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Prison funds sought in state budget

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Once again, Sen. Bill Carrico is trying to get the state to open a dormant prison in Grayson.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Virginia’s budget crunch could again mean no funding for a long-completed but still unopened prison in Grayson County, acknowledges the facility’s main proponent in the state Senate.
Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Fries) has been lobbying for prison funding to be included in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget, and the senator feels certain that the governor is sympathetic to the idea.
McDonnell has already ordered state agencies to think of budget-saving measures in case the country goes over the dreaded “fiscal cliff” and automatic federal spending cuts go into effect.
“It’s looking kind of grim as far as the budget goes,” Carrico said.

Still, he knows that McDonnell is listening to the concerns about the Mount Rogers Correctional Center sitting unused for years.
When Carrico submitted a similar budget request to fund the new facility during the 2012 General Assembly session, the empty prison already had cost the state $715,000 just for maintenance and utility payments while waiting for the state to come out of its funding limbo.
Plans for the prison call for 350 employees to watch over medium-security prisoners.
Carrico told The Gazette last week that he keeps repeating his selling points about the prison  — how state inmates are contributing to crowding in places like the New River Valley Regional Jail, and how the new prison in Grayson could operate more efficiently than older state correctional facilities.
It’s hard to know what’s going to take place in the 2013 legislative session  right now, the senator said. “It’s my top priority and I want to see it happen.”
Other legislative issues that Carrico is working on include:

SJ 261 — Constitutional amendment; expands freedom of speech provisions.
This revisits the prayer-in-school idea that Carrico first proposed when he served as a House of Delegates representative.
This proposal “expands the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution of Virginia to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public school property,” according to a summary of the bill.
“The amendment also provides that the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, including public school divisions, shall not compose prayers and shall not require any person to join in prayers or other religious activity.”
This time Carrico did things a little differently, pinning the proposal to First Amendment free speech rights instead of trying to change language first written by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson on freedom of religion.
“That’s always been my argument, that it’s free speech,” Carrico said.
This is the first time Carrico has offered the proposal in the state Senate.
As with all state constitution amendments, this bill will have to twice receive the approval of a majority of legislators.

SB 722 — Emergency absentee ballots; ballots provided to hospitalized voters.
If approved, this proposal would permit “an electoral board to designate a hospital administrator to serve as its representative and to provide applications for emergency absentee ballots to hospitalized voters.”
Several calls came into Carrico’s office about this after sudden health problems hospitalized patients just before Election Day and they were unable to leave the hospital to vote.
It’s a fairness issue, Carrico told The Gazette. “No one knows if they’re going to get sick the day before an election.”

SB 720 — Transient occupancy tax; adds Grayson County to list of counties authorized to levy.
This proposal seeks to allow Grayson to collect a transient occupancy tax from commercial lodgings, just like many other Virginia localities do.
Carrico said that Grayson County officials requested this proposal.

Criminal Record Bill
This as-yet-unsubmitted bill co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Black would expunge certain minor offenses from a person’s criminal record.
Minor criminal charges can keep people from landing lasting employment, Carrico noted.
So, he and Black plan to submit a bill that applies to people convicted of misdemeanor charges like simple possession of marijuana or possession of alcohol. It would expunge their records under certain conditions, so those minor offenses won’t “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Conditions include going 10 years without another offense and meeting all court-imposed requirements.
That would keep people from suffering from past mistakes, Carrico said.