The official 2014 General Assembly Session has ended. I am writing to let you know about some of the key legislation passed this session that will now become the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
While the General Assembly has adjourned for the 2014 regular session, we still remain in Special Session to hopefully work out a compromise on the 2014-2016 Virginia Biennial Budget. It is my hope that this Budget will provide funding for some of our major priorities and close the Medicaid coverage gap for approximately 400,000 low-income, uninsured Virginians. Information about the budget changes on a daily basis. For the most up-to-date news, please visit my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org or follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Lopez4VA or Twitter @Lopez4VA.
While this Session Summary is an overview of some of the issues that I worked on during the 2014 session as well as the issues that I heard about most often from constituents, it is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that happened this year. For a full list of legislation that both passed and failed, please visit lis.virginia.gov or the Virginia Division of Legislative Services’ website at dls.virginia.gov and click on the Highlights or Summary links in the top, right-hand corner. You may also go to my website www.AlfonsoLopez.org for a complete look at all of my bills in 2014.
While I received hundreds of letters and e-mails from constituents this session regarding a variety of important issues facing the Commonwealth, I would love to hear from constituents who have yet to contact my office and share their views. Please fill out the Constituent Survey on my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org/2014-Constituent-Survey or contact my office at DelALopez@house.virginia.gov so I know where you stand on the important issues facing Virginia.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this update. If you have any additional questions, concerns, or issues before State government, please do not hesitate to contact my office at DelALopez@house.virginia.gov or (571) 336-2147. I look forward to hearing from you!
2014-2016 Biennial Budget
Closing the Medicaid Coverage Gap - Under the Affordable Care Act, Virginians already pay taxes into the Federal system. It makes no sense why Virginia would not accept our own tax dollars to expand access to Medicaid. Virginia has already forfeited over $600 million this year – $5.2 million a day. We cannot afford to wait any longer to make sure all Virginians have access to quality health care. In many cases, these are members of the working poor who are one catastrophic family illness away from financial ruin. By accepting federal dollars to close the coverage gap, we will also be able to increase funding for other critical priorities such as mental health care and public education. As we move forward this year, I will continue to fight for a budget that closes the coverage gap and meets the needs of all Virginians.
Affordable Housing - Last year, my legislation created the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund. In Governor McDonnell’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2015 and 2016, an additional $8 million in funding was included to grow and sustain the program. However, the House Appropriations Committee amended that section of the budget to provide no new funding for the Trust Fund over the next two years. As the biennial budget is negotiated I will continue to work to ensure that the full $8 million is set aside for the program.
The ever-increasing cost of housing is having a serious impact on the daily budgets of people across Virginia. Over the past five years, increases in rental costs have significantly outpaced the growth in Virginia’s median family income. For most Virginians, that means less food on the table, less fuel in the gas tank, fewer bus and metro tickets, waiting longer to visit the doctor to receive vital health care, and smaller savings for college tuition and retirement.
In order to meet the growing demand for affordable housing across the Commonwealth over the next two decades, we need to change the way we think about affordable housing in the General Assembly. Rather than treating affordable housing as a burden or an afterthought in our budget, we need to start treating affordable housing in the same way that we treat transportation or education. These are investments in our infrastructure that are necessary to support economic development and sustainability. I am proud that the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund has already helped over 700 Virginians in only its first year with limited funding. However, in order to keep moving forward, we need to restore the $8 million in funding over the next two years and keep working to find a permanent, dedicated source of funding.
Renewable Energy - I am proud to report that my legislation to improve Virginia's renewable energy goals was passed this year by the General Assembly. Under existing law power companies can purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) and hold onto them indefinitely – a practice known as banking. This means that the utility companies can stockpile old RECs from past years and use those RECs for future compliance to meet their renewable energy goals. This bill will limit the banking of renewable energy credits to five years so that utility companies will have to purchase new renewable energy credits or generate new renewable energy in order to meet their goals. This legislation helps Virginia invest in more clean, sustainable renewable energy in order to grow our economy and secure our long-term energy future. Working with environmental advocates, the renewable energy industry, and utility companies over the past year, we were able to hammer out a compromise that will move us closer to creating more green jobs across the Commonwealth and protect our environment for future generations.
