The 2015 session of the Virginia General Assembly has ended, and while there was no overarching issue that dominated our discussions, several significant pieces of legislation were passed.
We approved a budget that does not raise taxes but contains a two percent raise for state employees, state police and college faculty and a 1.5% increase in the state’s share of teacher pay.
It also included $3.2 million to support the ion collider project at Jefferson Lab and $250,000 to address encroachment at Langley Air Force Base.
Major bills approved this session dealt with improving the reporting of campus sexual assaults, strengthening oversight of day care centers and ethics laws for public officials. We also passed several bills addressing health care. HB 1940 will provide health insurance coverage to 5,000 children for autism treatment. Another allows those suffering from severe epilepsy to be able to use marijuana oil to help their treatment. A final bill expands terminally ill patients’ access to drugs not yet approved by the FDA.
2015 was a very successful legislative session for me, with many important bills signed into law.
Education remains my highest priority. This year my bills dealing with SOL retakes and military-connected students passed the Senate and House and have been signed into law.
Legislation allowing elementary and middle school students the opportunity to retake an SOL exam if they failed by 25 points or less will enable more students will pass SOL’s. High school students are currently allowed to do this and statistics show that about one-half pass the test on their second try.
My bill identifying students with a parent in the military will enable every teacher to know which students have parents serving our county at home or abroad. These students face special challenges – including changing schools every few years, making new friends and watching their mother or father deploy for long periods of time. This legislation will allow teachers to provide students the help they need during difficult transitions. In addition, having accurate numbers of military-connected students will ensure Virginia receives its fair share of federal funding.
SB 1020, which would have reduced the number of SOL tests to the 17 required by the federal government, was killed in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Currently we have 29 SOL tests and I believe that is excessive. We should be accountable and know our students are learning, but schools spend too much time teaching to the test. I will offer this bill again in 2016.
I passed legislation repealing the ability of the state to take over failing schools. The school takeover bill, passed in 2013, was bad policy since under our constitution, localities, not the state, have the responsibility to run schools.
Combating Sea Level Rise and Recurrent Flooding
Hampton Roads is the second most vulnerable area in the country to experience flooding – second only to New Orleans. In the past decade, a combination of rising water and sinking land has resulted in the sea rising 3 inches. We cannot delay finding a solution to this critical issue that affects us all. My legislation requiring localities in Hampton Roads to include their plans for sea-level rise and recurrent flooding in their comprehensive plan has been signed by the governor.
SB 1443 also requires localities share their plans with their neighboring cities and counties. For the first time, we will now have a regional approach to combating sea level rise.
In an effort to protect our children, I introduced SB 1068, which prevents e-cigarettes from being sold within 1,000 feet of a school. It would also ban candy flavored nicotine for e-cigarettes and merchants would be forbidden from giving out free samples. Although this legislation was defeated, we will now require child-proof caps on the nicotine and other liquids used in e-cigarettes.
Two of my bills passed the Senate by wide bi-partisan margins but were killed in House of Delegates subcommittees on unrecorded, party line voice votes. Legislation allowing registered voters 65 years and older to vote absentee without providing an excuse was killed. SB 824 allowing citizens the opportunity to decide whether Virginia should establish an independent redistricting commission to draw political boundaries was also defeated. It is essential we remove those who have a vested interest in the outcome from drawing district lines. These are important bills that will go a long way to increase voting and improve representation in Virginia. I have introduced redistricting reform for the past 8 years and I will continue to fight to make it the law.
I was honored to be named Policymaker of the Year by the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education and was also named Legislator of the Year by the Virginia Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (VAHPERD) for my efforts to increase physical activity among school children. The Virginia State Reading Association also honored me by naming me their Friend of Literacy and I have become the only person to be given this award twice.
During my eight years in the Senate, I have been a strong advocate for SOL reform and improving education, protecting our children and our environment, increasing jobs and economic opportunity and creating an independent redistricting commission. I am proud that I have worked across the aisle to find common-sense solutions for many of our most pressing issues.
It is an honor representing you in the Senate and I look forward to returning in 2016.
Senator John Miller