Legislators Report to Chamber

Mount Vernon Voice
Steve Hunt
March 8, 2007
Republican state Sen. Jay O'Brien (39th) was all alone among his Democratic colleagues in his support for the General Assembly's transportation package.

Although Del. Mark Sickles (D-43rd) had voted for the bill, he described it as "flawed" and expressed hope that Gov. Tim Kaine (D) will significantly amend it.

Speaking at the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce legislative luncheon Tuesday at the Mount Vernon Country Club, O'Brien described the transportation bill as a compromise reached through "the magic of an election year."

O'Brien said it is because this is an election year for all 140 members of the General Assembly that something was accomplished this year compared with the two previous sessions and special session when nothing was done about transportation.

O'Brien said if Kaine vetoes the bill, there will not be another chance for a transportation package while Kaine is in office.

"This is probably it for this governor," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said that the transportation package would generate $500 million for northern Virginia if local taxes are raised, which would raise $420 million combined with $80 million from a statewide bond package.

"This is it," O'Brien said.

On other issues, O'Brien said he knew that all drivers under 18 years of age are not too happy with his legislation which prohibits them from talking on cell phones while driving.

"They probably hate my guts," he said, adding that he knows that when they grown into adulthood they'll realize they were probably better off because of his legislation.

O'Brien said he knew that the five Democrats who were there to speak following him would rebut everything he said regarding transportation.

He was correct.

Like O'Brien, Sens. Toddy Puller (36th) and Patsy Ticer (30th) and Dels. Kris Amundson (44th), Sickles (43rd), and David Englin (45th) each had five minutes to address the chamber and give their thoughts on the transportation bill and other items.

Puller said she did not vote for it and hopes Kaine will amend it.

Puller said the transportation bill, which requires county officials to raise taxes on their residents, is a shirking of the state government's responsibility.

Puller said Prince William and Loudoun county officials have already stated that they will not impose the proposed taxes and without it there is no money for northern Virginia transportation.

Other issues Puller addressed were the shortage of nurses in the Commonwealth due to the low wages for nursing teachers and the bill that was apparently the most newsworthy for her was that Mount Vernon Estate will now be able to sell George Washington Whiskey from a replica of the first president's distillery.

Ticer said as a minority Democrat she knows she will only be able to get an average of a third of her bills passed, first through the Senate and then the House of Delegates where she loses most of them.

"I really think they don't like us," Ticer said of the House Republicans.

Ticer disputed O'Brien's take on the transportation bill as being a compromise, noting that it was actually more of an agreement among like-minded people.

The only Northern Virginia representative on the group which drafted the bill was Republican Del. Tim Hugo (40th) and he supported the plan from the beginning.

Compromise is a misnomer, Ticer said.

She also expressed concern that the bill would take money from the state's general fund to repay a long-term loan which could cause problems down the road if "bad times" come around again.

Ticer said all Virginians would suffer if money is taken from the general fund to pay debt on transportation bonds.

Ticer said she is most proud of the legislation which did make it through that provided additional protection for domestic violence victims to keep their whereabouts private from their attackers.

Ticer added that she was pleased that the legislators did approve red-light cameras for jurisdictions that wanted them, but was disappointed that the state's minimum wage was not raised.

Amundson said the transportation bill was passed "extremely quickly," giving legislators such as herself who were not in on the process only a few hours to read it before voting on it.

Amundson said she has this "pesky habit" of wanting to read legislations before she votes on it.

One flaw in the bill that Amundson addressed on the floor of the House was that a paragraph referred to a Virginia Code section that does not exist.

"This is a concern," said Amundson who described the bill and the process as "sloppy" legislating.

"This is a bill in need of major, major surgery," Amundson said.

On another issue, Amundson said it is now okay for people to bring home-cooked soup to shelters to feed the homeless.

"Good sense has prevailed," she said.

Englin, who voted against the transportation bill, described it as a farce and compared it to homeowners using their kids' college account to pay the mortgage.

Englin said the $80 million which would come from the state's bond package for northern Virginia transportation is a pittance, pointing out that it would cost $14 million alone to repair the streets in the Jefferson Manor neighborhood where the streets look like "war torn Sarajevo."

On the state budget, Englin said he was pleased that the minimum income levels were raised so that now 140,000 low income Virginians are off the tax rolls.

