Area legislators ready for session

Bills authorizing creation of drug courts and aimed at preventing government agencies from discriminating against certain religious beliefs are among the legislative proposals area lawmakers were pushing on the opening day of the General Assembly on Wednesday.

The introduction of the Government Nondiscrimination Act follows a year in which supporters of gay rights clashed with conservative Christians over a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found same sex marriage constitutional in all 50 states.

The bill, sponsored by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would prohibit state agencies from demanding support of same sex marriage as a condition for obtaining grants, loans, contracts, scholarships, licenses, certifications, accreditations, cooperative agreements, guarantees or employment.

“In the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision and the changing cultural landscape, we thought it was important to ensure a principle that is as old as Virginia and our country as a whole, which is respect for religious liberty,” Gilbert said.

The drug court legislation, which is being sponsored by first-term Del. Christopher Collins, R-Winchester, authorizes creation of drug courts in Frederick, Warren and Clarke counties and Winchester.

Frederick County has already committed to establishing a drug court by the middle of this year, but no such moves have been made in the other jurisdictions. Collins said he included them to clear the way for additional courts in his district if other communities choose to follow Frederick County’s example. The bill contains no money to support the creation or operation of drug courts.

Collins, a defense attorney who has also worked in law enforcement, said the heroin epidemic has hit his district hard and underscores the importance of finding alternatives to costly and ineffective jail sentences that offer little relief to those in the grip of a drug addiction.

Collins said communities are spending $85 to $100 a day for jail inmates who commit crimes to pay for drug purchases.

“From a locality point of view, we’re spending an awful lot of money incarcerating people who have addiction issues,” Collins said.

The treatment and rehabilitation programs incorporated into drug courts in other communities won’t work for everyone but they have been “very successful” for some addicts, Collins said.

Collins also said he has been assigned to the courts and justice and cities, towns and counties committees. Collins had sought a spot on the agriculture committee, but called himself satisfied with his assignments.

“I’m very excited to be on these committees,” Collins said. “They both do a lot of good work.”

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, said much of her time will be spent on the two-year $109 billion budget bill proposed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Vogel, a member of her chamber’s finance committee, said she hoped to obtain money to support K-12 public education and higher education, including plans for expansion of Lord Fairfax Community College. She is also trying to win support for a new area state police headquarters.

Vogel said she is committed to working with McAuliffe and Democratic legislators, despite their differences on many issues.

“We are citizen legislators, and we are actually here to do a job,” Vogel said. “I need to help them, and they need to help me, and I am most happy and most excited to do this work when we’re doing that together.”

Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall, has focused on small business and agricultural issues since he was elected in 2011, and this year will be no exception.

The list of bills Webert is sponsoring include a proposal for expanding the kinds of people an employee eligible for workers compensation can file a claim against in the event of injury, disease and death.

Webert is also sponsoring several pro-gun rights bills, including one that would allow members of the Virginia National Guard to possess a concealed handgun on the grounds of National Guard facilities if those members have a concealed handgun permit.

Webert is opposing McAuliffe’s plans for expanded tolls on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway. Webert has introduced a bill that would prohibit tolls on stretches of road built before July 1, 2016.

Webert said his bill also preserves a privilege for officially designated clean fuel vehicles on I-66.

“What it does, it preserves the clean fuel vehicle program, so if you drive clean fuel vehicles you can use HOV lanes,” Webert said, using the acronym for high occupancy vehicle lanes.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain’s list of sponsored legislation includes a proposed referendum on whether Virginia’s current status as a right to work state should be added to the state constitution.

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