Aiming to make a difference

RICHMOND — The General Assembly convened Wednesday for the first day of its 2015 session amid hopes that at least some of the thousands of bills expected to be introduced will pass and make a meaningful difference in the lives of the state’s 8.3 million residents.

Lawmakers representing Warren and Shenandoah counties are touting proposals in the areas of ethics, criminal justice and small business development. They talked about their agendas as lobbyists swarmed the halls of the General Assembly building and legislative aides darted in and out of offices.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock

Gilbert, who has been deputy majority leader since 2010, said he expects to be focused on ethics reform for much of the session.

“The ethics legislation I’m [sponsoring] is going to be my No. 1 priority,” Gilbert said, adding that he believed “it’s going to affect how the public views how their government operates on the statewide level.”

Lawmakers previously resistant to sweeping ethics legislation are reconsidering their positions as the fallout settles from the convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell in a gifts-for-political-favors scandal that riveted the state for much of the last two years. McDonnell is facing a two-year prison sentence, which is scheduled to begin in early February.

“The governor’s conviction has created a real sense that we need to do more” in overhauling laws governing legislators’ ethics, Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he is also planning to introduce legislation that would make it easier for prosecutors to convict drug dealers of second-degree murder in cases where their product is believed to have caused someone’s death by overdose.

Gilbert’s agenda also includes legislation that would require law enforcement officials to obtain warrants for use of drones used in surveillance operations. The General Assembly in 2013 slapped a two-year moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft by government agencies, except in cases of public emergencies.

Gilbert said he is and has always been a law-and-order legislator but he worries that technology is outrunning the ability of the law to protect privacy rights.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg

Obenshain said ethics will also command a major part of his attention. He campaigned on ethics reform during the race for attorney general in 2013.

“At that time, I supported a cap on gifts, and I support it now,” Obenshain said.

Specifically, Obenshain said he would support a $100 gift limit for elected officials, a figure Gilbert has also cited as a possible limit.

Obenshain said he plans to introduce comprehensive legislation aimed at the growing problem of human trafficking, much of it involving underage girls. He said he is especially concerned about Interstate 81 becoming a route for transporting underage or unwilling females in businesses making money off of sexual exploitation.

“Criminal enterprises are recruiting kids in schools, in malls and online,” Obenshain said. “We’ve got to make sure we give law enforcement the tools to attack this growing threat to our children.”

Obenshain said he is also sponsoring a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to administer Narcan to heroin addicts in danger of dying from an overdose. Narcan is currently used by EMTs to revive overdose victims. Obenshain said his legislation would immunize law enforcement officers against lawsuits stemming from administration of Narcan during emergencies.

Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall

Webert said he will continue to make support for small businesses his main priority, as it has been ever since he arrived in the House of Delegates in 2011.

Webert said his work often means studying the details of bills that attract little media attention but have the potential to make a major impact, for better or worse, on the success of small businesses.

Webert said small businesses often lack the money to hire compliance officers to help them work through and around state and federal laws.

“Those are the businesses that get hurt the most by government regulations,” Webert said.

Webert cited as one example a law that prevents guests at bed and breakfasts from drinking a glass or bottle of wine on the porch, even though it is legal for them to do so in their rooms.

“You’re in a bed and breakfast. You should be able to enjoy a glass of wine on the porch,” Webert said. “We look at those small things.

“You would think some of that is common sense. As long as you’re not walking down the street, you’re not in a public place, but right now as the law stands, if you’re sitting on the porch, you can’t have that bottle of wine.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com