Author Archives: Dick Hall-Sizemore

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported and summarized, the Northam administration has introduced a comprehensive bill covering a wide range of transportation issues. The proposal is being carried in the House by S[eaker Eileen Fuller-Corn (HB 1414) and in the Senate by Sen. Saslaw of Fairfax (SB 890).

This bill (the introduced House and Senate bills are identical) covers subjects ranging from the use of cellphones while driving to a major reconfiguration of how transportation revenue is disbursed to a decrease in vehicle-registration fees to an increase in gas taxes.  The scope of the topics covered in the bill’s 86 pages is mind-boggling.

It would seem that the bill would be in clear violation of the “one-object” rule of the Virginia Constitution:  “No law shall embrace more than one object, which shall be expressed in its title.”  To be fair, the bill does express in its title one object: transportation. That is comparable to saying that a bill expanding Medicaid and reforming foster care would have one object: social services. Nevertheless, the bill is safe from challenge on this score. In the House, the Speaker rules on whether a bill violates the “one object” rule, and I have no doubt she would rule in favor of her bill. Continue reading

Prison Space Fiscal Impacts

In 1993, the late, great Delegate Chip Woodrum of Roanoke introduced a bill, which was subsequently enacted into law, to hold the General Assembly fiscally accountable for any legislation it passed that would add to the Commonwealth’s prison population.  The statute has been tweaked several times since its original enactment, but the overall purpose remains the same: the General Assembly must provide a specific appropriation to cover a portion of the costs of housing any additional inmates resulting from the passage of a crime-related bill.  Around Capitol Square, any legislation meeting this criteria is known as a “Woodrum bill.”

Del. Chip Woodrum Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The statute directs the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (subject of a future post) to prepare the fiscal impact statement.  In accordance with the law’s provisions, the Sentencing Commission staff project how many additional inmates would be housed in each of the succeeding six years as a result of the enactment of a proposed bill.  It then takes the highest of those six annual projections and multiplies it by the average annual cost of housing an inmate in prison (supplied by the Department of Planning and Budget) to determine the fiscal impact of the bill.  If there is insufficient data available to make a determination of a bill’s impact, a provision of the Appropriations Act requires that an impact of $50,000 be assigned. Continue reading

Be Careful What You Wish For

Judge John Dillon (look familiar to regular readers of this blog?)

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

For the participants on this blog who have longed for the lifting of the yoke of the Dillon Rule from the necks of local governments, major relief is in sight. However, you may not like the area in which it is being contemplated: taxation.

Generally, Virginia counties have less authority than cities and towns to levy certain taxes. Cities and towns have general authority in the Code to levy the following taxes: admissions, transient occupancy, cigarette, and meals. As far as counties are concerned, the General Assembly over the years has given individual counties, as specified in the statutes, authority to levy some of these taxes. In some cases, that authority carries limits and, in the case of the meals tax, it must be approved by local referendum to be effective.

As reported in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, legislation has been introduced in both houses of the General Assembly to provide counties the same taxing authority as cities and towns. Furthermore, it seems that these bills have widespread support. Particularly striking is HB 785, introduced  by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, chairman of the House Finance Committee, the committee that has jurisdiction over tax bills. Co-patron of the bill is Del. Terry Kilgore, a senior Republican from Scott County. The bill would provide counties general authority to levy these taxes, without any caps or referendum requirement.

If any of these proposals are enacted and your county subsequently adopts a new tax or increases an existing one, you can’t blame those Democrats in Richmond; you need to blame your board of supervisors. And, of course, these measures would not eliminate the application of the Dillon Rule in the Commonwealth. What the General Assembly giveth, the General Assembly can take away.

Dems Da Rules

Majority Leader Charniele Herring and Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. Photo credit: Washington Times

As the late Sen. Edward Willey of Richmond used to say, “The rules are written by those with the votes.” Leading up to the convening of the new GA session, there was some speculation that the House Democrats, newly in the majority, might make significant changes in the House Rules. In the end, they largely stuck with tradition.

