General Assembly session successful, despite distractions

The following opinion editorial by Delegate O'Quinn appeared in the Independence Declaration on April 10, 2019.

With droves of national media descending on Richmond earlier this year, the 2019 General Assembly session had every opportunity to be one of the worst and least productive sessions in Virginia history.

As we all saw, significant national attention was directed at the serious issues surrounding the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. However, despite these distractions, our Southwest Virginia legislative delegation buckled down and had one our most productive sessions ever. Although we addressed hundreds of bills this year, the following are a few key issues that may be of interest.

We passed a structurally sound and balanced budget that includes a deposit of $565 million into the revenue reserve fund — which is extremely important to maintain our AAA bond rating — while subsequently delivering $1 billion in tax refunds directly into the pockets of Virginia taxpayers. The budget also included a 5% teacher pay raise as well as an additional $85 million in much needed K-12 education funding.

In addition to the support for teachers and education, the budget also reflected the need to increase school safety. As a member of the House Select Committee on School Safety, I spent a tremendous amount of time visiting schools across our area to assess the security and protocol upgrades that were needed. We introduced and passed about a dozen different bills that came directly from the committee’s recommendations, and we were able to include $12 million in budgetary funding for school resource officers, infrastructure, and other initiatives designed to keep our students safe in school.

Over my time in the House, lack of broadband in Southwest Virginia has consistently been one of the biggest economic development hurdles we routinely come up against, and it has derailed numerous potential projects. As has been recently reported, I carried HB 2691, which will create a pilot program that allows electric utilities to expand “middle mile” broadband coverage — the infrastructure that connects the networks and core routers on the internet to local internet service providers that serve businesses and consumers directly. Under the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, investor-owned utilities must modernize their grid systems, and part of that involves bringing broadband to electrical substations to support new “smart infrastructure” initiatives.

The pilot program allows the electric utilities to deploy larger fiber optic cables to rural substations, and that additional broadband capacity will then be leased to third-party internet providers, which will provide last-mile connections to homes and businesses nearby. Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband officer, said earnings by electric utilities from leasing middle-mile infrastructure will result in lower electric bills over time and will save ratepayers an estimated $150 million over the next three years. “It’s one of those very rare win-wins where the electric companies, ratepayers and people in need of broadband service all benefit,” Feinman said.

Another issue of great concern to Southwest Virginians is the prevalent and annoying activity of phone spamming. Making matters worse, many of the entities engaging in spamming are also using “spoofing” tactics, which means they use technology to make a call appear as though it is coming from a local phone number to fraudulently entice people to answer. During the General Assembly session, we were able to pass bills to address both spamming and spoofing, which will give Virginia the authority to crack down on these callers as well as to help strengthen Federal Trade Commission spamming and spoofing cases in the commonwealth.

The last issue I want to highlight deals with financial exploitation of senior citizens. Our office is often contacted by employees at financial institutions who suspect that some of their clients are being taken advantage of. Although Virginia has had a senior exploitation law for some time, it has been unclear as to what the financial institution was permitted to disclose in these cases. In passing HB 2225, I was able to clarify that the financial institution can provide any supporting documentation necessary to law enforcement, which will help ensure that our seniors do not fall prey to those who wish to cause them financial harm.

In closing, I am proud of the hard work that was done by our Southwest Virginia legislative delegation this year. We are all a long way away from Richmond and we consider it our duty and our privilege to work as hard as we possibly can for our region.