According to Senator Mark Obenshain, the Virginia General Assembly is not boring (in an email with today’s date). Could that guy waving around an “assault weapon” have something to do with it?

Now I’ve Seen Everything: Joe Morrissey’s Gun, Election Bills, and Transportation Plans

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At least in Richmond, the dire weather forecasts for the end of last week were mostly hype – which, come to think of it, is rather fitting. A lot of hype surrounds the General Assembly session as members angle for the best coverage and promote their bills with a vigor not always commensurate with the legislation’s impact. And then there’s the point-scoring. That, at least, is always in the forecast.

Sometimes, though, the point-scoring goes awry, as when a Democratic Delegate took to the House floor on Thursday waving an AK-47 to make a point about gun control. All he ended up proving is that he had very little idea how to control his own gun, though I’ll admit that Del. Joe Morrissey with a gun is among the more compelling arguments the Democrats can muster for gun control.Del. Joe Morrissey with a gunBut not that compelling: the next morning, I voted in committee against a series of bills designed to chip away at our Second Amendment rights. Only “chip away” might be an understatement. There were bills banning most pistols, prohibiting private sales, and allowing localities to ban guns on any public property whatsoever. I voted against these and similar bills.

In the committee I chair, Privileges & Elections, most of the action last week centered around legislation designed to allow early voting in Virginia in various forms. Some bills proposed allowing “any-reason” absentee balloting, eliminating the requirement that you indicate a reason—work, college, travel, health, first responder status, and so on and so forth—why you are voting absentee. Others would have gone even farther, turning Election Day into several weeks of election days in which voters could vote early and in person.

Such measures are, of course, costly and an invitation to fraud. We rightly make it easy for anyone who needs an absentee ballot to get one. Our polling places are open thirteen hours on Election Day; only five states have them open longer. Many localities do need to take steps to reduce lines and speed up the process, but these are steps in the wrong direction. The committee rejected most of these bills.

Of course, the biggest news out of Richmond is the Governor’s transportation package. Almost everyone agrees that we need a far greater focus on transportation. In many parts of the Commonwealth, congestion is a daily tribulation, and we have serious issues of maintenance delayed and construction postponed. Everyone knows this. Where the consensus breaks down, naturally, is on how best to meet Virginia’s transportation needs.

The Governor’s proposal eliminates the 17.5 cents / gallon gas tax while bumping the sales tax from 5 to 5.8%, with the additional sales tax (and a little more besides) earmarked for transportation.

I firmly believe that we need to find ways to put more resources into transportation, but that’s a matter of prioritizing transportation spending within the existing budget – not of raising taxes.  I know what some of you are thinking: “Easier said than done.” And that’s fair. Increasing transportation funding without raising taxes is a challenge – but after all, aren’t members of the General Assembly elected to tackle those sorts of challenges? Raising taxes is “easy” from a budgetary standpoint, but it’s tough on Virginians. We have to find another way.

And as it turns out, there are things we can do. First and foremost, when Virginia brings in unanticipated revenue, let’s put it toward transportation! We’ve run a surplus three years in a row, to the tune of $1.4 billion, but less than $21 million of that went to transportation. That’s a paltry 1.5% of the surplus.

This year, I’m carrying legislation that dedicates our future surpluses (after we’ve made the constitutionally mandated deposit into the Rainy Day Fund) to the Transportation Trust Fund. Had this been in place for recent years, we would have averaged just under $400 million in additional transportation funding each of the past three years.

We should also look at increasing the percentage of the existing sales tax that goes to transportation. This is part of the Governor’s proposal, and it’s something I’ve proposed in the past. I concur with the Governor’s recommendation that we increase the current allocation – but not that we also raise taxes. Virginians don’t need that added burden.

Finally, if we’re talking about prioritizing transportation, we need to make sure that whatever monies are deposited in the Transportation Trust Fund aren’t raided to pay for unrelated programs, as has already happened three times. That brings me to one final transportation initiative, my Lockbox Amendment, which would ensure that money deposited into the Transportation Trust Fund – most of it coming from taxes specifically related, and dedicated, to transportation – is spent exclusively on transportation projects.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, always one of the busiest days of the General Assembly session as groups from across the Commonwealth stop by to visit. Perhaps you’ll be among them. If so, I hope you’ll stop by my office to say hello!

Best regards,

Mark Obenshain

Here is an email Obenshain sent out on the 14th of January. This email explains Obenshain’s priorities for this session of the General Assembly, and it is well worth reading. You looking for a new Attorney General? Then consider this man’s proposals.

