- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Money is usually the key issue in the 60-day General Assembly sessions in years that end in an even number.

Those are the years in which a governor and the legislators have to build from scratch a two-year fiscal framework for the state.

However, the critical issue this year for state lawmakers and Gov. Tim Kaine likely will be the aftermath of the massacre last year at Virginia Tech in which a mentally unstable student fatally shot 32 students and teachers.

The proposed two-year cost of fixing the state’s network of mental-health services — roughly $40 million — is negligible in the context of a $78 billion budget.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, says spending more right now would be inefficient because catching up from decades of state neglect of the system cannot be rushed. However, there is a political urgency to fix flawed policies that contributed to the April 16 massacre that rivals the legislative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Pentagon was among the targets.

“I think it’s the top priority for this session,” Mr. Kaine said. “It’s about funding, but it’s also about accountability.”

Aside from the $40 million Mr Kaine put in his proposed budget, which mental-health advocates say is about $25 million short, at least 23 bills related to the mentally ill were filed by Friday, five days before the 2008 session opens Wednesday. That compares with 46 such bills filed for the entire legislative sessions of 2006 and 2007.

They include:

• Establishing a pilot program to create crisis-intervention teams to aid police responding to crises involving people with mental illness or substance-abuse problems;

• Allowing families, police or others to intervene earlier through courts and compel people in a deteriorating mental state to get care before they become an imminent threat to themselves and others;

• Establishing pilot programs for mental-health courts.

Mr. Kaine has other issues, with his term at the halfway point.

• A nearly $60 million program to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs to the children of families who otherwise could not afford it.

• About $25 million to expand health care coverage, particularly among women, in households that earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $41,000 a year for a family of four.

• Bills that substantially strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual attacks, including ending the practice of requiring women to take lie-detector tests as a condition for prosecuting their assailants.

The costs, though relatively small, trouble senior House Republicans with the state facing austere economic times. They also are concerned about Mr. Kaine’s plan to withdraw $260 million from the state’s “rainy day” reserves to help cover a $640 million shortfall projected by the end of the current budget, in June.

“We may need that money a year from now or two years from now,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

There is also broad Republican opposition to Mr. Kaine’s decision to defer $180 million earmarked from the state’s general operating fund last year for transportation. He wants to use it for core services such as education, health care and public safety.

Another issue from last year is what to do about a provision in the transportation funding law that imposes heavy civil remedial fees on egregious driving — in addition to existing fines, court costs and jail time. The provision applies only to Virginians, which has outraged state residents and resulted in several court rulings finding it unconstitutional.

Bills to repeal the fees already have been filed, including one that would reimburse people. Other bills revise the fees and apply them to all drivers. One of them comes from Delegate David B. Albo, an author of last year’s “abusive driver fee” law.

“Of the 1,000 e-mails and thousand calls I’ve had, I’ve never had one person ever tell me that they don’t think a person who commits a DUI maiming or vehicular homicide should have to pay,” said Mr. Albo, Fairfax Republican. “There’s not a rational person in the whole state who does not agree with the concept.”

Legislators also are expected to update and upgrade curriculum standards for public schools at an estimated cost of $1 billion.

There are bills in response to NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s imprisonment on federal dogfighting charges last year, including one that would classify dogfighting as racketeering.

Some of the other 543 bill on file by Friday would:

• Create a new illegal-alien enforcement division within the state police that would focused solely on investigating people who cannot prove their legal residency;

• Require Virginia voters to register by party, meaning those who register as independents could not vote in Republican or Democratic primaries;

• Allow motorcyclists to ride two abreast in a single lane of the highway.

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