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The News & Advance: Ethics, drones, CVTC among issues on the table for local legislators Print


Created:  Sunday, January 11, 2015 9:51PM

Ethics reform, drone use, and the future of the Central Virginia Training Center are among the issues local legislators plan to dig into during the 2015 session that kicks off Wednesday.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Forest, is sponsoring a bill that would allow representatives to voluntarily register as gift-free legislators on their economic disclosure forms.

The designation would put lobbyists on notice that a legislator doesn't wish to receive gifts of any kind, a policy Newman has employed in his own office for years.

"I'm going to push pretty hard for this bill," he said, adding he hopes it'll be part of a "very strong" ethics package passed this year.

Newman added he's pleased by recent calls to cap the value of gifts that legislators can accept, but reiterated he'd also support an outright ban on all gifts.

"The privilege of serving in the legislature is enormous," he said. "I think it should be gift enough for anyone who wants to serve."

The gift-free designation proposed by Newman under Senate Bill 777 wouldn't be binding; a legislator could choose to resume accepting gifts at any time but wouldn't be able to identify as gift-free in the next reporting period.

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, is working on a bill that would lift a moratorium on drone use by law enforcement, provided officers are required to get a warrant first.

Stakeholders were unable to reach agreement on warrant requirements back in 2013 when the moratorium — also sponsored by Cline — was put in place.

Since then, there's been little movement on the issue, Cline said. If a consensus can't be developed, he said he'll propose extending the moratorium by another two years.

"While I'm hopeful that we can reach some consensus on warrant language, the same fights that we fought two years ago are still ongoing," Cline said.

The moratorium, currently set to expire on July 1, prevents law enforcement and regulatory agencies from using unmanned aircraft. Some exceptions are offered for defined emergencies, missing person searches or other scenarios.

Cline, whose district includes most of Amherst County, said he's also drafting a bill to define how quickly the new real-time bed registry created by last year's mental health push must be updated.

The registry is meant to provide up-to-the-minute information on where psychiatric beds are available for those who need emergency placement.

But the phrase "real-time information" was not defined, Cline said, and some facilities are updating the registry once a day or less.

The intent was the system would be updated as soon as a bed became available, he said.

Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, is continuing his work to outlaw chemical drugs such as synthetic marijuana, sometimes referred to as spice.

In 2014, using an expedited process created by legislation from Garrett, the Board of Pharmacy added three drugs — two forms of spice and one of bath salts — to the list of banned products.

The expedited process allows officials to quickly respond to changes in the chemical makeup of substances. Before, banned drugs were typically only approved once a year by the General Assembly. But makers would respond by slightly altering their recipe, rendering their product legal for another year, Garrett said.

The board now can administratively add to the list of illicit drugs as new products surface, provided the decision is later affirmed by the General Assembly.

Garrett is sponsoring House Bill 1564 to ratify the additions made in 2014. He also said he's requesting statistics on how often investigators are seeing these types of chemical drugs now.

"I believe that data is going to be very favorable now that we are getting ahead and staying ahead of these chemists that are trying to economically benefit at the expense of the health of our youth," he said.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Forest, is sponsoring a measure to make job training and placement services more accessible for unemployed National Guard members.

Under House Bill 1523, Virginia National Guard income wouldn't count against an applicant seeking help from Workforce Investment Act-related programs.

Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg, is signed on as chief co-patron of a bill to legalize industrial hemp production. House Bill 1277 capitalizes on a new federal provision allowing states to create pilot programs to grow hemp and research its commercial potential.

To date, 19 states have authorized hemp production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The General Assembly will convene its new session at noon Wednesday. Legislators have until Jan. 23 to file all their bills.

Newman plans to submit a bill calling for a study of Central Virginia Training Center and other state-run centers for the intellectually disabled that are currently slated to close.

The state, under pressure from federal authorities, is moving to close all but one of the regional centers in favor of moving people into group homes or other smaller community settings.

The plan has been controversial among families who fear their loved ones can't get the same quality of care in community facilities.

The Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax is set to close next, though its end date was pushed back from 2015 to 2016 to give officials more time to develop community placement options.

CVTC in Madison Heights is marked to close in 2020.

Newman is advocating for an alternate plan that would keep some beds open at CVTC and other locations to ensure those with the greatest medical needs continue to get high-level care.

His proposal would direct the state to study that option. He also plans to introduce a bill codifying the decision to delay the closing of the Northern Virginia site — which he sees as crucial to saving CVTC.

"I think if we lose the battle of Northern Virginia, we will lose the battle of Lynchburg," Newman said.

Efforts to get compensation for those who were sterilized by the state under a now-renounced program also will continue during the 2015 session.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has reintroduced the measure to compensate those who, from the 1920s to 1970s, were forcibly sterilized by the government on the belief they were unfit to reproduce.

Many of the procedures were performed at CVTC. To date, only 11 living survivors have been identified; several still live locally.

This is the third year the compensation bill has been introduced. Last year, the measure made it into the House budget — though not at the dollar levels advocates hoped for — but it was ultimately dropped as revenue projections tumbled.

House Bill 1504 proposes to pay $50,000 to each sterilization victim. Victims would have until the end of 2017 to submit a claim. Cline said he plans to co-sponsor the bill.

Advocates are stressing the urgency of the issue, in part, because of the advancing age of survivors. Last year, 13 sterilization victims had been identified, but two have since passed away.