Englin said he was proud that seven of his bills made it out of the House and were passed in the Senate, including a bill which stipulates that hospital patients decide who will visit them, not their family members.

Other legislation included affordable housing measures and a requirement that people living in a floodplain be informed of that fact.

Sickles said he was one of the few Democrats who voted for the transportation bill knowing that while it is flawed, Kaine would have the opportunity to amend it and make it better.

Sickles, acknowledged county officials' concerns that if the bill goes forward in its current state that the county would be required to take over maintenance of its roads and in the end could lose more money than it raises.

As business leaders, Sickles wanted to make sure that the chamber members knew that the proposed legislation calls for an increase in commercial real estate tax rates.

Sickles said he is hopeful that Kaine will "radically improve" the bill.

Delegate Amundson Unveils Gold Star License Plate Honoring the Fallen

For Immediate Release
February 13, 2007
Phillip Berenbroick

(RICHMOND) -- Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) presented Mr. Gregory Commons of Mount Vernon with commemorative first edition of the Virginia Gold Star license plate on the floor of the House of Delegates, Feb. 13. The Gold Star license plate will soon be available to the immediate families of those Virginians who have been killed in combat. Mr. Commons son, Matt, was killed in combat in Afghanistan on March 4, 2002.

During the 2006 session of the General Assembly Delegate Amundson carried the legislation that authorized the creation of the new plate. "About two years ago Mr. Commons contacted me to let me know that other states were honoring those killed in combat in this way and asked if Virginia could do the same," Amundson said. "Last year we passed legislation to authorize the creation of the plate, and since then, Mr. Commons has worked to create to create a license plate that would honor not only his son, but all Virginians who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

Delegate Amundson presented Mr. Commons, who was accompanied by his wife and two sons, with the commemorative plate in a ceremony on the floor of the House of Delegates surrounded by the members of the House who had served as active duty members of the armed forces. "I hope that when Virginians see this license plate, they will take a moment to reflect on the sacrifice it represents."

Standing Room Only at Puller, Amundson Meeting

Mount Vernon Voice
Steve Hunt
January 17, 2007
State Del. Kris Amundson (D-44th) let the crowd know why nothing is being done in the House of Delegates to come up with a dedicated source of funding for transportation at a town meeting Saturday she hosted with state Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36th) at Sherwood Regional Library.

Amundson told them that the reason has never been reported in the local media and pointed her finger squarely at the House Republicans.

After members of both parties in the Senate make the hard votes to come up with a reliable funding stream for roads and mass transit, the legislation is sent to the House "where it hits a road block," she said.

"This is what happens in the House," Amundson said.

She explained that House Republicans, who hold the majority of seats in the house, take what is known as a binding vote.

That means the 57-member House Republican Caucus only needs 29 ideologues to prevent any action from occurring in the House, she said.

And that's what's been happening for years and why Virginia's transportation system is in such dire straits, according to Amundson.

Puller said the House Finance Committee "killed every bill" and noted that some of those voting against legislation to come up with transportation dollars live in northern Virginia.

"We're going to try to defeat some of those people," Puller said, referring to this year's elections in which all 40 state senators and all 100 state delegates are up for election.

Amundson noted that some of those Republicans already have opponents and are looking over their shoulders realizing that maybe they should actually do something to solve Virginia's problems.

"Elections are very healthy things" she said.

Amundson said it's up to the people in northern Virginia to make it clear to those legislators who refuse to seek a real solution to the Commonwealth's transportation problems that "this state of affairs is simply not acceptable anymore."

Amundson noted that when people are stuck in traffic sitting in their vehicles that they are not looking at each other wondering who's a Republican and who's a Democrat.

"We're all stuck in it together," she said.

Amundson's and Puller's constituents also got to hear from Bill Murray, Gov. Tim Kaine's deputy policy director and legislative director, who essentially summarized Kaine's speech to the General Assembly at the start of this year's session last week.

For Kaine, transportation is obviously one of the main issues that must be addressed this session, Murray said.

Kaine will not only be working to address the funding issue for transportation but also land use, health care, education, and the environment, Murray said.

Murray said that Virginia does have good doctors, nurses, and hospitals, which provide quality care after a person gets sick, but what the state doesn't do so well is "keeping people well."

The issue of mental health care is also a big challenge which Kaine plans to be a major focus.

