Area legislators prepare 2016 legislation

svaughan@vagazette.com

WILLIASMBURG — From hemp to pre-school eligibility, Historic Triangle legislators are poised to introduce a broad range of legislation at the 2016 session of the Virginia General Assembly.

If passed, the one that might have the biggest impact is a bill sponsored by Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, which would re-think the way Virginia looks at high school.

"I think this would revolutionize the way we teach children in high school," Miller said Wednesday. "It would do away with verified credit classes. Instead everyone would take general education classes for he first two years. Then, if you want to go to college, you'd still be on that college preparatory track. However, if you wanted to go make $100,000 a year operating a crane at the shipyards, you go onto a track where vocational education and apprenticeships or internships would be part of your education."

Miller said the proposal is part of the recommendations of the Standards Of Learning Commission.

Miller, who makes public education a major issue on his legislative agenda, also has another bill to reduce the number of SOL test required of public school students to the 17 required by federal law.

"We're testing too often," he said. "We have a generation of students who are good at memorizing things, but not at critical thinking," he said.

Miller will also again tilt at two of his personal legislative windmills — capping the interest rates charged by payday and title lenders and non-partisan redistricting.

"What I'm proposing this year is a non-binding referendum on the issue of non-partisan redistricting," he said. "This would show if the voters favor an independent commission or not."

You can't say Miller isn't persistent; the interest rate cap and non-partisan redistricting have been defeated repeatedly in past sessions of the General Assembly, as has another Miller bill calling for no excuse absentee voting for voters over age 65.

In the past, Miller's colleague in the Senate, Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, has been greater Williamsburg's legislative work horse. For instance, in the 2015 session of the General Assembly, Norment carried 27 bills and resolutions. But that's all changing this year as Norment adds chairing the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee to his workload. He said that the need to spend more time on the budget will limit him to about four bills this year. As of Friday the only two that had been pre-filed were the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget, which will take effect July 1, and the so-called "rump budget' bill that makes changes to the current budget, such as rolling an expected surplus forward.

Del. Brenda Pogge, R-James City, will be picking up some of the slack; she expects to file 21 pieces of legislation.

One of them will clarify that manufacture of or scientific research on industrial hemp products, which come from the same plant as marijuana, are legal for those with a state license and directs the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services to adopt regulations for a licensing program.

Another changes the definition of "large employer" and "small employer" for the purpose of determining what health benefits must be offered to employees. Current law defines a large employer as one with more than 50 employers. Pogge's bill would change that to 100 or more.

She's also carrying two bills dealing with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The first provides that if a public body is found to have violated certain meeting notice requirements under FOIA, a court may invalidate any action the body took at the illegal meeting.

The second shields from disclosure access to public library records of minors, unless the person asking for the records is a parent or legal guardian.

Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, said he'll continue to work on issues that are part of his agenda, including public education and military issues.

Noting that Democrats have less than 40 votes in the House of Delegates, he said some of that work will come in collaboration with Republican delegates.

"I really don't have any choice except to reach across the aisle," he said.

He said that he was working with Gov. Terry McAuliffe's administration on bills dealing with cyber security.

"I will be carrying some administration bills on that probably," he said. "I also want to make it clear that when you talk about cyber security and economic development opportunities that arise from that, you're not just talking about Dulles and Northern Virginia. I want the Peninsula and Southeast Virginia to be in those discussions, too."

Mason said he was also working on an issue for the WJCC schools — that some children now eligible for subsidized pre-schooling may not be eligible next year when the regulations change.

"I'm trying to look for a legislative solution to the issue," he said. "It's not clear if it can be addressed by statute. Changes have previously been made to the program in budget language. So It might require a stature or a budget amendment or both. Obviously, dealing with it though the budget will be more difficult."

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