While legislators have not yet come to an agreement on the state budget, they did pass hundreds of bills before the regular session of the Virginia General Assembly ended Saturday.
It is now up to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to sign, amend or veto legislation that has passed both the House of Delegates and Senate. The legislature will reconvene in April for a one-day session to act on any bills that McAuliffe amends or vetoes.
Ethics reform was a top priority for many lawmakers this year given last year’s gift scandal involving Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife. As the session was getting under way, the McDonnells were indicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges.
However, it took until the last day of the session for legislators to reach agreement on stricter rules.
The approved version of the bill prohibits tangible gifts from lobbyists valued at more than $250 but does not place restrictions on meals and travel. It also establishes an ethics advisory council, increases the frequency of disclosure filings to twice a year, lowers the threshold for a disclosable financial interest from $10,000 to $5,000, and subjects gifts made to immediate family members to disclosure.
Another bill that would specifically require the governor and attorney general to disclose gifts to their family members made it as far as a conference committee but did not pass.
While many of the bills aimed at tweaking last year’s transportation funding bill did not make it out of the General Assembly, three did.
Lawmakers repealed the new $64 registration fee for hybrid vehicles that was included in the 2013 funding package and issue refunds to anyone that paid the fee in advance for multiple years. Any registration costs that cover July 1, 2014 and beyond can be refunded.
McAuliffe has already signed this bill into law.
The state will have to pay an estimated $2.2 million in refunds in fiscal 2015 and will miss out on $7 million to $10 million per year in potential revenues from the fees, according to an analysis by the state budget office. The fee still applies to electric and alternative fuel vehicles.
Two bills focused on how the new transportation dollars are spent also won approval, although efforts to exert more control over how the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority selects the projects it funds with its share of state transportation dollars were not successful.
One bill requires the Commonwealth Transportation Board to set out new criteria for how it prioritizes construction projects, taking into account congestion mitigation, economic development, safety and accessibility. Language in the original version of the bill that would have set different criteria for Northern Virginia than the rest of the state was amended.
Another allows the Virginia Department of Transportation to make project recommendations to the NVTA when it is reviewing the transportation needs related to proposed land use changes in Northern Virginia.
Other transportation-related bills of note include a bill requiring drivers to give at least 3 feet of clearance when passing a bicycle, moped or animal-drawn vehicle and one that asks VDOT to develop a plan to eliminate fees for E-ZPass transponders.
Legislation reforming the state’s mental health care system, particularly emergency mental health care, was also top of mind during the 2014 session due to external events.
Late last year, Sen. Creigh Deed’s son Gus committed suicide after attacking his father, a Democrat from Bath County. Lawmakers passed more than a half-dozen bills aiming to address issues highlighted by that incident, as well as other facets of mental health care in the state.
One change would extend the time a person can be detained under an emergency custody order from six hours to eight hours. This can be the first step in involuntarily committing a person to a psychiatric hospital if they are a danger to themselves or others. The extension allows more time to locate an available inpatient bed.
The limit on temporary detention orders, which allow someone to be hospitalized after an evaluation by a professional, were also extended from a maximum of 48 hours to a maximum of 72 hours.
The bills also make state psychiatric hospitals a destination of last resort, stating that they must accept the patient if another facility is not available.
Lawmakers also ordered the creation of a statewide registry of acute psychiatric beds, to make it easier to find an available placement for an individual in crisis.
Two other mental health related provisions focused on colleges and universities. One bill would require state schools to include information on their websites about the level of psychiatric care available on campus. The other asks each state college and university to establish policies and procedures requiring faculty and staff to report someone exhibiting threatening or aberrant behavior.
Lawmakers approved two bills aimed at curbing teenagers’ use of electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine and simulate the act of smoking a tobacco cigarette using water vapor.
One restricts the purchase of e-cigarettes to people over 18 and the other prohibits the use of e-cigarettes in public elementary and secondary schools.
Public elementary and secondary school systems would be required to allow students with diabetes to carry and use supplies related to managing their blood sugar levels in school under a bill that passed both chambers. These supplies include blood glucose monitors, insulin pumps and a short-term supply of carbohydrates needed to increase blood sugar levels.
Lawmakers also delayed implementation of one of McDonnell’s top education initiatives, an A-F grading system for school performance. The system was supposed to go into effect this fall, but the bill would give the state Board of Education until December 2015 to finalize the new system.
The General Assembly also passed new protections for whistle blowers. The bill prohibits the firing or other retaliation against a whistle blower who is called to testify in a legal proceeding against the company or organization and allows the whistle blower to file a civil suit for damages if they believe they have experienced retaliation.
A bill introduced by Fairfax Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Dist. 34) would require pet stores or other licensed pet dealers that sell cats and dogs to provide customers with information about the animal’s breeder and makes it easier for customers to get reimbursed if the animal they purchase has health problems.
Customers would have 10 days to return the animal or request reimbursement for veterinary expenses up to the purchase price if a veterinarian certifies that the animal was unfit for purchase due to disease or congenital defects. Under current law, this provision only applies to purebred animals.
The window would also be extended to 14 days in the case of a dog infected with parvovirus. The provision was also amended to include animals that died, with veterinary certification.