Citizens came to the on Thursday to tell Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Del. Ken Plum (D-36) what is on their mind as the 2012 Virginia General Assembly session begins next week.
The longtime legislators host this public meeting annually to get a feel for what constituents are thinking. Howell and Plum will be busy at the 60-day session. There are some 3,000 bills — as well as the $85 billion budget for 2012-14 — on the docket.
Howell, in her sixth term, is part of a Senate that is split evenly among Democrats and Republicans, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) purportedly being able to cast the deciding vote.
Howell says she is looking forward to meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus to figure out Bolling's limits.
"We view him as part of a the executive branch, not the legislative branch," said Howell. "He should not be voting on composition and rules and committee chairmanship. This is very important. Wednesday, we will get sworn in and will get into some kind of battle on the rules. We may end up in court. We may not."
The Democrats are a minority in the House, where Plum — representing Reston since 1982 — says his party "will have to protect ourselves from getting run over."
Plum says his first order of business will be the budget, which McDonnell presented Dec. 19.
"The session will be a difficult one for arriving at a balanced budget," Plum said. "We'll have to make some tough decisions. We suffer because revenues are not at the same level they were a few years ago. The need for state services, kids in k-12, mental health, higher education continue to increase while revenue is at a slower pace. Something's got to give."
Education was a topic of concern both from the legislators and from several citizens at the public meeting. The discussion included Northern Virginia's growing share of funding education in the rest of the state; state money going directly to funding pensions and not to classroom instruction; severe cuts for school support personnel; and the growing number of state universities with low four-year graduation rates and rising out-of-state admissions in order to add to the coffers.
A bill sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory (D-38) that died in the Senate last year stemmed from the . The bill mandates that before a child is interrogated by school personnel their parent be called and contacted and have a chance to be involved.
The bill will be introduced in the 2012 session, and John Farrell, a Reston lawyer and education advocate, said Tuesday he hopes it will pass this session.
"Some of our Democratic members of the Senate voted against it, but have since changed their mind," he said.
The ban on uranium mining came up several times. Howell said she still thinks mining causes health risks and will not support lifting the ban.
Several citizens asked for support in mental health programs and for special-needs and abused children, all of which could suffer budget cutbacks.
There was a plea to work again on allowing same-sex marriage and protecting the rights of of Virginians regardless of sexual orientation.
"Twenty-nine states, including Virginia, have no protections," said Reston Realtor Sloan Wiesen. "There is no federal protection…that leaves a lot of Americans worried what happens if they are in the workplace. Can they lose their livelihood?
"This is not a left-right issue," he said. "Can I ask you personally grab a cup of coffee with some of your Republican colleagues, no matter how unpalatable that would be, and see if there is some way to break through the needlessly partisan part of this?"
Said Howell: "This is one we have been working really hard on for 20 years. I am actually discouraged because I think it has been made much more difficult in Senate no matter how we package it. Virginians want to be fair and not believe in discrimination, but the people they elected do."