Though it was early on in the 2013 session of the Virginia General Assembly, local legislators were busy at work Monday preparing for a number of major issues that are expected to be discussed over the next few weeks. One of the recurrent themes was transportation funding in the commonwealth.
State Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk) said transportation will continue to be a major issue that needs to be addressed during this session, especially in the Hampton Roads area, but that a proposal by Gov. Bob McDonnell isn’t necessarily the best way to solve the problem.
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, in particular, need to solve transportation issues in order to remain viable places for military installations and businesses, he said, adding that the military has already put the state on notice that it needs to find some answers or the military will start leaving. In addition, he said, if goods can’t be moved in and out of ports, the businesses that rely on shipping will find other places to go.
"If we’re going to attract jobs, one of the first things they look at is transportation and infrastructure," he said.
While Northam credits the governor for bringing up transportation, he said that "to do away with the gas tax and increase the sales tax is shortsighted." The argument that increased fuel efficiency will eventually decrease revenue from the gas tax isn’t a good argument, he said, since the amount of gas sold has remained static and alternative fuels only comprise 1 to 2 percent of fuel usage.
"There are still plenty of cars that buy gas," he said.
In addition, he said, a measure that would place a fee on alternative energy vehicles amounts to penalizing them for reducing the use of fossil fuel and doing what’s best for the environment. Instead, he said, "we should be incentivizing vehicles that are more fuel efficient."
Northam said the best way to deal with the transportation problem is to establish a commission to determine transportation needs and the options for revenue, then to have a discussion and reach consensus.
"We’ll do what we can during session," he said. "But individuals come up with ideas, people find fault, and we go home without doing anything … The longer it’s put off, the more expensive it will be."
Dealing with transportation might require a special session, he said.
Northam will also be working on an effort to repeal an ultrasound bill passed by the General Assembly last year that mandates the procedure for women seeking abortions.
"That whole agenda was embarrassing for the commonwealth," he said, "and it interfered with the sacred woman/patient/doctor relationship … We were the laughingstock of the evening comedy shows."
As the only physician in the Senate, Northam will work to enact a bill that would prevent the legislature from mandating a procedure that isn’t medically indicated. The bill already has a lot of support, he said, both from women who feel that the government shouldn’t tell them what to do or not do regarding their reproductive needs and from the medical community, which feels the legislature shouldn’t be interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.
"We have a lot of challenges—the economy, transportation, education, the environment," said Northam, "and we shouldn’t be talking about whether a woman should have an ultrasound."
While a story made national news that Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment had tried to make a deal with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw on the ultrasound issue, Northam said the deal hadn’t been discussed in his circles and that it apparently hadn’t amounted to much.
Norment (R-James City County) failed to appear for an appointment with Gazette-Journal reporters and couldn’t be asked about the matter.
Northam is also taking the lead on a bill to require that recreational sports leagues using public school facilities be required to abide by the same guidelines for concussions that the schools use.
"The primary goal is to protect student athletes," he said, "but we don’t want to put the burden on the schools."
The guidelines would probably include a requirement that in order for a recreational league to be insured, it would have to abide by the same guidelines as the schools, said Northam. Existing guidelines require that a student showing signs of a concussion be removed from play and not allowed to return until a health care professional has given the O.K.
Prompted by a third grader named Matthew who complained to him about a parent who always used cigarettes while driving, Northam last year initiated Matthew’s Bill, which would make it unlawful to smoke in a vehicle when there’s a minor present.
Northam said that diseases and disorders associated with second-hand smoke include sinus infections, sudden infant death syndrome, and asthma. The measure passed the Senate but not the House of Delegates last year, he said, but "word is that there are some more House members who are supportive," so he’s going to try again.