Wednesday, January 16, 2013

More Legislative Priorities for the 2013 Session (Part 2)

By Sen. Mark Obenshain

Today I want to pick up where I left off in outlining my own legislative agenda, so I hope you'll bear with me once more.

Providing New Tools for Investigating Violent Crime

Multijurisdiction Grand Juries (MJGJs) are among the most effective investigative tools available to law enforcement, designed to help facilitate long-term complex investigations into complex criminal activity. They are vital, among other reasons, because witnesses may be compelled to testify (if granted immunity), because they allow investigations to take place across jurisdictional lines, because a special prosecutor is appointed to lead the investigation, and because they provide the tools prosecutors need to untangle more complex crimes.

Years ago, I amended the statute to bring it to bear on gang crimes. In my own area, the Shenandoah Valley MJGJ alone has secured hundreds of gang-related indictments, and I know that many other regions have seen similar results. This year I'm carrying legislation to broaden the investigatory scope of MJGJs to cover other forms of violent crime, like mob-related felonies, carjacking, criminal sexual assault, and arson of an occupied building.

This expansion will provide an important new tool for law enforcement to prosecute heinous crimes and help keep our communities safe.

Securing Conscience Protections for Student Groups

Freedom of religion and of association are fundamental liberties, enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but we are witnessing policies at some educational institutions that put significant limits on those freedoms. It first made headlines at Vanderbilt University with the adoption of a so-called "all-comers" policy for student organizations, but it hasn't stopped there. These "all-comer" policies sound good, but they can force a religious, political, or any other organizations to accept members that are not committed to their values or beliefs—including into leadership positions in those groups. 

I know: who could be opposed to something called an "all-comers" policy? But what the policy means is that student groups no longer have a right to establish their own standards or requirements for membership or leadership.  These "all-comers" policies mean that a Young Democrats club would have to accept a Republican as a member and even let them run for president of the club, and that a Christian group couldn't require its members or officers to profess faith in Christ.

Freedom of association is at the very core of any organization, since organizations exist to advance a cause or to share a bond – something almost impossible if they can't require members to agree to certain principles or beliefs. This year, I am introducing carefully tailored legislation to address this issue, ensuring that student groups cannot be discriminated against for rallying around their core convictions.

Ensuring the Integrity of the Ballot

We made progress last year by doing away with the affidavits that have long provided a legal alternative to showing some form of ID at the polls, but amendments during the veto session significantly watered down the final bill. Virginia is long past due for an intelligent photo ID bill, and I'm reintroducing such legislation this year.

I first introduced legislation requiring photo ID at the polls in 2005, during my second session, and I've long championed this common sense provision to ensure that legitimate votes aren't diluted by election fraud. My bill would provide Voter Photo ID Cards free of charge to registered voters otherwise lacking photo ID.

I'm also introducing legislation linking the DMV photo database with the electronic poll books used by election officials, allowing them to see a photo of most voters who arrive at the polls. The legislation provides for a mechanism by which election officials can add photos to the system as well, for voters who aren't in the DMV database.

Finally, I'm carrying legislation authorizing the State Board of Elections to crosscheck voter rolls against the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program lists to identify any registered voters who may not be citizens. This would help flag suspect registrations, but action on them wouldn't be automatic; the State Board would then review the flagged registrations and take further action as need be.

The right to vote is a fundamental one. Unfortunately, some tend to forget that fraudulent votes undermine that right by diluting the ballots of lawful voters. These bills will not burden or interfere with the rights of any legally eligible voters. To the contrary, they will help ensure that their vote counts.

Enhancing Educational Opportunity

This session, I am continuing to work with Governor McDonnell to reform our outdated tenure system that awards tenure to K-12 teachers after only two years in the classroom and which provides little opportunity for feedback to help teachers improve.

I'm also reintroducing charter school reform proposals designed to allow charter schools to operate the way they're intended – to give them the latitude to innovate, and to make it easier to start a new charter school, providing additional economic opportunity to students.

After all, that's the priority, isn't it? All of our educational policies should be geared toward improving the quality of education here in Virginia and helping to make us not just nationally but globally competitive again.

As Governor McDonnell said in his State of the Commonwealth Address, endorsing my charter school legislation, "The best public charter school operators in the nation will not come here because we make it nearly impossible for them. We need new charter school laws that demand excellence, set clear standards, and welcome the best charter schools into our communities ... These ideas will make it much easier for proven charter schools to open up. Better schools mean better jobs and a stronger Virginia."

Other Issues

I am, of course, carrying a number of other bills as well, and as always, I welcome your questions, comments, and concerns about any legislation or budget items pending before the General Assembly, and hope that you will not hesitate to share your thoughts with me!