Improving Virginia’s Energy Plan – I also worked to pass legislation this session to improve Virginia’s Energy Plan by giving Governor McAuliffe and future Virginia Governors more time to create a comprehensive, statewide plan that responsibly and sustainably meets our growing energy needs for the next four years.
Commission on Energy and the Environment – This year I introduced legislation to bring back Virginia’s Commission on Energy and the Environment. This commission previously assisted with developing the Virginia Energy Plan and provided studies and guidance on statewide environmental and energy polies. Without this commission, critical energy and environmental issues are being referred to the Commission on Coal and Energy, which is ill-equipped to address renewable energy and environmental preservation issues. I will keep fighting for the creation of this vital commission.
Hybrid Tax Repeal – I am proud to report that legislation repealing the $64 annual registration fee on hybrid vehicles that was passed last year as a part of the transportation compromise has been approved by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor. We need to be doing more to incentivize environmentally friendly vehicles and not punish drivers who purchase fuel efficient vehicles that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
VDOT Tree Replacement Policy - Due to concerns from 49th District constituents about the large piles of waste and debris at the intersection of Washington Blvd and Route 50 as well as the large number of trees that have been removed by the Washington Blvd bridge project, I introduced legislation this Session to require VDOT to follow the tree replacement policies of the locality in which it is performing construction. Arlington County has arguably the strongest tree replacement policy in the Commonwealth of Virginia. After discussing my legislation with VDOT and the members of the Transportation Committee, I am proud to report that VDOT has agreed to develop a tree replacement policy by December 31, 2014 for all of its highway transportation projects. As a part of this process, the public will have the opportunity to provide input on what the new criteria should be.
Bicycling Safety - After fighting to pass legislation protecting bicyclists from being followed too closely by a motor vehicle for the past three years, I am proud of the progress that was made this year in finally gaining approval by the House of Delegates. Unfortunately, this legislation was killed by the Virginia State Senate. While I am disappointed that the State Senate felt this issue needed more time for review, I am extraordinarily optimistic that our bipartisan coalition will be able to pass this commonsense legislation in 2015 to help reduce the number of bicycle accidents across Virginia.
Virginia DREAM Act - This Session I continued to forcefully advocate for the passage of the bipartisan DREAM Act that would have granted in-state tuition to immigrant youth who graduate from high school, pay taxes, and have been approved for deferred action status by the federal government. These individuals were brought to the United States through no fault of their own and are now able to lawfully live and work here under their deferred action status granted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This year the legislation again passed unanimously out of Subcommittee and with a large majority out of the Full Education Committee in the House. However, despite there being no economic impact, House Leadership once again sent the bill to the Appropriations Committee in order to let it languish and die.
After working closely with Attorney General Mark Herring, I am happy to report that he recently announced an opinion that will grant in-state tuition equity for these students. The Attorney General’s action was the right thing to do morally and economically. We invest in these students from kindergarten through 12th grade, but put up a barrier after graduation that only serves to drive away top talent from Virginia. Rest assured, I will continue to work to pass this legislation in order to ensure that this policy becomes a part of the Virginia Code and continues beyond the next four years.
SOL Reform - This year the General Assembly passed legislation to reform Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. This legislation will reduce the number of tests required by twenty-three percent (23%) in grades three through eight. It also enables local school boards to administer alternative assessments where an SOL test was not given. These alternative assessments allow for deeper, more comprehensive review of a student's understanding of the lesson objectives while giving teachers more space for creativity and flexibility in the classroom. Finally, the bill creates a Standards of Learning Innovation Committee, which is responsible for continually looking for ways to improve state assessments. The Committee members will include parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, curriculum specialists, business representatives, and members from the House of Delegates and State Senate. While this is a major step forward, I will keep fighting to improve our public education system by reducing the number of unnecessary tests and giving teachers the flexibility to innovate in their classrooms.
