By Senator Lynwood Lewis
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We have reached the halfway point for the 2018 General Assembly session and February 13 marks the Crossover date for the legislative body. That evening, all the Senate Bills that passed the full Senate head to the House to be deliberated in Subcommittee and Committee and all of the House Bills that passed the full House head over to us in the Senate for consideration. As of the writing of this column on Friday, February 9, there are still over one thousand Bills pending action in the House, indicating that the days leading up to Crossover will be long and jam-packed. The Senate still has over 400 Bills pending.
Over the past week, we saw committee dockets dwindling and Floor sessions lengthening as Bills made their way through their first and second readings on the Senate Floor calendar. One of the most-discussed and heavily-debated Bills has been SB966, regarding electric utility regulation and grid modernization. This Bill is the product of a large stakeholder group convened by Governor Northam. The group included but was not limited to the Commonwealth’s utility companies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, environmental interest groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, leadership from both sides of the political aisle, business entities and consumer representatives. While not all groups involved in the stakeholder process have offered their support of the legislation, the Bill has improved as it has gone through the amendment process – though there are still valid concerns. The purpose of this legislation is to lift the controversial “rate freeze” that occurred in 2015, administer refunds, modernize our grid and move forward with significant investments in renewable energy. The Bill passed through the Senate after heavy debate and may see more changes to assuage concerns raised by consumer protection groups and the State Corporation Commission.
The majority of my legislation had already been taken up prior to this week, but I did have one Bill of interest to the Shore before the Rules Committee on Friday morning. SB930 is a Bill that seeks a conflict-of-interest exemption for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. A similar exemption was created for the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts Board in 2016 with my Bill SB652. Because this conflict-of-interest clause has a blanket application across all state-appointed Boards and Commissions, VMRC lost vital members serving on the Commission in recent years. Virginia code states that members of VMRC shall be representatives of commercial, recreational and environmental interests. The rationale for having a Commission that is partially comprised of industry members is so they might contribute their expertise and practical understanding to the regulatory process. Many past and current VMRC commercial industry members have been part of the Virginia oyster industry and bring valuable insight that only they can provide. Additionally, our state code actually requires that shuckers/packers of oysters sell to VMRC up to 20% of their oyster shells, unless the shells are planted in Virginia waters. Some oyster processors voluntarily sell shells to the Commission, recognizing the potential benefits that accrue to the commercial oyster fishery. The current conflict of interest language could inhibit knowledgeable, qualified industry members from agreeing to serve on the Commission for fear of a perceived conflict, cause oyster processors to not sell shells to the Commonwealth or not participate in other public fishery projects. In all cases, the Commonwealth loses, as does the aquaculture industry and the communities whose economies depend on aquaculture. My Bill removes this conflict of interest danger while preserving the unbiased nature with which oyster shells are purchased or services are contracted by the VMRC. It passed the Rules Committee and if it passes the full Senate and the House, where it is chief co-patroned by Delegate Gordon Helsel of Hampton, SB930 will return and protect the valuable knowledge of our shellfish growers to the VMRC. The Bill is supported by Governor Northam’s administration, the Seafood Council, the shellfish growers and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Outside of legislation, this past Wednesday was Aviation and Aerospace Lobby Day in Richmond. This day is always a great opportunity to showcase the achievements of the Aerospace industry, the benefits of which we are privileged to bear witness to here on the Shore with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops. Advancing Aerospace technology has bipartisan support in the General Assembly and is recognized as a vital economic driver in the Commonwealth. This means it has been well-funded in our Budget in previous years and I expect to see that prioritization continue in this year’s Budget.