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February 17, 2004

Dear Carl,

We are halfway through the General Assembly session. The House finished its non-budget business today and it is time for us to begin taking up Senate-passed legislation. With only 18 business days left until the scheduled adjournment, both houses will be working long hours to complete each other's docket. While we have spent hours debating divisive social issues, we have just really started the important debate about our next two-year budget. After killing all revenue measures in committee, the House Leadership decided on Friday--in an admission that more revenues are needed--to come to the table with an estimated $520 million in new taxes by eliminating several business sales tax exemptions. Today, four days later, the package easily passed the House on a largely party line vote.

On first blush, the tax package is tempting because it taxes entities that do not now pay sales taxes. Unfortunately, in our area, it might cause Arlington-based U.S. Airways to leave Virginia and would damage efforts underway by the Airport Authority to attract new air service, it also would require all the regulated utilities to pay, which would eventually be passed on to consumers. As written, the plan also would likely drive maritime business away from the seaports in Hampton Roads. Those who voted against the plan were concerned that not enough time had been given to examine the economic impact of these changes and the job losses that might occur as a result of the action. (1 abstained on the vote due to a provision that specifically impacts companies that I have represented for the last fourteen years.)

Next week, we will examine a House budget that is based on the assumed adoption of these new taxes. As you recall, the Governor's proposed budget funds a $1 billion shortfall over two years by increasing the sales tax by one cent to 5.5 percent. (The proposed income tax changes are essentially revenue neutral with more exemptions/ deductions at the lower end and a higher rate on marginal adjusted gross income over $100,000 per year.) The Senate tax package will also include a gas tax increase. Both proposals "means test" and phase out the senior deduction for wealthier senior citizens. If you would like a side-by-side of the proposals, please contact my office.

On the home front, three of lily bills passed the House and are now before the Senate. HB 891 requires the State Health Commissioner and the Director of the Department and the Social Services to maintain an updated database of nursing homes and assisted living facilities for the purpose of power company prioritization after a power outage. A poor response in the wake of Hurricane Isabel demonstrated the need for such a database as frail seniors went without power in some places for days.

HB 894 amends the Property Owners Association Act to clarify that Board minutes are available to homeowners at the same time they are made available to the Board members. Although need for the bill arose out of a dispute in one of our large associations, it was an issue of interest to associations generally as well as to homeowner activists. In different Code section, condominium associations can keep all draft documents from homeowners until they are approved by the condominium board. In working on the bill language, that level of "protection" for volunteer board members was found unnecessary. However, board members should not be put at a disadvantage either with a demand for immediate release of draft minutes. Hence, the language that requires simultaneous release of draft minutes to homeowners and board members. For small associations that do not meet often, draft minutes must be available to the public no later than 60 days alter the meeting.

HB 1485 is a bill requested by Fairfax County, fire departments, and local firefighters and paramedics. The bill authorizes local governments to provide civil liability insurance to its Operational Medical Director (OMD), a person who in Fairfax County is not an employee nor is he an individual that can be covered under current law by local government. Last year, however, the State Fire Marshal issued new regulations that require the provision of civil liability insurance. Paramedics work under the direction of, and follow the protocols spelled out by, the OMD. Fairfax County contracts for these services to an emergency practice physician.

A fourth bill, HB 890, eliminates library funding formula provision that discriminates solely against Fairfax County by reducing the per capita allotment for the population that exceeds 600,000. Fairfax is the only jurisdiction in the Commonwealth that exceeds that population cap. Since the bill would require a re-distribution of funds throughout the state without my budget amendment, the bill was "re-referred" to the Appropriations Committee where its fate will be determined as part of the budget process. Every member of the Fairfax County delegation signed on as co-patron to the bill. One of the co-patrons, Del. Vince Callahan (R-McLean), is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Due to the dire budget circumstances, the additional money needed to hold the other library systems harmless while Fairfax is funded fairly will be hard to secure. However, I am not giving up yet!

Two of my bills to 1) better control the pace of growth (HB 893) and 2) to protect more mature trees from the chain saw during development were referred to the Commission on Growth and Development. This study commission is attempting to develop policy that will help fast growing communities like ours better cope with growth. HB 893 is an "Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance." It would require landowners to wait for a set period until roads, schools, water, and public safety concerns were addressed before additional home building could commence. The Growth Commission made progress last year and will be considering my proposal and similar proposals in the coming year.

A sample of other legislation the House has passed on for Senate consideration includes bills that restrict access to emergency contraception, requires the state's 19 abortion clinics to upgrade to ambulatory surgical center status (which, according to experts, would shut down 18 of the clinics), helps get rail to Dulles, improves protective services for disabled adults, authorizes several localities to start a public defender office to replace court appointed lawyers, creates a new dispute resolution procedure for automobile transactions, broadens the scope of practice of optometrists, allows private employers to provide insurance to unrelated members of a household (Virginia is the only state currently restricting private businesses in this regard), allows live Christmas trees in buildings without sprinkler systems, authorizes (and limits) hunting and fishing license fee increases, authorizes and regulates midwifery, authorizes fees for sheriff's departments, authorizes tees for open space preservation, cases some firearms regulations, toughens numerous DUI penalties, authorizes mechanisms to help develop HOT lanes on the Beltway, improves accountability and privatization of government services, helps sky diving vendors acquire insurance, and exempts the General Assembly from the same open meeting laws it enforces on local governments. All of these various measures and much more will now be before the Senate.

Bills defeated on the House floor include the elimination of the mandatory helmet law for motorcycle riders, a bill that would eliminate thc distribution of information about contraception and various diseases when applying for a marriage license, a couple of bills restricting the collection of local taxes, a bill that would restrict VHDA mortgage loans to related members of a family, and a bill that would have allowed absentee ballot applications to be filled out and submitted online.

As a leader in your community, you are very important to me. I need you to help make sure citizens are being treated fairly by the State and that tax dollars are being spent wisely. Please feel flee to pass along information from your neighbors. I would also be happy to include you on my email list. During the session, I have been writing a short recap every week and will be sending out information periodically throughout the remainder of the year. To receive our updates, just send an e-mail to Del_Sickles@house.state.va.us with Newsletter on the subject line. Please feel free to contact me either while I am in Richmond until March 13th (804) 698-1043, or in the district at (703) 317-0036.

Sincerely.
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Mark D. Sickles

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