       any service reliability improvements it would bring, and

3)       its potential for contributing to economic development within the Commonwealth. 

However, in recent years it appears that the SCC has increasingly focused on short-term cost effectiveness to ratepayers to the exclusion of other, equally valid considerations.  I argued that the SCC should take into account a project’s ability to generate electricity at a stable cost to consumers – as well as other important benefits to residents, such as cleaner air and water, reduced health care costs from pollution, and new job opportunities in a growing energy sector. 

One unique attribute of wind, hydrokinetic, and solar power is that the fuel is free.  Therefore, utilities can lock in 10, 15, and even 20-year rates without worrying about increases in future fuel charges. 

While up-front costs for the construction of wind and solar projects may be higher than the cost of constructing new fossil fuel plants, over the long term, renewables may save consumers money as fossil fuel prices rise.

Indeed for many consumers and especially for businesses, having predictable, stable energy costs into the future is more important than having a low price today that may rise at any time. 

Coal and natural gas prices have fluctuated enormously in past years and continue to be subject to price pressures from supply constraints and rising demand, especially among foreign countries that buy U.S. coal. 

  • According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. Natural Gas Wellhead Price (Dollars per Thousand Cubic Feet) for October 2011 was just $3.62.  At historically low levels. 
  • But in June and July 2008, the price spiked dramatically up to over $10 per thousand cubic feet ($10.36 in June, $10.79 in July).
  • The latest spot price for a short ton of Central Appalachian coal is $71.70 (EIA report, January 13, 2012).
  • But on August 1, 2008, the price for a short ton of Central Appalachian coal was $140, double its current price.

Directing the SCC to consider price stability will shield consumers from the worst effects of sudden and dramatic fossil fuel price increases such as occurred in the coal market in 2008, prior to the recession. 

Coal prices have already begun to increase again in spite of continued softness in the demand for electricity, and should they return to their 2008 peak and remain there or continue to rise, they will force significantly higher electric rates.  Although natural gas is currently at a low point in its very volatile history, it also comes with no price guarantees.

Wind and solar generation facilities, when added to the mix of existing fossil fuel and biomass facilities, would serve as a hedge against price increases in coal and natural gas. 

I presented this legislation to the Commerce & Labor Special Committee on Energy.  Although it was gently laid upon the table I received encouragement from the Chair and several Members of the Committee regarding much of the content of the legislation.  The Chair also advised me to work with some other Republican Members with similar bills and re-introduce it next year. 

HB 780 would make it easier to own and operate Electric Conversion Vehicles in Virginia by creating a definition for vehicles converted from gas to electric power.  It also provides that such vehicles, when accompanied by certain documents, need not be examined by the DMV prior to the issuance of a title.  The bill also provides for the titling and registration of and special equipment required for a converted electric vehicle. 

The current DMV vehicle inspection process for reconstructed and specially constructed vehicles is not sufficient.  It is limited to a review of all paperwork and supporting documents submitted and an examination to determine if any vehicle ID number has been altered or the vehicle is reported stolen.  Also, the State inspection process does not require inspection of the specific components required to convert vehicles to electric power so changes are needed for the Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection Rules and Regulations of the State Administrative Code. 

Representatives from several State agencies and stakeholder groups have come together in several meetings to address the nuances of this bill and agreed on acceptable ways to update the Code.  Attendees at these meetings have included representatives from the Virginia State Police, DEQ, OEMS, Virginia Clean Cities, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the University of Virginia, Legislative Services, Law Enforcement Services, Vehicle Services, and DMV. 

I am very pleased to report that HB 780 passed unanimously out of the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee #1.  It will soon go before the full Transportation Committee on Thursday morning at 8:30 AM.  I will alert you to any new updates on this legislation. 

Budget Amendments – I have also introduced eight Budget Amendments to increase funding or restore funding for vitally important programs cut in the Governor’s Biennial Budget. Five Budget amendments would restore funding for programs, including:  

  • Community Based Health Care programs such as the Arlington Free Clinic 
  • Child Care Advocacy Centers for child abuse victims 
  • At-Risk Child Care subsidies 
  • Public Television and Radio Broadcasting, and
  • Virginia Libraries. 

 I have also introduced three Budget Amendments to increase funding for programs, including: 

  • Microenterprise Business Development 
  • Civil War battlefield preservation, and 
  • Renewable Energy. 

 Budgets are moral documents that show our priorities. My priorities are:

  • To help the most vulnerable among us, which includes those who are unable to afford health insurance and children who are abused and neglected.
  • To ensure a brighter future for the next generation by supporting funding for Public Broadcasting, libraries, and the preservation of Civil War battlefields.
  • To help Virginians who are unemployed start their own businesses and increase the use of renewable energy throughout the Commonwealth. 

Some background on two of my Budget Amendments: 

I am pleased to let you know that Delegate Rick Morris (R-64) has joined me in calling upon the House of Delegates and Members of the House Appropriations Committee to restore funding for Free Clinics and Community Health Care Providers across Virginia. 

