With a budget fight looming, the legislative session comes to a close

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Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo. Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo.

Virginia’s whirlwind regular legislative session has ended, but with a budget left to pass, lawmakers have yet to put Richmond in their rear-view mirror. All eyes are on March 24 and the start of a special session and an expected showdown over Medicaid expansion.

But it hasn’t been all deadlock and drama. Now awaiting the pen of Governor Terry McAuliffe are a number of reforms championed by local legislators, many of which enjoyed bipartisan support.

State lawmakers followed through on their promise of major mental health care reform in the wake of the November 19 attack on State Senator Creigh Deeds by his mentally ill son, who later killed himself. Albemarle Delegate Rob Bell’s “bed of last resort” bill requires state-run mental hospitals to take involuntarily committed people if clinicians can’t find another place for them to go. The bill, a direct effort to prevent what allegedly happened in the Deeds case—Gus Deeds was released from emergency custody after officials said they couldn’t find a psychiatric bed for him—will steer $5 million to institutions like Western State Hospital in Staunton to create capacity.

The state still doesn’t have a complete report from the Office of the Inspector General on the breakdowns that led to Gus Deeds’ release, and the much-publicized resignation of the report’s initial author, G. Douglas Bevelacqua, over claims of forced revisions has only highlighted the system’s failings further. Bell acknowledged there’s more work to do.

“Once you have the emergency piece fixed, the next step would be to look at upstream factors,” he said. “Is there a way to catch people before they get that far?”

“My personal goals with respect to mental health reform were met,” Deeds wrote in his end-of-session missive to constituents. The new law “changes the paradigm,” he said, effectively ending “streeting,” where patients like his son were released because of a lack of resources. “These changes in the law will give the state enormous tools in mental health crisis situations,” Deeds said, including the extension of emergency custody hold times from 48 hours to 72 hours.

Also key was the approval of a four-year legislative study commission tasked with developing a comprehensive mental health care delivery system that Deeds hopes will be a model for other states.

“I will not settle for less,” he said.

Another bipartisan effort led in part by a local: Changes to Virginia’s famously lax ethics laws. House Minority Leader and Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano joined his Republican counterpart, Kirk Cox, in pushing a package that caps the value of gifts elected officials can receive at $250, requires more disclosure, and sets up a State Ethics Advisory Commission.

There’s been criticism that the changes don’t go far enough. A Washington Post editorial characterized it as “so slack it would be disingenuous to refer to it as ‘reform.’” But Toscano said the bill “represents a modest step forward toward restoring some faith that citizens have lost” as the result of the corruption scandal that ensnared former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, who both face federal charges stemming from allegations that they traded influence for money and gifts.

Albemarle Delegate Steve Landes joined Deeds in successfully moving legislation to cut the number of Standards of Learning tests Virginia students take during their elementary and middle school years by 20 percent, though there are no changes to high school testing. It’s a reform schools have been asking for for years, and it’s expected to save the state $3 million.

Another Bell-sponsored bill that adds to the offenses for which voters can petition to remove an elected official from office passed unanimously in both houses. The legislation, inspired by a failed attempt to cut loose former Albemarle County Supervisor Christopher Dumler after his conviction on a sexual battery charge, adds that offense and several others—consensual intercourse with a child 15 years of age or older, indecent exposure, and peeping—to a list that was previously focused primarily on drug offenses.

Bell also backed a bill that requires Commonwealth’s attorneys to review and hold hearings on name-change requests by sex offenders—an issue that resonated locally, as C-VILLE had investigated the name-change request of so-called “Graduation Day rapist” Jeffrey Theodore Kitze ahead of the session. Also uncontroversial was Bell’s “revenge porn” bill, which will make it a class one misdemeanor to maliciously distribute sexual photographs.

Some perennial pet bills again fell short. Bell’s “Tebow Bill,” which would make Virginia one of 30 states to allow home-schooled students to play on public school sports teams, passed in the House but died in a Senate committee dominated by Democrats, though Bell said he planned to try to get it passed again in 2015. Another effort to pass a law making drug testing for welfare applicants and recipients mandatory also fizzled, as it did last year; the measure never made it out of the House Appropriations Committee.

And what of the chances for harmony in the looming budget session as the two parties battle it out over Medicaid expansion? All you have to do is look to local delegates’ comments as the session came to a close to get a sense of how far apart the parties remain.

“It is impossible to separate a major program like Medicaid from the budget deliberations,” Toscano said in a prepared statement last week.

“It’s dangerous to tie it to the budget in a way that imperils all the other items in the budget,” Bell said. “It’s hostage taking.”

  • http://restoringintegritytovirginiaregistry.blogspot.com Mary Devoy

    Issue #1:

    HB233- How name of person may be changed; sex offenders; probationers;
    incarcerated persons.

    On February 17, 2014 during the Senate Courts of Justice hearing on HB233 Delegate Rob Bell mentioned the C-Ville article Dodging Google about a Registered
    Sex Offender who had changed his name and his victim was unable to locate him
    on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry because of the change.

    I can confidently tell everyone HB233 will NOT fix the problem but I do know what will.

