Toscano, Bell see bills advance

RICHMOND — It was a struggle, but Del. David J. Toscano managed to bring a state environmental advocate together with the state’s largest power company to work on a proposal to expand solar power in the state.

Now he needs to get the Virginia Senate to see the light.

Toscano, D-Charlottesville, sponsored a bill that allows the State Corporation Commission to approve solar energy pilot projects through Dominion Virginia Power. The bill, which was approved by the House of Delegates, represents the hard work of people who “often don’t see eye-to-eye,” the delegate said.

Both Dominion Power and the Piedmont Environmental Council support the bill.

Lawmakers are midway through the General Assembly session that has been less contentious than last year’s session. Legislators aren’t forced to cut billions of dollars from state programs and agencies. Instead, they have focused on transportation, stimulating job growth, watershed protection, foreclosure problems and illegal immigration.

Toscano’s bill is a “good first step for the commonwealth to try out solar generation,” said Robert Marmet, senior energy analyst for the environmental council.

The bill is a good opportunity for private individuals and will let homeowners in rural areas use solar panels that can feed into the electrical system, Marmet said.

“We think once Dominion has tried some of these projects, it will find they work very well,” he said.

While in the past the environmental council has thought the power company hasn’t adequately addressed environmental concerns, it said the legislation is a “big step by Dominion” in working toward solar energy, Marmet said.

The bill headed to the Senate on Tuesday, where it was referred to the Committee on Commerce and Labor.

“I’m fairly optimistic it will do well,” Toscano said, adding that anytime a compromise can be reached between the power company and the environmental council, a bill stands a good chance of passing.

Toscano said the budget rolled out as he expected, with the House being less supportive of public education, he said.

“I have not been very surprised of the way things have gone so far,” Toscano said.

While he championed the solar energy debate, Toscano said he has spent most of session working behind the scenes, trying to preserve public education funding.

Public education fared better in the Senate’s version of the budget. The Senate called for providing $100 million more for kindergarten through 12th grade education than the governor’s budget. The House version of the budget recommended allocating $66 million to provide a 2 percent bonus for teachers.

Toscano also said he hopes the House and Senate can provide more state money for public education as they begin to negotiate differences in their budgets this week, he said.

“I would like to think that education is one of the major issues for everyone down here,” he said.

Toscano also tried to bring more transparency to the budget process — an effort that ultimately failed.

His bill would have required members of the General Assembly to issue reports along with the budget that identified any non-state funds. The bill also would have required legislators to identify any budget item that represents legislation that failed in either house during the regular or special session.

The House Appropriations Committee, however, killed the bill.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for people to embrace too much change at one time,” Toscano said.

However, he said the bill scored a “big, big victory” for transparency because, while it wasn’t heard last year, it was granted a hearing during this session.

Toscano said he would try to introduce the bill again next year, or have it incorporated as a rule.

 

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Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, is trying to protect Virginia residents from cyber-bullying, sex offenders and prison inmates.

Seven of Bell’s bills have been passed to the Senate for consideration, but he is especially proud of his cyber-bullying bill, he said.

Bell’s cyber-bullying bill adds sending text messages to Virginia’s obscene phone call statute. It also clarifies that the law covers messages made or received by wireless devices, Bell said in an e-mail.

“The new law would apply to anyone, but obviously has special relevance in schools,” Bell said, adding that he hopes the bill will help educators handle cyber-bullying in schools.

Teens use wireless communication, like texting, to spread rumors instantly, making it hard for educators to intervene in a problem before it escalates, Bell said.

The bill passed in the House 99-0 and moved to the Senate where it was assigned to the Senate Courts Committee.

Bell also sponsored legislation that would increase the penalties for inmates who assault a contractor working in a Virginia prison. The bill would provide the same penalty for assaulting contractors as for assaulting a correctional officers.

Bell said the bill was brought to him on behalf of nurses who work in prisons.

“The Department of Corrections has been able to save money by using contractors for services within prisons, but we need to make sure these employees are safe,” he said in an e-mail.

The bill passed in the House 99-0 and moved to the Senate Courts Committee.

Not all of Bell’s bills, however, received the House’s approval.

Bell, who is in his 10th year in the House, sponsored a bill that would have expanded Virginia’s “lemon law” to include company cars.

In Virginia, consumers can return a car within 18 months of the manufacturer’s limited warranty going into effect if the vehicle has a recurring significant problem, a policy often referred to as a “lemon law.”

However, opponents of the bill said the law was only meant to protect individual consumers, not companies. The bill was tabled by the House finance committee.

Virginia Statehouse News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity dedicated to providing transparency at the state government level and to hold government officials accountable.