Delegate Mark Cole
P. O. Box 41965
Fredericksburg, VA 22404
(540) 786-3402

Paid for and authorized by Mark Cole for Delegate

Delegate Mark Cole
It is my honor to represent the citizens of the 88th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. The House of Delegates is one half of the Virginia General Assembly, the other half being the Virginia Senate. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or concerns about legislation or issues before the General Assembly. If you would like to visit the Capitol in Richmond, please call my office so that we may set-up a tour and assist with your visit. I look forward to hearing from you!

March 2, 2015

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the General Assembly was deadlocked; with Democrats in control of the Senate and a Republican majority in the House, there was a lengthy budget standoff that ultimately dragged on until mid-June.

This year, with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate the General Assembly adjourned one day ahead of schedule late last Friday. About 800 bills, out of nearly 3000 that were introduced, were passed and sent to the Governor for his review and action. The Governor has the option to sign, veto, or make amendments to the bill. We will reconvene on April 15th to consider amendments and vetoes the Governor may make.

The General Assembly passed amendments to the state budget that will now go to Governor McAuliffe for his consideration. Tax revenues increased in the last few months, hopefully signaling an improvement in the economy. While the budget was not reduced as much as was initially planned, it spends $1 Billion less in the general fund than last year’s originally-adopted budget. As required by the state Constitution, the budget is balanced and also puts money back into the state’s reserve or “rainy-day” fund.

The budget sets aside $129.5 million for rainy-day fund deposit in 2017, which will bring the balance back to $429 million. It eliminates $33 million in debt and $11.7 million in fee increases proposed by Governor McAuliffe.

The budget makes deposits into the Virginia Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement Fund, reducing unfunded liabilities which should save future taxpayer dollars. It includes funds for a 1.5% teacher pay raise and funding for teacher professional development. In an effort to reduce the pressure to increase college tuition, an additional $42 million for higher education is included.

The budget removes Governor McAuliffe’s language to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Instead of expanding a failed system, $132.9 million is included to strengthen Virginia’s healthcare safety net. This will provide targeted services to about 22,000 seriously mentally-ill patients, doubles operational funding for free clinics to over $6 million per year, funds behavioral health community services, and increases funding for children’s psychiatry and crisis services.

While this is covered by separate legislation, it does deal with the budget; I co-sponsored legislation to build Veterans’ Care Centers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads (House Bill 1276 and House Bill 1275). The Virginia Department of Veterans’ Services already operates two Veterans’ Care Centers in Richmond and Roanoke. These centers provide nursing home type care for disabled veterans. The demand for these services has been increasing, not only for older World War II and Korean War veterans, but also for other veterans that have serious disabilities. We have all heard the horror stories about the problems with the Federal Veterans’ Administration; hopefully these centers will relieve some of the strain and help disabled vets get the services they have earned.

The General Assembly passed legislation this year to increase oversight of public private partnership transportation agreements, such as the recently completed I95 Express Lanes. These agreements allow us to leverage the private sector to make major upgrades to our transportation system, but we still have a responsibility to protect taxpayers’ investments in these projects.

The General Assembly passed HB 1887, which I co-sponsored, to reform how we distribute transportation funding. Under this bill, more transportation money will be sent to localities rather than being spent by bureaucrats in Richmond.

Legislation was also passed to require transit projects be evaluated under the same metrics as all other transportation spending. This is needed to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent on the projects that will have the greatest impact in reducing traffic congestion.

Unfortunately, a proposed amendment to the state Constitution (Senate Joint Resolution 217) to protect transportation funds from being raided and spent on other programs was defeated in the Senate. In the past, this amendment has passed the House numerous times, only to be defeated by the Senate.

The General Assembly tackled several other pressing issues, including ethics reform and campus sexual assault. Below is a brief summary of some legislation passed this session:

As chairman of the House committee that deals with election law, I sponsored legislation to update and clarify the duties of Registrars and local Electoral Boards (HB 1433). I also sponsored HB 1315 which would clean up the voter rolls by allowing Registrars to have access to lists of persons who were not eligible for jury duty because they were not citizens or local residents.