The rules of a legislative body are important. They establish the framework within which the legislature process is conducted. For example, they establish the standing committees of each house, along with the number of members of each committee and how those members are selected. They set out the procedures for handling legislation on the floor. They are esoteric and a great sleep-inducer, but the legislators who master the rules have a great advantage over their colleagues. Continue reading

How Much Will This Bill Cost?

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

With the 2020 General Assembly opening this week, it seems like a good time to talk about fiscal impact statements (FIS). Admittedly, FIS are a more mundane subject than the hysteria over gun laws, but they are important in understanding many introduced bills. This post will cover FIS for general legislation. There are specific requirements and a separate process for bills that may result in the need for additional prison beds. This separate process will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Although there is no legal requirement that it do so, it has long been accepted that the Department of Planning and Budget would provide estimates of the fiscal impact of proposed legislation. Preparing FIS and overseeing the process is one of the major functions of the agency and consumes a tremendous amount of staff time. After a FIS is completed, DPB submits it to the Legislative Information System, where is accessible to the public through a link on the main LIS page for each bill. A new FIS is typically prepared for each version of a bill as it moves through the legislative process. Continue reading

Another Tool in the Search for Affordable Housing

Jeff Bourne

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

This is going to be an interesting session; probably a nightmare for Republicans. Much of the public attention has been on gun legislation, but there are other areas in which Democratic initiatives have been bottled up in the past and now will have a much better chance of being enacted.

One of these areas is housing. In an earlier blog today, Jim has highlighted one proposed piece of legislation dealing with “middle” housing. There is another bill that I had heard about earlier, which I think also addresses a housing issue that we have discussed on this blog. That is HB 6, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne. D-Richmond. The bill would forbid someone from refusing to rent or sell a dwelling on the basis of the source of income or payment by the person seeking to rent or buy. In effect, it would prohibit landlords or property sellers from refusing to accept housing vouchers.

Bourne introduced this legislation in the 2019 session. It died in a House committee, without even being given the consideration of being referred to a subcommittee to be heard. Continue reading

Time to Go

Lee statue in U.S. Capitol

Two Virginia members of Congress have proposed replacing the statue of Robert E. Lee representing Virginia in the U.S. Capitol. I applaud this move. Being a lifetime Virginian who grew up immersed in the legacy of the Confederacy and the glory of Lee and Virginia, I think it is time for Virginia to move beyond its misguided glorification of the Civil War. I would like visitors to the U.S. Capitol to identify the Commonwealth with something other than slavery and the Civil War.

I am a little ambivalent regarding the replacement for the Lee statue. The Congressional proponents favor Oliver Hill. I have recently finished two books about Hill:  Margaret Edd’s wonderful We Face the Dawn and Hill’s entertaining and enlightening autobiography, The Big Bang. My admiration and appreciation of Hill are greater than ever. He deserves to be honored. My only reservation is that he does not come across as a “son of Virginia.” He was not proud to be a Virginian. Indeed, he had no reason to be; the state did everything it could to lessen his humanity. He spent his life fighting the state-supported system that tried to keep him and people like him from realizing their potential, all because of the color of their skin. Continue reading

Merry Christmas, General Assembly

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The most surprising item in Governor Northam’s proposed budget is the $200 million Christmas present to the General Assembly.

It comes in the form of an annual $100 million appropriation in the Central Accounts section of the budget bill for “uncommitted contingencies.” It is not unusual for that budget Item to contain appropriations for contingencies, such as industrial development actions, or for some special state agency programs. However, there is always some accompanying language setting out the limitations or conditions under which it can be spent. For this $200 million, there is no guiding or controlling budget language. Continue reading

Keep the Inspections

Tucked into the Governor’s transportation package is a relatively little item that is shortsighted. He is proposing to eliminate the requirement for an annual vehicle inspection. This idea has been floated before, but defeated.

One justification offered is financial.  The argument seems to be that the elimination of this requirement will result in savings for drivers that will help offset the proposed increased increase in the gas tax.  The fee for the annual inspection cannot exceed $20, and inspection stations can charge less. A savings of $20 per year is not going to matter to many people.