“Notario” Fraud Reform - Notario fraud takes place when a Notary Public claims that he or she can practice law on behalf of an individual, provide legal advice, or assist with immigration-related matters when the notary is not qualified to practice law. This type of fraud occurs far too often in immigrant communities across Virginia. In many other countries a Notary Public serves a very different function than they do in the United States. For instance, in Latin America Notarios Publicos may provide legal advice. Sadly, there have been several instances in Virginia of Notaries abusing this understandable confusion. In addition to costing hundreds - even thousands - of dollars in illegal fees for improper work, the mistakes that inevitably occur may have long-term consequences for the individual (immigration status, etc.). As the Chief Co-Patron, working across the aisle, I am happy to report that the legislation addressing this issue was passed by the General Assembly.
Gun Violence Prevention
Universal Background Checks – This year I introduced legislation to require universal background checks on all gun purchases. Unfortunately, this legislation was killed despite support from over 90% of Virginians. This commonsense gun violence prevention measure will make it harder for criminals to obtain dangerous weaponry and commit violent acts, while still protecting the 2nd Amendment rights of all Virginians. It is time we stop playing politics with people’s lives and start working on meaningful gun violence prevention legislation.
Housing Discrimination – Currently, both the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Virginia Fair Housing Act fail to provide protections for LGBT Virginians on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In order to protect the rights of LGBT Virginians and bring Virginia in line with seventeen other states that already prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, I introduced legislation to add these criteria to Virginia’s Fair Housing Act. While this legislation was unsuccessful, I was able to secure bipartisan support and will continue to fight for this protection until it becomes the law of the Commonwealth.
Workplace Discrimination – I am proud to report that Governor McAuliffe has followed in the footsteps of Governor Kaine in enacting an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination for state employees based on gender identity and sexual orientation. While this is an important step forward, I stand with Senators Ebbin and McEachin in support of SB 248, which will codify this protection. For too long, inclusion of sexual orientation as a form of employment discrimination has been left up to the whim of the Governor of Virginia. I am hopeful that the General Assembly will pass this legislation next year so that no matter who is Governor of Virginia, LGBT citizens of the Commonwealth will know that they are protected from employment discrimination.
Protecting Puppies and Consumers – This legislation (SB 228) will discourage pet dealers from purchasing and selling abused puppies by requiring them to disclose where the puppies were purchased. The bill also makes pet store owners liable for veterinary costs due to abuse and neglect from before the puppy was purchased by the owner. As a co-patron of this legislation, I am proud to report that this bill was passed by the General Assembly and will continue to advocate for animal welfare issues in the General Assembly.
Fox Penning – I am proud to report that the General Assembly has taken a major step forward in outlawing the cruel practice of fox penning across the Commonwealth. This legislation takes Virginia in the right direction by phasing out foxhound training preserves over the next four decades with a stringent permitting process through the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Absentee Voting for Virginians Age 65 and Older - Virginia's absentee voting system is antiquated and fails to meet the needs of our community. With the long lines we experienced during the 2012 Election and many of our neighbors working long hours on Election Day, we need an absentee voting system that encourages early voting. Unfortunately, despite receiving support from the Voter Registrar's Association of Virginia and the AARP, the House Privileges and Elections Committee refused to pass my legislation allowing no-excuse absentee voting for Virginians age 65 and older.
Restoration of Rights – Virginia has made major strides in improving the restoration of rights process thanks to the efforts of former Governor Bob McDonnell and current Governor Terry McAuliffe. However, despite bringing an unparalleled level of transparency and efficiency to this process, many Virginians who have served their time and are looking to rebuild their lives remain disenfranchised. As one of only four states in the country that does not have an automatic process for the restoration of voting rights, I will continue fighting to pass this legislation and move Virginia forward into the twenty-first century.
Follow me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Lopez4VA) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/Lopez4VA) for the most up-to-date information about what is going on in the Virginia General Assembly and the 49th District. For more constituent resources, useful information, and news updates, please visit my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org.
If you ever need help with a State Agency, want to express your support or opposition to a bill, or arrange a meeting with me down in Richmond or at home in the 49th District, please do not hesitate to contact my office at (571) 336-2147 or DelALopez@house.virginia.gov. I look forward to hearing from you!