In an effort to make Virginia more attractive to businesses and protect Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state, an amendment to Virginia’s Constitution (House Joint Resolution 490) was passed to put right-to-work protections in the state Constitution. Amending the state Constitution is a three step process: the proposed amendment must pass the General Assembly twice and then be approved by the voters in a referendum.

The House and Senate passed legislation (HB 1662 and SB 1025) to allow new ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Virginia, a signal that Virginia welcomes innovative new companies like these. We also passed legislation (HB 1360 and SB 763) to make it easier for start-up companies to participate in crowdfunding, which helps entrepreneurs raise private funds they may need to start and grow.

Legislation to reform Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency was passed. HB 1776 reforms ABC to make it operate more like a business and less like a government agency. While this falls short of full scale privatization, it is a step in the right direction.

We continue to reform and improve our public schools. Our goal is to give every child a path to succeed in the classroom. We passed legislation to expedite re-take tests, give more flexibility to schools, and require them to submit less paperwork to Richmond (HB1490, HB 1615, and SB 874). HB 1676 permits local school boards to enter into agreements for dual enrollment with colleges and educational institutions that offer a career and technical education curriculum.

The General Assembly passed legislation to establish a more affordable, online degree program for Virginia students and require colleges to be more transparent about costs and graduation outcomes.

We passed legislation (HB 1930 and SB 712) to aid victims of sexual assault and protect students on college campuses. The legislation requires colleges to work with third-party organizations to provide support to victims of sexual assault. It also requires colleges to have “review teams” to assess allegations of sexual assault. This review team will either send the allegation to law enforcement or the Commonwealth’s Attorney for review.

Legislation passed to create a standalone statute on sex trafficking (HB 1964 and SB 1188), making it easier for law enforcement to prosecute perpetrators of this heinous crime.

SB 845 will provide immunity for volunteer First Responders en route to an emergency. I believe we need to do what we can to protect our First Responders who make such a sacrifice to help others and to encourage participation by volunteers.

The House and Senate passed legislation (HB 2070 and SB 1424) to strengthen ethics laws, enacting a $100 gift cap, requiring official travel to be pre-approved by an independent ethics council and requiring all disclosure reports to be filed online. The budget also funds for an ethics advisory council to advise and oversee officials on ethics rules. Last year, Governor McAuliffe signed legislation establishing the ethics council, but vetoed funding for it, so it could not actually be implemented. He then appointed his own ethics advisory commission which seemed to focus more on a political agenda, like redistricting, rather than ethics.

In light of the recent exposure of ease dropping on electronic communications by the Federal government, privacy has become a major concern. I co-sponsored some legislation to protect privacy rights. HB 1408 requires a warrant be issued before a law enforcement officer can use a device to intercept electronic communications or collect real-time location data. HB 1308 increases the penalties for the unauthorized interception or disclosure of electronic communications.

February 18, 2015

My House Bill (HB) 1287, which would require a criminal conviction before property used in connection with a crime could be forfeited and taken by the government, was defeated by the Senate Finance Committee this week. They want to study the issue further before making a decision to limit forfeitures.

While most Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Sheriffs use the program responsibly, the issue is clear to me, I think it is fundamentally un-American for the government to be able to take your property when you have not been convicted of a crime. I will continue to push this issue in the future.

Every 10 years, after the US census is completed, political district lines must be redrawn to make sure that districts are roughly equal in population. The General Assembly has the responsibility of approving the lines for congressional and legislative districts, while local governments are responsible for approving local districts and precinct boundaries.

Even though the next redistricting will not be done until 2021, numerous proposals have been put forward to change how districts are drawn. Usually, the proposals involve creating an independent or bi-partisan commission of some sort to draw the lines in order to try to take the politics out of the process. But those proposals require politicians to make the appointments to the independent commission, so I am not sure that they really take the politics out of the process. All they do is elevate the politics to a deferent, less transparent level; who gets appointed to the commission, who makes the appointments, etc… But on the surface, they sound good.

Of course the goal is to eliminate or reduce gerrymandering, drawing districts to favor one political party or candidate over another. Looking back on recent history, I am not sure how effective gerrymandering has actually been. Republicans took control of the General Assembly during the 1990s in districts that were drawn by Democrats. During the last decade, Democrats took control of the state Senate and gained seats in the House in districts that were drawn by Republicans. In 2011, the last redistricting was in fact, bi-partisan as Democrats controlled the Senate while Republicans controlled the House.