The Budget Amendment would restore the 2% cut ($127,728) in the first year and the 50% cut ($6.4 million) in the second year from the General Fund.  If allowed to remain, these cuts would deliver a devastating blow to the Free Clinics around Virginia, the Virginia Health Care Foundation, AIDS Center and Local Intervention Center, Sickle cell community providers, and Community Health Care Providers across Virginia. 

Lower income families rely on these health care providers.  Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that an estimated 1,025,400 Virginians were uninsured for all of 2008. According to the Virginia Health Care Foundation, in 2007 Virginia ranked 48th among all states and the District of Columbia in Medicaid coverage of low-income adults.  This is the most important reason why there is such a great need for Free Clinics in Virginia. 

In the 49th District, the Arlington Free Clinic has to hold a lottery every month to determine who they provide free, quality health care.  Approximately 145 people take part in the lottery each month.  Sadly, they are only able to accommodate 25 individuals.  I call upon the Members of the General Assembly to restore funding for Free Clinics and Community Health Centers across Virginia. 

In 2010, Free Clinics provided: 

  • 169,288 general medical visits worth $16.5 million, and 61,016 specialty medical visits worth $14.8 million. 
  • 711,542 prescription medications worth $68.6 million to their patients. 
  • Twenty-six Virginia Free Clinics currently provide dental care. A total of 45,178 dental visits worth $10.8 million were provided in 2010. 
  • 41 Free Clinics provided 17,575 counseling visits worth $1.4 million.

For every one dollar spent, Free Clinics provided access to $6.00 in health care services for their patients. This strong ratio is due to Free Clinics’ extraordinary ability to leverage the volunteer and charitable capacity of the health system. 

More importantly, low income individuals who do not have access to these health care safety-net providers will instead use emergency rooms or go untreated.  Both options will be incredibly more costly for Virginia and our communities over the long term.  Restoring funding for these critical programs makes sense in our communities and it makes sense fiscally over the long-term. 

I believe that, at the very least, the General Assembly will restore funding for the Free Clinics across the Commonwealth.  As more information is available I will update you. 

I am also very pleased to inform you that Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-1) has stood with me to request that the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Resources restore funding for Child Advocacy Centers across Virginia.  The Governor’s proposed Biennial Budget would eliminate $931,000 each year in General Fund for these critical programs. 

Child abuse is often hidden, may occur over time, and is usually preventable.  In Virginia, a child is abused or neglected every 75 minutes, and every 14 days a child dies from such mistreatment.   

  • In 2010, 48,916 Virginia children were reported as possible victims of abuse and neglect. 6,234 of these were founded reports, which means that a review of the facts gathered during an investigation met the standard of evidence required in Virginia. 
  • Thirty-one percent of the children experiencing maltreatment were under the age of 4, and 73 percent were under the age of 12. 
  • The average number of instances of child abuse or neglect in Virginia is 3.4 per 1,000 children.

The Children’s Advocacy Centers across Virginia are child-focused, facility-based programs in which representatives from many disciplines - including law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical and victim advocacy, and child advocacy - work together to conduct interviews and make team decisions about the investigation, treatment, management, and prosecution of child abuse cases.  

Combining the professional wisdom and skill of a multidisciplinary team approach results in a more complete understanding of case issues and the most effective child and family focused system response possible. 

Child abuse or neglect is a tragedy with not only immediate, but also long-term consequences affecting children.  The Child Advocacy Centers across Virginia put the needs of child victims first.  They are wonderful resources for Virginia that do extraordinary work.  I believe it is shortsighted to eliminate funding for these centers.  We are not taking into account the long-term costs associated with individuals not being able to access this important program. 

Constituent Concerns – While I receive letters on a variety of topics from constituents, a few topics seem to be of great concern.  For those of you who do not have the time to email me about every position, I thought I would share them in this blog so that you have a convenient way to find out this information.

Renewable Portfolio Standards – I support strengthening the Renewable Portfolio Standards, including making the renewable portfolio standards mandatory, so that utility companies will actually meet this essential goal.   I am working closely with Delegate Toscano, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club to ensure that we put the Renewable Portfolio Standards on the right track.

Voting Rights – I share your concern about the restrictive voting legislation that would negatively affect older and minority voters and assure you that I will oppose any legislation that would limit the ability of Virginians to exercise their right to vote.  Not only do I oppose this type of legislation, but I support legislation that would increase voter turn-out and participation.  For example, I have introduced a bill to allow no-excuse absentee voting, HB 786, and support legislation to extend polling place hours on Election Day.  I have also spoken on the Floor in opposition to legislation that would suppress voter participation and turnout.  

Fox Pens – I support removing fox pens from the Commonwealth of Virginia.  This is an outdated and brutal practice.

 Stay Connected – As session continues, please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and this Blog for the most up-to-date information.  You can also see photos from Session on my flickr page as well as my weekly video on youtube. Links to all of these and more can be found on my website – www.AlfonsoLopez.org

 Thanks for visiting – I hope to see you in Richmond or back home in the 49th District!! 


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