Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You Win Some, You Lose Some: A Report from the Senate of Virginia

Senator Mark Obenshain

You win some, you lose some. I should know, as I experienced both outcomes with legislation in the past week or so. Accordingly, I'd like to take an opportunity to fill you in on what I've been doing in the Senate lately.

Local Property Rights

We'll start with a disappointment: the Democrat-controlled Committee on Local Government (it is one of two committees in the Senate with more Democrats than Republicans), on a party-line vote, killed my Senate Bill 1073, common-sense legislation to help establish a more level playing field for property owners challenging local zoning and land use determinations.

Let's face it: when a homeowner goes up against City council, it doesn't always seem like a fair fight. So if local government is improperly applying a land use ordinance, or if the zoning requirements are inconsistent with state law, it can be very difficult for the property owner to do anything about it—even if they're clearly in the right. Going to court is expensive.

My bill would have allowed courts to award reasonable attorney fees—upon a showing of good cause—to a property owner who prevailed against his or her locality in a zoning or land use case. After all, you have a right to your property. If local government unlawfully restricts that right and you can prove it in court, you ought to be able to recover your costs. Unfortunately, the Committee didn't see it that way.

But I know Virginians of all stripes have a different take—just take a look at the vote on my Virginia Property Rights Amendment, on the ballot last fall—and this issue is not going away. Those who just want the right to use their property in very reasonable ways, deserve a level playing field. It comes down to a very simple principle: if you can prove in court that the government unreasonably abridged your rights, you shouldn't have to be the one footing the bill.

Victims of Domestic Violence

Earlier this month, I wrote you about legislation I'm carrying ensuring the confidentiality of the addresses of concealed carry permit holders who have entered protective orders. Lists of concealed carry permit holders are public records, available at any clerk's office, and some newspapers, seeking to score political points, have taken to publishing these lists—in one case going so far as to create an interactive map showing where gun owners lived.

That's irresponsible under any circumstance, but it's especially worrisome when you consider that some concealed carry permit holders are victims of domestic violence who have moved to escape their abuser, only to find their new address showing up online or in a newspaper. And even without a newspaper printing such a list, if an abuser had a good idea as to the city or county in which their victim lived, they could always go to the courthouse and look through the records themselves.

I don't care what your position is on gun rights: it is absolutely unacceptable for this sort of confidential information to be disclosed. Fortunately, the Senate saw it the same way, voting 39-1 in support of my bill giving those who have taken out a protective order a mechanism by which they can prevent the disclosure of their information to anyone other than the clerk's office and law enforcement.

Charter Schools

Virginia allows charter schools, but that's always been more theory than fact. Right now, any charter school has to be approved by the local school division within whose boundaries it would be operating, and as you might imagine, not too many of them have been eager for the competition.

That's unfortunate, as the goal should be to ensure that all children have the opportunity to receive a high quality education, and one way we can do that is by giving families choices and allow them to choose the best educational options for their children. (In a future email, I'll talk more about my efforts to ensure that our public schools are globally competitive.)

As in previous years, I introduced a constitutional amendment to allow the State Board of Education to approve charter applications if a local school board refuses. This year, the Amendment received the strong support of Governor McDonnell, who included the Amendment as part of his "ALL STUDENTS" initiative.

Virginia only has four charter schools; some states have hundreds. If we're serious about providing families with meaningful educational choices, that has to change, especially in light of new studies out of Stanford University showing that charter school students receive the equivalent of about two months' extra education per year in math and reading compared to similarly situated students in the studied states' public schools. That's highly significant, and it's something we need to harness here in Virginia.

We made significant progress this year, with the Amendment reporting out of committee, but the Amendment died on the floor of the Senate on a 20-19 vote. (Constitutional Amendments require 21 votes.)

Unfortunately, Senate Democrats sided with special interest over a much more fundamental one: every child's interest in receiving a high quality education. Incredibly, Senator McEachin (D-Henrico) actually made a point of noting the long waiting list to get into Richmond's sole charter school, insisting that this strong demand was an argument against authorizing more charter schools! Let me tell you, if there's pent up demand, the solution is not to artificially restrict supply.

The good news is that the fight isn't over: there's a similar Amendment pending in the House, and I look forward to taking another crack at the issue when it crosses over to the Senate!

Other Legislative Issues

There's much more to say – on Photo ID (my bill reported out of committee!), the Transportation Lockbox Amendment, and more – but not enough space to say it. I'll pick up the theme again in a few days!

March for Life

I salute the 400,000 people who braved the elements late last week in the March for Life, and especially salute those whose dedication extends far beyond that day, important as it is. I am heartened by the incredible growth of crisis pregnancy centers and similar organizations to help provide women with alternatives to abortion, promote adoption, and provide counseling and support women who need that support, whatever decision they make.