Amid Political Rancor, Many Significant Unnoticed Bills Now LawApr 17, 2014
Amid talk of partisanship, gubernatorial vetoes and ongoing standoffs, some quiet victories have come out of the General Assembly and governor's office. Although not headline grabbing, several significant bills supported by The Family Foundation that will improve public policy in areas from education to religious liberty to government accountability, passed with hard work by allied organizations and bipartisan support in both chambers last winter, and recently were signed into law by the governor. Here's a round-up: HB 156, patroned by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-10, Leesburg) and SB 175, patroned by Senator Dick Black (R-13, Leesburg) clarify the definition of real property used by churches for religious worship that is exempt from property tax. Now, when churches purchase land or convert existing property for uses necessary to facilitate worship, such as a parking lot, they will not be charged tax on it.
HB 157, also patroned by Delegate Minchew, and SB 276, patroned by Senator Barbara Favola (D-31, Arlington), make a significant improvement in education choice and charter schools. Currently, if a regular public school is converted to a charter school, it must abide by the same regulations that make establishing charter schools from scratch almost prohibitive, which explains why so few have been established in Virginia. But these laws will at least help alleviate two concerns for families: allow siblings admission to the charter school if another sibling already is attending and it also waives the requirement that at least one-half of charter schools per division be for at-risk students, allowing all students to fairly compete for the opportunity. Special thanks goes to Delegate Minchew for his diligence on these four bills as they wound through a legislative labyrinth, especially in conference committee.
HB 258, patroned by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R-31, Woodbridge), solves a brewing problem on college campuses around the country and one festering in Virginia — so-called "free speech zones," which should be more accurately called "speech limitation zones." These are small, out of the way areas on campus, designed to isolate rallies, speeches and the like, while restricting speech everywhere else. On one campus (in a different state), a student was prohibited from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day! Our new law even has caught the attention of both state (Richmond Times-Dispatch) and national media (FoxNews.com).
Speaking of the Constitution, HB 197, which was subject to last minute games in the Senate as session came to a close, updates current law concerning supplemental materials used to teach our founding documents. Patroned by Delegate Steve Landes (R-25, Verona), it requires that those materials are historically accurate and contain correct information about the reasons for these documents and what they actually mean and do. Although passed by the House early on and with a large majority, it languished in the Sneate Education and Health Committee and seemed certain to die by committee inaction. Behind the scenes pressure on the committee leadership led to an unscheduled meeting and eventual passage.
HB 837, patroned by Delegate Mark Keam (D-35, Vienna), improves the transparency of Virginia's FOIA laws. It requires all state agencies to make it known on their web sites, in plain English, the basics of acquiring public documents, the expenses involved and a reasonable expectation of delivery. Believe it or not, the Mainstream Media, as well as state bureaucrats, fought this bill for two years running because the media did not want to cede its monopoly on sources! Some state agencies just didn't want the public to know how easy it is to access information they have a right to see! With the current administration, we're going to need all the government openness possible, as we've seen with the Department of Health. Delegate Keam deserves great credit for his persistence in guiding this bill to passage.
Some of these bills may look like they passed with ease. Votes can be deceiving. Almost all went through a tough slog, working and reworking language, dealing with behind the scenes opposition from special interest groups and politicians, restoring important elements in conference committee, and patience as some of this legislation was in its second go-round at the legislature.
While these new laws may not rise to the level of some landmark victories in recent years, do not underestimate their importance (read more here). Big government, inadequate education, the limitation of rights, bureaucratic secrecy and the like did not happen over night. It happened by concerted, constant, unrelenting incremental gains over years by the other side. Regaining ground is important, whether it's in yards or miles, because gaining all our policy objectives won't happen in one session . . . or several sessions.
These wins also prove that no matter who's in charge in Capitol Square, it's the only policy, not the politician, that's important. Despite partisan divides eagerly exaggerated by the media, we gladly will always work with lawmakers on either side of the aisle when they are right and are willing to propose policies that solve problems and improve lives.