More Legislative Priorities for the 2013 Session (Part 2)

On Friday, I wrote you to detail a few of the bills that I’m carrying this session, but I couldn’t list all of my priority bills in a single email without taxing your patience. If you were on any political email lists last year, you probably gleaned the fact that many consultants think the optimal length is about 150 words. Well, forget that—at least for now. Today I want to pick up where I left off in outlining my own legislative agenda, so I hope you’ll bear with me once more.

Providing New Tools for Investigating Violent Crime

Multijurisdiction Grand Juries (MJGJs) are among the most effective investigative tools available to law enforcement, designed to help facilitate long-term complex investigations into complex criminal activity. They are vital, among other reasons, because witnesses may be compelled to testify (if granted immunity), because they allow investigations to take place across jurisdictional lines, because a special prosecutor is appointed to lead the investigation, and because they provide the tools prosecutors need to untangle more complex crimes.

Years ago, I amended the statute to bring it to bear on gang crimes. In my own area, the Shenandoah Valley MJGJ alone has secured hundreds of gang-related indictments, and I know that many other regions have seen similar results. This year I’m carrying legislation to broaden the investigatory scope of MJGJs to cover other forms of violent crime, like mob-related felonies, carjacking, criminal sexual assault, and arson of an occupied building.

This expansion will provide an important new tool for law enforcement to prosecute heinous crimes and help keep our communities safe.

Securing Conscience Protections for Student Groups

Freedom of religion and of association are fundamental liberties, enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but we are witnessing policies at some educational institutions that put significant limits on those freedoms. It first made headlines at Vanderbilt University with the adoption of a so-called “all-comers” policy for student organizations, but it hasn’t stopped there. These “all-comer” policies sound good, but they can force a religious, political, or any other organizations to accept members that are not committed to their values or beliefs—including into leadership positions in those groups.

I know: who could be opposed to something called an “all-comers” policy? But what the policy means is that student groups no longer have a right to establish their own standards or requirements for membership or leadership.  These “all-comers” policies mean that a Young Democrats club would have to accept a Republican as a member and even let them run for president of the club, and that a Christian group couldn’t require its members or officers to profess faith in Christ.

Freedom of association is at the very core of any organization, since organizations exist to advance a cause or to share a bond – something almost impossible if they can’t require members to agree to certain principles or beliefs. This year, I am introducing carefully tailored legislation to address this issue, ensuring that student groups cannot be discriminated against for rallying around their core convictions.

Ensuring the Integrity of the Ballot

We made progress last year by doing away with the affidavits that have long provided a legal alternative to showing some form of ID at the polls, but amendments during the veto session significantly watered down the final bill. Virginia is long past due for an intelligent photo ID bill, and I’m reintroducing such legislation this year.

I first introduced legislation requiring photo ID at the polls in 2005, during my second session, and I’ve long championed this common sense provision to ensure that legitimate votes aren’t diluted by election fraud. My bill would provide Voter Photo ID Cards free of charge to registered voters otherwise lacking photo ID.

I’m also introducing legislation linking the DMV photo database with the electronic poll books used by election officials, allowing them to see a photo of most voters who arrive at the polls. The legislation provides for a mechanism by which election officials can add photos to the system as well, for voters who aren’t in the DMV database.

Finally, I’m carrying legislation authorizing the State Board of Elections to crosscheck voter rolls against the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program lists to identify any registered voters who may not be citizens. This would help flag suspect registrations, but action on them wouldn’t be automatic; the State Board would then review the flagged registrations and take further action as need be.

The right to vote is a fundamental one. Unfortunately, some tend to forget that fraudulent votes undermine that right by diluting the ballots of lawful voters. These bills will not burden or interfere with the rights of any legally eligible voters. To the contrary, they will help ensure that their vote counts.

Enhancing Educational Opportunity

This session, I am continuing to work with Governor McDonnell to reform our outdated tenure system that awards tenure to K-12 teachers after only two years in the classroom and which provides little opportunity for feedback to help teachers improve.

I’m also reintroducing charter school reform proposals designed to allow charter schools to operate the way they’re intended – to give them the latitude to innovate, and to make it easier to start a new charter school, providing additional economic opportunity to students.

After all, that’s the priority, isn’t it? All of our educational policies should be geared toward improving the quality of education here in Virginia and helping to make us not just nationally but globally competitive again.

As Governor McDonnell said in his State of the Commonwealth Address, endorsing my charter school legislation, “The best public charter school operators in the nation will not come here because we make it nearly impossible for them. We need new charter school laws that demand excellence, set clear standards, and welcome the best charter schools into our communities … These ideas will make it much easier for proven charter schools to open up. Better schools mean better jobs and a stronger Virginia.”

Other Issues

I am, of course, carrying a number of other bills as well, and as always, I welcome your questions, comments, and concerns about any legislation or budget items pending before the General Assembly, and hope that you will not hesitate to share your thoughts with me!

Best regards,

Mark Obenshain

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