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RICHMOND — A big political year in Virginia begins in earnest today, Wednesday, when the General Assembly opens its 2013 session and confronts a host of contentious and controversial issues.
Over a period of 46 days, lawmakers will decide whether to lift Virginia’s ban on uranium mining and try again to find a fix for the state’s chronic transportation funding problems.
Last month’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school will revive debates over school safety and gun control.
Democrats will make a push to establish a state-based health benefits exchange and expand eligibility for Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul, but will face opposition from a Republican majority and Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Legislators from Southwest Virginia and other parts of the state will take another stab at scrapping the state’s post-Labor Day school opening law and giving local school boards responsibility for setting their calendars. The outcome may determine whether school divisions in the Twin Counties can retain their ability to start classes before Labor Day.
All of this will occur at the outset of a year in which Virginians will choose a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and all 100 House of Delegates seats will be up for election. McDonnell also hopes to cement his legacy in the final legislative session of his term by winning support for education reforms and transportation funding. (Read the related story HERE.)
The Senate is not up for election this year. But the climate in the evenly divided chamber could be as turbulent as it was last year, when Republicans used the tie-breaking vote of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to take working control of the chamber and determine the makeup of Senate committees.
Bolling again will wield the gavel as the Senate’s presiding officer. But after ending his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last month — and sharply criticizing the party’s presumptive nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — Bolling said he would speak with a more independent voice on policy matters.
Bolling wasted little time making good on his promise, announcing last month that he opposes lifting the state’s moratorium on uranium mining and milling. Bolling staked out his position a week after a fellow Republican, Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, announced he would introduce legislation to end the moratorium and establish a regulatory program for the industry.
The uranium debate
Watkins’ legislation could be an initial step in a long process toward permitting Virginia Uranium to mine one of the nation’s largest uranium deposits in rural Pittsylvania County. While proponents have touted the potential economic benefits, opponents have raised concerns about potential environmental and health hazards associated with mining waste, especially in the Roanoke River basin downstream from the proposed site.
The two legislators who represent the site of the proposed mine — Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County) and Del. Don Merricks (R-Chatham) — oppose lifting Virginia’s 3-decades-old moratorium on uranium mining.
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy, a legislative panel, met this week and could decide whether to recommend a proposed regulatory framework for the industry.
“It’s probably the most important issue I’ve ever had to vote on,” said Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke), a member of the commission’s uranium mining subcommittee, who hasn’t made up his mind about whether he would vote to lift the moratorium.
“My position is that, until the bill gets filed, until the bill goes through the process, it’s too important for me to just jump out now and say I’m for it or against it, because I want it to go through the process,” Ware said in a recent interview.
Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), who also sits on the coal and energy commission, said state lawmakers must decide whether “we trust that we can put a regulatory system in place and do we trust the regulators to enforce the regulatory system so that it can be safely done.”
“I will vote ‘yes’ if I trust that we can put a regulatory framework in place and the federal government can maintain its regulatory framework so uranium mining is safe, and I’ll vote ‘no’ if I don’t believe those two things,” Habeeb said.
McDonnell said last month that he will propose a transportation funding package that could produce at least $500 million in annual revenue by 2019 and eliminate the need to transfer road construction money to maintenance, but he has yet to provide details.
Lawmakers in both houses are proceeding with their own proposals to generate new transportation revenue. But after years of legislative gridlock, it’s unclear whether the General Assembly can settle on a long-term fix in a session slated to last just six-and-a-half weeks.
“Like the governor says, it’s a math problem,” House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford County), told reporters last month. “Everybody knows we’ve got to do something, I think. But we just have to figure out how we’re going to do it.”
Watkins has proposed a 5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and some income tax reductions to mitigate the gas tax’s impact on working class Virginians. In the House, Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax County) will ask lawmakers to eliminate the state’s 17.5 cents per-gallon gas tax and replace the revenue by increasing the sales and use tax from 5 percent to 5.9 percent.
Sen. Ralph Smith (R-Roanoke County) said he is trying to develop a proposal to combine a gas tax increase with income tax reductions to generate more transportation revenue without putting a hit on Virginia taxpayers.
“This is a workable idea, I do believe, and I’m hoping somebody will come up with a still better workable idea,” Smith said.
McDonnell last month revived a proposal to gradually increase the share of the sales tax dedicated to transportation to 0.75 percent over five years. But he could have a tough time getting it through the state Senate, where a similar plan died last year.
“That hopefully is dead on arrival,” said Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke). “They keep trying to do that, and we keep fighting back on it.”
“I think that the Senate would be very wary of that, although I personally very much support it,” said Sen. Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg), the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I think that transportation is a core part of state government.”
Newman said last month that the idea could find its way into a larger transportation funding package, and that he expects multiple proposals to be introduced.
“I think it’s probably best to take a look at all of the plans out there before we make a final decision,” he said.
Pre-Labor Day school
Southwest Virginia legislators could find themselves waging another fight to allow public schools to start classes before Labor Day. Schools in the City of Galax and Carroll and Grayson counties traditionally have been able to open before Labor Day by filing for a waiver from the state because of weather-related closings. The argument is that starting after Labor Day would potentially push the end of the school year into mid-June, should students miss numerous days due to winter weather.
Habeeb is again sponsoring a bill that would scrap the state’s post-Labor Day school opening law and give local school boards control over their own calendars. A similar bill passed the House last year before being defeated on a 9-6 vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Some lawmakers have raised the possibility of grandfathering localities that now have waivers.
“To me, this is about educating kids,” Habeeb said. “It’s a generational issue. We’ve got literally an entire generation of kids who have come through our public school system with their localities not having control of their calendars. The sooner we fix that, the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
Smith supported the statewide bill last year.
“I believe that we get closer all the time and I have reason to believe that we’re a little bit closer till we get over the hump this year,” Smith said.