Regarding education, Murray said that half of the state's general fund budget goes to education, with 35 percent to K-12 and about 12 percent for higher education and that Kaine will be working to enhance education for Virginians from kindergarten through college.

Regarding natural resources, Virginia is faced with only three years left to meet the goals set to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Kaine wants to set aside 400,000 acres of open space in recognition of the Commonwealth's 400th anniversary.

Murray said Kaine likes to set goals which are attainable, but hard to reach.

The audience also heard form J. Douglas Koelemay, the Northern Virginia District representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, who noted that transportation is more than just an issue.

"It is part of what we do," he said, adding transportation affects all aspects of people's lives including keeping their families together and how they get to work.

Koelemay said that transportation is a network made up of numerous parts which all need to work together and meld into one system that doesn't work until the entire network works.

Koelemay said he is concerned about the "creative class" of people, those highly educated and innovative individuals, who could work anywhere who have chosen to make northern Virginia their home who may leave if their quality of life declines due to the region's transportation gridlock.

Koelemay also pointed out that while transportation improvements cost money, so does gridlock.

"Congestion isn't free," he said, noting that George Mason University estimated that the cost of traffic congestion in lost time, gasoline and air quality in the region is more than $5 billion annually.

When the General Assembly is unable to agree on a plan for solving Virginia's transportation woes, "It's not without a cost," he said, adding every year nothing is done is another year's delay and higher costs for the future.

Koelemay recommended citizens go to www.transaction2030.com to see what Virginia's transportation needs are for the future.

After responding to numerous questions and comments from the crowd, Amundson and Puller stayed for several minutes following the conclusion of the meeting to speak with people individually.

Apathy Absent From Town Meeting

Health, education and jobs also primary constituent concerns

Mount Vernon Gazette
January 17, 2007
By Chuck Hagee
Questions covered the gamut from transportation to land use to taxes to Washington Gas outsourcing jobs to BRAC to affordable housing. But, the prime focus remained transportation.

The scene was the first Town Meeting, hosted by State Senator Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36) and State Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), since the commencement of the 2007 General Assembly on Jan. 10. The venue was the community room of the Sherwood Hall Regional Library on Sherwood Hall Lane last Saturday morning.

With constituents occupying every available seat and standing along the room's walls, Puller and Amundson, joined by William Murray, legislative director, Office of the Governor, and J. Douglas Koelemay, Northern Virginia representative, Commonwealth Transportation Board, were peppered with inquires as to when some break could be expected in the transportation/no new taxes legislative deadlock. They all expressed optimism but promised nothing.

"We are going to try and change this deadlock in this election year. Some of those in Northern Virginia who have been against new taxes for transportation already have challengers and others are realizing they need to start solving problems. That's why they were elected," Amundson told the audience.

"But, there are still members of the Northern Virginia delegation who will not vote for more transportation taxes," Puller added. Transportation costs for this region comes in at about $700 million per year, according to state budgetary estimates according to Koelemay.

The primary problem rests with the procedural mechanism established in the House of Representatives' Republican Caucus, according to Amundson. "The Senate has agreed to discuss the issue. The problem is the house," Amundson said.

"Because the Republican Caucus takes 'binding votes' when they discuss legislation, any Republican who votes contrary to the agreed upon caucus vote on a given topic can lose their committee assignment. It only takes 29 people to block any action in the House. There are at least that many committed to no new taxes for transportation," she explained.

In answer to a constituent question concerning the return of tax dollars to this region in ratio to what is sent to Richmond, Amundson stated, "Right now Northern Virginia is getting more than one half of the federal money being spent statewide on highways and transportation due to the Springfield Interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge projects."

She also pointed out that 45 percent of the secondary road monies is being spent in Northern Virginia. That brought forth the observation from one constituent, "Building more roads only increases traffic and congestion. We all have to change our way of living."

KICKING OFF the 90 minute Town Meeting, Murray said, "If you are coming to Northern Virginia for business you have to plan your trip so as not to arrive before 10 a.m. and make sure you leave no later than 2 p.m. And, there is still no guarantee you won't end up in gridlock." He noted that Governor Timothy Kaine's legislative priorities are transportation, land use and health care. "Health has not been a strength in Virginia until this Governor," he said. "People get good care when they become sick. What we don't do very well is keep people healthy," Murray said.

One of the reasons for this is that state spending is driven by issues that are more important to younger people such as education, according to Murray. Conversely, federal spending is driven by defense and the elderly, he noted.

