Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Weekly Column - Week Five: A Deal on Misdemeanor-Felony Threshold, Coal Ash Continues

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, Springfield Connection, The Mt. Vernon Voice, and the Potomac and Stafford Locals in the week of February 6, 2018.
Week Five: A Deal on Misdemeanor-Felony Threshold, Coal Ash Continues
The fifth week of session brought a furious pace to legislating including some of the most contentious bills of the session as we approached “crossover” – the day the Senate and House are required to complete action on legislation originating in each chamber.  It was mostly a successful week for me.  Twenty-one of my bills are now set to pass the Senate to be considered by the House of Delegates.
First, Governor Northam announced an agreement to raise Virginia’s threshold between misdemeanors and felonies from $200 to $500.  Once enacted, Virginia’s threshold will still be the second lowest in the United States.  I have introduced this legislation every year for nine sessions I was pleased it is finally going to be enacted into law.  
My legislation to place a 36% interest rate cap on all consumer finance loans was sent back to committee for “additional vetting” after the online lending industry retained a top Richmond lobbying firm.  Luckily, my bill re-escaped the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with only three “no” votes and I hope it will finally pass this week.
All six of my coal ash bills were heard this week.  Ultimately, I mediated a compromise between Governor Northam, Dominion and environmental groups to continue the moratorium on closing coal ash ponds for twelve months, required Dominion to issue requests for proposal from coal ash recycling companies to recycle ash, and convene a joint committee of Senate and House members to investigate the coal ash problem over the next twelve months.  My bill also allowed the closure ponds where ash has already been removed so we do not continue to have open holes in the ground.
While I was disappointed that we did not completely resolve the issue this session, the ultimate disposition of these ponds will cost ratepayers billions of dollars and it is important to proceed carefully to both build support and make sure the correct outcome in justified.  I am hopeful that the information generated last year and over the coming months coupled with other legislators focused on resolution will help generate a consensus.  
Unfortunately, my bill to impose a four-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas east of Interstate 95 was rereferred to the Senate Finance Committee where it died on a tie (8-8) vote.  Some members were concerned it constituted a government “taking” although similar legislation has passed in numerous states and survived numerous litigation challenges.  I will try again next year.
The Health and Education Committee passed my legislation to allow low income high school students to take online classes without paying any fees and requiring schools to provide them with computers.  I introduced the bill after I discovered Fairfax and Prince William Counties charge free and reduced lunch families fees up to $345 to take online classes and do not provide computers.  The bill will be on the floor of the Senate this week.
The Equifax data hack highlighted the vulnerability of personal information environment.  My legislation to require credit bureaus to freeze credit at no charge was amended to a $5 fee and my legislation to clarify the process for freezing children’s credit was passed.  The bill passed committee and should pass the full Senate this week. 
Finally, the Senate passed major legislation repealing the cap on electricity rates that the General Assembly enacted in 2015 due to uncertainty created by President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that the current Administration has taken steps to repeal.  While there were some parts of the bill I did not like, the legislation takes all of Dominion’s over-earnings and reinvests it into necessary grid modernization, will increase Virginia’s renewable energy production by ten-fold (500 MW to 5,000 MW), increases Dominion’s shareholders’ payments towards low-income energy assistance, directs Dominion’s profits towards $450 million of coal ash cleanup expenses, and expands Dominion’s Strategic Undergrounding Program in ways that could lead to underground power lines on U.S. 1. 
You can always reach me at scott@scottsurovell.org if you have any feedback.  It is an honor to serve as your state senator.  

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