The Governor also seeks to justify the elimination by pointing out that studies show no correlation between safety and inspections. I have heard this argument before and, while I have not seen the studies, I have no reason to doubt them, other than my own experience. Continue reading

Early Budget News: Some K-12 Moderation

Well, it looks like the many forecasts of doom and budget profligacy on this blog were in vain.  According to this morning’s RTD, Governor Northam will be asking for an additional $1.2 billion over two years for K-12.  That is about half of the total cost of earlier projections of SOQ benchmarking costs and the additional money the Board of Education recommended. And it includes money for teacher salary increases, which was not included in the earlier estimates. It would seem that the Governor does not feel bound to go along with all the recommendations of his BOE.

The entire budget proposal will be released later today and the details will be available for poring over. Based on the newspaper report, the Governor may be proposing to roll into the SOQ some funding that was previously supplemental.  As I have commented earlier, that could be a concern.

— Dick Hall-Sizemore

Crazy about Guns

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

It’s going to be a fun G.A. session. Here are some quotes from the rally yesterday at the Capitol in opposition to Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw’s bill to outlaw assault weapons:

Retired engineer from Fairfax County:  “And without semi-automatic rifles, there is no way, not a chance in the world, that the free citizens of Virginia can actually combat tyranny in this state.”  [Does he actually believe that a tyrant could/would be able to seize power in Virginia?] Continue reading

Time to look at the Tobacco Commission again

The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) has again demonstrated that the legislature needs to re-examine its operations and, perhaps, overhaul it altogether.

First, a little background. TRRC was established in 1999 to revitalize Virginia’s tobacco region and compensate tobacco farmers for the decline in tobacco production. Funding for these activities was to come from the Commonwealth’s share of the Master Settlement Agreement between 46 state attorneys general and large tobacco manufacturers. Through a complex “securitization” of half of its future settlement payments, the amount available for TRRC was capitalized at $1 billion. In 2032, the MSA payments will resume. Continue reading

Raise My Tax, Please

Photo credit: WDBJ 7

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The voters in one of the most conservative and rural parts of the state recently acted contrary to stereotype and voted to raise their taxes.  Furthermore, that action was made possible by legislation sponsored by their Republican delegate in the General Assembly

Halifax County has been wrestling for several years with the issue of replacing the county’s lone high school. The general consensus has been that something needed to be done, either renovation or replacement. The daunting question was the projected cost: $88 to $99 million, depending on the option chosen. The county already had committed (under court order) to incurring substantial debt to substantially renovate the courthouse.  Therefore, it was felt that the current tax base could not support the debt needed for the high school project, without a substantial, and politically unlikely, increase in the tax rate. Continue reading

Tuition-free college?

It seems that the Northam administration is poised to propose actions that will address two of the concerns expressed in this blog—lessen the cost of higher education and help the middle class  In the tradition of well-timed leaks on budget proposals, the RTD reports today that the administration is considering some form of a tuition-free program for community colleges.

Although no final details are yet publicly available and those details are likely still being thrashed out in the budget development process, the basic outline seems clear. For low-income and middle-income students, the state would cover the difference between the total cost of tuition and any available federal aid. There would probably be some conditions attached to such assistance, such as the student committing to work in a public-sector job or in a “high-priority” field. Continue reading

The Issue of Guardianship and the Contribution of a Newspaper

Ora Lomax with a picture of her husband, William, who was committed to a nursing home against her wishes. Photo credit: Richmond Times Dispatch

On Sunday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a remarkable article. It was remarkable both in the amount of space the newspaper dedicated to it, 5½ whole pages, and its subject, guardianship, a subject about which little is known by the public, but that could affect anyone.

The publishing of this series of articles illustrates the continuing value of newspapers. The RTD invested a lot of resources into this story. It was a year-long investigation in which staff combed through the records of hundreds of guardianship cases originating in the Richmond circuit courts. They examined all the public documents related to those cases. They created a database with all the relevant data from those cases. They also looked at some guardianship cases filed in Henrico and Norfolk circuit courts to see how such cases were handled in different jurisdictions. They interviewed dozens of people and attended guardianship hearings. No other media for the general public could, or would, dedicate this amount of resources to a single topic. Continue reading