Two other Kaine agenda priorities are natural resources, particularly as that applies to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and preserving open space. "If we don't meet the 2011 deadline for cleaning up the bay, EPA (U.S.Environmental Protection Agency) will mandate it for us," Murray warned. "Governor Kaine would like to preserve 400,000 acres of open space during his tenure," Murray said. The acreage was arrived at because this is Virginia's 400th Anniversary, according to Murray.

On the subject of transportation, Koelemay was quick to point out, "Transportation doesn't exist separate from what we do with the other aspects of our lives. It's all a network and it all needs to work together."

He warned that the region's transportation problems could lead to a brain drain for the state that would have a negative ripple effect on the economy. "Our region's economy is driven by the creative class. They can live anywhere in the world and do what they do for a living. It's not difficult for them to take their talents elsewhere if they feel living here is too stressful," he said. "There is an old saying that congestion is free but transportation costs money. That's just not so. Congestion is not free it costs $5.49 billion a year if you add up all the hidden and obvious costs. Let's not pretend there is not a cost," Koelemay said.

"In the end transportation comes down to money," he said. He sighted as some of the escalating costs . construction materials, land acquisition and labor. "There are just not enough materials to go around. If we had the money to build all the roads on the priority list right now we couldn't do it because there's not enough existing concrete," he cited as an example.

Other items of transportation that came under questioning were the scheduling of VRE trains on weekends, perceived congestion from the 22,000 plus personnel increase at Fort Belvoir and the Engineering Proving Grounds as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Report, and county control over secondary road construction. "The last time Virginia adopted a budget that had money dedicated to transportation issues was 1986," Koelemay said.

He urged those present to go online and review a recent study on the entire transportation issue. It can be located at Transportation 30.com. It covers all aspects including bicycle use, walking trails, highways and mass transit, according to Koelemay.

Amundson maintained that a primary area where Northern Virginia gets shortchanged more so than in transportation is in the 35 percent of the state budget allocated to public education. "We need a lot more in this area," she said.

ON THE SUBJECT of affordable/workforce housing both Puller and Amundson noted they have legislation in the hopper to deal with this subject. Puller noted her bill would allow the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to subsidize workforce housing. Amundson's legislation is geared to both workforce housing and overall affordable housing.

Lorton area resident, Nan Tolbert, a long-time Washington Gas employee, raised the possibility of state intervention in the proposed outsourcing of customer service call centers by Washington Gas. "What can be done to halt that?" she asked.

"We are trying to ensure that our state agencies don't outsource. But, I'm not sure we can do anything about a private company outsourcing," Amundson said. "Utilities come under the Public Utility Commission which is independent of the General Assembly and the Governor, although the members are appointed by the Governor. It is ruled by three judges," said Murray.

Prior to opening the meeting Amundson recognized the first place winners of her annual elementary school art contest. They were:
Abdulla Jastaniah, 6th grade, Islamic Saudi Academy; Luke Penny, 4th grade, Waynewood Elementary; Lijah Webb, 2nd grade, Groveton Elementary; Sandra-Alexis Chevelle Rodriguez, 4th grade, Hybla Valley Elementary; and Leslie Ann Whisenant, 4th grade, Fort Hunt Elementary.

Bill Would Shield Birth Control From Va. Abortion Laws

Associated Press
January 19, 2007
Larry O'Dell
RICHMOND , Va. - Legislators and activists who support abortion rights said Thursday that legislation is needed to shield birth control from state laws and regulations governing abortions.

Representatives of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia and other organizations joined several lawmakers in urging approval of a bill that would define birth control as contraceptive methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Del. Kristen Amundson of Fairfax County , also states: "Birth control shall not be considered abortion."

Among the items the FDA lists as birth control is the so-called morning-after pill, which can be taken after sexual intercourse to prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. Abortion opponents who contend life begins at conception contend this is a form of abortion.

In recent years, the General Assembly has rejected proposals to require parental consent for unmarried minors to obtain the morning after pill, also called emergency contraceptives, and to prohibit state-supported colleges and universities from distributing the drug to students.

No similar bills had been filed as of Thursday _ the day before the bill-filing deadline _ but Amundson said her legislation would provide a necessary safeguard.

"There seems to be no shortage of ideas on how to restrict a woman's reproductive rights," Amundson said at a news conference.

