Nearing the halfway point of the 2017 General Assembly session, Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton and Del. J. Randall Minchew met with a standing-room-only crowd on Saturday at Rust Library to provide a constituent update.
Wexton (D-33) and Minchew (R-10) led off the presentation highlighting their efforts to work in a bipartisan manner to advocate Loudoun’s priorities. But questions from the audience turned the focus to areas on which they differ.
Together they discussed their support for cracking down on districted driving, promoting solar power farms, and combating opioid addiction.
Both pointed to the inadequacy of Virginia’s distracted driving laws, which prohibits drivers from texting while behind the wheel. The law doesn’t, however, bar them from shopping on Amazon, as Wexton pointed out, or playing Angry Birds, as Minchew noted.
Minchew said that cell phone use while driving is suspected as a factor in the death of 5-month-old Tristan Schulz, who was killed as his mother pushed him in a stroller through a Lansdowne crosswalk last August.
“We need to stamp out something that is killing our citizens,” Minchew said. “It’s like an addiction. We are addicted to our smart phones.”
Minchew advocates banning the use of all apps while driving, noting that even auto-related apps, such as the popular Waze navigation program, can pull drivers’ attention away from the road.
However, both legislators said it was unlikely the issue would be addressed during this year’s assembly session.
Wexton and Minchew are supporting measures to raise caps on the amount of solar power that can be generated on agricultural properties and then sold back to the electrical grid—a measure championed by the owners of New River Farm near Leesburg.
With solar power production costs continuing to decline, Minchew said he sees a future in which neighbors could form co-ops to operate solar arrays and earn credits to reduce their power bills. “I think that’s a form of energy liberty,” Minchew said.
The democratization of the power grid hasn’t been popular with the industry’s lobbyists. “I know that there are two legislators who are not beholden to Dominion on these things,” Wexton said.
Both said that combating opioid abuse and providing better treatment options for addicts were high priorities. Wexton highlighted legislation that will help better monitor prescriptions, expand access to life-saving naloxone overdose treatments, and improve services to babies of addicted mothers. Minchew highlighted his advocacy of establishing drug courts in his district to help non-violent offenders fight their addictions.
During the question period, audience members challenged Minchew to explain his support for school choice measures, his opposition to the Medicaid expansion, and a measure that would allow civil celebrants to decline to perform same-sex marriages.
Minchew signed on as co-patron of Del. David LaRock’s (R-33) bill to create education savings accounts that would allow parents to use tax money earmarked for public schools to pay expenses for their children in private sectarian, or nonsectarian schools.
Minchew said his top priority is to ensure communities have strong public schools, but said there was room for school choice alternatives. Wexton opposes the measure and said the bill does not provide oversight for how the money would be spent.
Asked about his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Minchew said he opposed the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia because of concerns that the federal government would drop its commitment to pay 90 percent of the state’s cost—potentially leaving state taxpayers with a big bill or having to take services away from residents.
Wexton and Minchew also are on different sides of House bill 2025, a measure sponsored by Del. Nicholas J. Freitas (R-30), of Culpepper, to not require civil celebrants to conduct same-sex marriages if it is opposed to his or her “religious belief or moral conviction.”
Wexton said that civil celebrants are agents of the state who should not be able to deny the service. Minchew said they should have discretion which marriages they perform. Minchew said the better solution may be to have the state government drop its requirement for marriage licenses altogether, perhaps following a proposal in Alabama in which couples instead would record civil contracts based on sign affidavits.
The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn Feb. 25. Tuesday is deadline for the Senate and the House to deliberate legislation proposed by members of their house. Bills that fail to win a floor vote will die for the session.