    The Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry already lists every offenders name,
    nickname, alias, maiden name and married name on their posting. No registered
    offender in Virginia is flying under the radar.

    The problem is the VSP website; it’s been an issue for the last 5.5 years that I’ve
    been an advocate using the registry.

    The VSP search queries are basic and inferior. If the VSP would update the labels/tags
    and search options on their website then Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc would pick up
    all of the information. A search engine can only capture the tags a website has
    assigned.

    If you’ve never searched the VSP website I suggest you do. Find a few people with
    multiple names (not just the one) then find a few full home addresses and write
    them all down. Then start a search from scratch by using a maiden name or an
    alias name (not the main name). Then do the same with their house number and
    street name (no city or zip code) or just the street name (no number). I bet
    you will have multiple searches that come up incomplete for the offender you
    just selected from the alphabet, county or zip code.

    If the purpose of HB233 is to make an RSO go through a hearing to get their name
    changed then that is the real intent. But if the case of a Google search not
    providing one of the names an offender has registered with the VSP is the goal
    here, then HB233 does nothing to fix the problem. The VSP website needs to be
    coded better, labels/tags for every name listed on an offenders posting then
    Google will find them in a search.

    I do not like it when Legislators or the media use Registered Sex Offenders (RSO) as Scapegoats and it happens regularly.

    RSO’s have enough difficulties in finding employment, housing, providing for their families and maintaining compliance when the Commonwealth makes absolutely no effort in advising them of their restrictions and regulations. But when an elected official and C-ville
    holds one RSO up as an example of someone trying to take advantage of the
    system and then use them as the reason to pass a law that will not even
    fix the issue they have claimed exists the voters and the readers have a right
    to know the truth.

    Issue #2:

    HB326- Unlawful dissemination or sale of images of
    another; person is guilty of Class 1 misdemeanor. AKA- Revenge Porn

    For any readers that missed this interview Attorney:Va. ‘revenge porn’ bill makes bad manners a crime
    http://www.nbc12.com/story/24862398/attorney-varevenge-porn-bill-makes-bad-manners-a-crime

    Legal Counsel to the Virginia Senate Courts of Justice Committee and NBC12
    Legal Analyst Steve Benjamin thinks the Revenge Porn bill is unconstitutional
    and Delegate Bell is still pushing for it to be signed into law. I thought
    Delegate Bell was a defender of our Constitution? That’s what he claimed when
    he was running to be the Republican candidate for A.G. in 2013.

    I attended the Senate Courts of Justice hearing on February 24, 2014 and I’ve
    transcribed the audio from the hearing.

    Mr.Benjamin told the entire committee

    “the person not be licensed or authorized to disseminate or sell I don’t understand what that means in the practical context. If I am lawfully in possession of an image then I can do whatever I wish with that image. I can sell it or I can publish that image as I am lawfully in possession of it but this seems to suggest otherwise that somehow I must have some additional authorization and we are unclear what form that authorization must take. The vagueness here sets up a 1st Amendment challenge. I can’t tell you that it would be ruled unconstitutional but it would certainly be challenged as unconstitutional….(inaudible)…… because it is vague. We could all argue or could debate all day long
    what constitutes authority because it’s the criminal code section it is too
    vague and unworkable.”

    “Vague and unworkable” plus it would create a 1st Amendment challenge and the Virginia Senate passed it anyway.

    1- If the images are hacked or stolen a crime has occurred and some sort of criminal charges should be applied.

    2- If the images were taken without the person in the image knowing about it then a crime has occurred and some sort of criminal charges should be applied.

    3- If someone is extorting money from the person in the image, then a crime has occurred and some sort of criminal charges should be applied.

    4- If personal information of the person in the image like full name, address, phone numbers, email addresses, place of employment or school are posted with the photos to
    create situations of sexual propositions, harassment and stalking, then a
    crime has occurred and some sort of criminal charges should be applied.

    5- Websites that specialize in revenge porn soliciting men to take and send in images specifically to humiliate those pictured in the image should be made illegal and shutdown
    by the government. And if they are charging a fee to remove the image
    that’s extortion, sue them!

    6- Once an image is sent to someone else they are lawfully in possession of the image and can do whatever they wish with the image. They can no longer manage who has a copy of it or where it is posted. Not days, weeks, months, years or decades later.

    If the image(s) were willfully distributed by the person pictured in them and they wind up posted on Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, etc or in other peoples in-boxes the person in the image needs to deal with their decision to send that image out into the world.

    But instead regret and shame has set in and the taker/sender of the sexual image
    wants someone to blame. They want a legal finger-to-point for their error in
    judgment and Delegate Rob Bell has recklessly allowed them an opportunity to
    blame others for their stupidity with poorly crafted legislation.

    Virginia should not be passing laws that are vague, unworkable and violate our Constitution. Lawmakers are placing the burden of proving the validity of laws in the courts onto the citizens of Virginia who must bank-roll a challenge and be willing to invest years of their time to prove it should have never been passed in the first place.

    It’s the Legislatures job to vet proposed State laws, NOT the citizens.

    At best the Virginia General Assembly should have made this a civil matter, not a
    criminal one. At least until better, more specific verbiage could be drafted
    and a possible violation of the Constitution was not looming overhead.

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