Previous attempts to pass legislation defining contraception have failed because of disputes over wording. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, said adopting the FDA list is a clear and simple alternative.

Victoria Cobb, executive director of the conservative Family Foundation, said the legislation stems from Planned Parenthood's promotion the morning-after pill.

"Their push to get this drug in the hands of young girls is unacceptable," Cobb said.

Mira Singer, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said the bill is intended to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion by protecting all types of contraception.

"There's nothing more common sense and common ground than birth control," she said.

The news conference came minutes after the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted 9-6 to endorse legislation requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient surgery centers. Similar measures have cleared the House in recent years only to die in a Senate committee.

The outcome of the House committee vote was so certain that the bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County, did not show up to advocate for its passage. There was no debate.

Marshall has said in the past that the bill would protect women's health. Opponents have said most clinics would be unable to meet the standards and would be forced to close.

Delegate Amundson Honored as Fire Fighters Legislator of the Year

For Immediate Release
January 16, 2007
Phillip Berenbroick

(RICHMOND) -- Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) was honored today as Legislator of the Year by Virginia Professional Fire Fighters (VPFF). The award culminates years of work by Delegate Amundson with fire fighters and other first responders on public safety issues.

Delegate Amundson was presented the award before the VPFF Legislative Conference. "The Virginia Professional Fire Fighters created the Legislator of the Year Award to honor, and recognize those Members in the General Assembly who demonstrate by action a commitment to issues affecting public safety," R. Michael Mohler, President of VPFF, said. "The legislators that receive this award not only support our issues, but are picked for their hard work and tenacity in promoting our issues."

Delegate Amundson has worked closely with VPFF on a number of public safety issues since here election to the House of Delegates in 1999. She was the chief sponsor of legislation protecting first responders exposed to blood- and airborne illnesses on the job. "I am proud and honored to be named Legislator of the Year by the Professional Fire Fighters," Amundson said. "Particularly since the events of September 11, 2001, we have all become aware of the risks our first responders face on the job. We must make sure that government stands behind the men and women who protect us every day."

Delegates Identify Issues

2007 legislative session commences with a full hopper

Mount Vernon Gazette
January 10, 2007
Chuck Hagee
Last year Virginia Delegate Kristin J. Amundson (D-44), prior to leaving for the 2006 legislative session, announced that she was packing spring clothing in preparation for an extended session. This year she might want to consider an entire second wardrobe for Richmond.

With over 4,000 requests for bills prior to the opening gavel yesterday this so-called "short session" could turn out to be anything but. "The Governor told us this morning that he feels very optimistic about this session," said State Senator Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36) on Tuesday morning in a phone call from Richmond. That assessment remains to be tested.

Contributing to that proposed legislative avalanche are bills and priorities from Puller and Amundson. Both lead off their list with transportation. "I hope we do something meaningful on transportation. But, we in the Senate will have to wait and see what comes out of the House," said Puller.

"I believe the time is right to increase the gasoline tax. It's now at 17 and a half cents. It could be raised a dime without the price of gasoline going up a dime," Puller said. "Raising that tax would also get those from out of state to help pay for our roads instead of placing the whole burden on Virginians. Other people use our roads and they should help pay for them," she said.

Amundson echoed that emphasis on transportation." I have a bill that focuses on the maintenance of our streets and highways. That element of our transportation needs is eating up a great deal of VDOT's budget," she said. Amundson had previously noted that, "Although this is not a budget year there will be some very critical budgetary issues up for discussion and action. There is approximately $1 billion in revenue to be allocated to specific projects. The bulk of that money will go to transportation issues."

Other issues of top priority to each for which they intend to introduce legislation include the following:

Puller: Amundson:

Six Students Selected for Amundson's Young Leaders Program

For Immediate Release
January 5, 2007
Phillip Berenbroick

Four girls and two boys are among the six students selected for Delegate Kris Amundson's sixth annual Youth Leadership Institute. "From outstanding academics - their average Grade Point average is 3.9 on a 4.0 scale - to outstanding community service, these young people are truly leaders in their community," said Del. Amundson. "I hope their Richmond experience will motivate them to continue their involvement."

The six students include:

The Young Leaders will visit Richmond January 24-26, where they will observe the General Assembly in action and meet with leaders in state government. The students will also complete an individual leadership project of their own choosing. This year, the program is supported by a generous contribution from Cox Communications.