No matter who draws the lines, they will find it difficult to draw competitive districts in most of the state. Rural and suburban areas tend to be more conservative, so they usually favor Republicans, while urban and metropolitan areas are more liberal and tend to elect Democrats. With rare exceptions, this is true not only in Virginia, but throughout the country. Voters in each area tend to favor conservatives or liberals based on their own beliefs and views regardless of who draws district lines.

The next redistricting is six years away, so there is plenty of time to consider various ideas and proposals. I will certainly favor any improvements to the process that improve fairness and transparency.

Those of you my age or older will remember the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from the 1970s, for the rest this may be a history lesson.

The ERA was a proposed amendment to the US Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. What makes this amendment unique is that Congress placed a deadline on ratification of the amendment when it was submitted to the states. I believe this was intended to force the states to ratify the amendment quickly. To my knowledge, this is the only amendment on which Congress placed a deadline for ratification.

The original deadline was 1979 which was extended by Congress to 1982. When the second deadline passed, Congress declined to extend it again.

The amendment appeared to be heading towards ratification, when concerns were raised about potential unintended consequences of the language. Those concerns included infringement on religious rights and impact on public facilities. These concerns not only caused more states to refuse to ratify the amendment, but lead five states to rescind their ratification.

In 1994, the Attorney General issued a formal opinion stating that because the Equal Rights Amendment was not ratified within the original or the extended time limit established by Congress for its ratification, it is no longer before the states for ratification.

In recent years some have raised a novel legal theory, called the "Three-State Theory", suggesting that three more states could validly ratify the now null and void ERA and that then Congress could by fiat revive the proposed amendment. Of course this theory ignores the fact that five states rescinded their ratification.

After consulting with council, I could not find any of this theory sustainable as a matter of law. When it comes to amending the greatest source of secular law in the history of the world, the US Constitution, we should demand legal precision and not rest on questionable legal theories or opinions.

This is not just my opinion alone. The House has declined to ratify the ERA on the grounds that it has expired numerous times in the past, including in 2014 when the House Elections subcommittee tabled Senate Joint Resolution 78 and 2013 when similar measures were defeated by the House Rules Committee.

I certainly support equal rights for all, but the ratification period for the current ERA expired decades ago and the proposed amendment can no longer be lawfully considered by the Virginia General Assembly.

In order for the General Assembly to be able to consider the ERA, the US Congress needs to resubmit the amendment to the states for ratification.

February 9, 2015

Crossover is this week and things have been especially busy in Richmond. Crossover is the point when each legislative body must complete work on its own legislation and send it over to the other body for consideration. So the House of Delegates must finish its work on all House Bills and the Senate must do the same for their legislation.

Delegates Committee on Appropriations presented its proposed amendments to the 2014-2016 biennial state budget Sunday. The House budget proposal sets aside $99.5 million for a future rainy-day fund deposit, eliminates $10.2 million in fees and $42.5 million in debt proposed by Governor McAuliffe, and provides funding for pay raises for state police, state employees, teachers and state-supported local employees. It pays cash for all capital projects and includes no new debt.

The House budget factors for a modest revenue adjustment of $408 million over the remainder of the biennium, as a result of a steadying economy and stronger withholding.

The House proposal rejects Governor McAuliffe’s effort to expand Medicaid and instead makes a $125 million investment to strengthen the healthcare safety net by providing care for seriously mentally-ill patients, doubling operational funding for Virginia’s free clinics and improving access to community behavioral health services by creating two new PACT (Programs of Assertive Community Treatment) teams and five new crisis intervention drop-off centers. PACT teams provide coordinated, comprehensive outpatient treatment to patients with serious mental illnesses. Drop-off centers provide crisis-intervention services and are a holding place for individuals under emergency custody orders.

The House budget includes a $153.5 million compensation package that provides state funding for a 1.5% state employee and state police pay raise and a 2% pay raise for state-supported local employees. The House budget also provides a compression adjustment for senior employees and $4 million in funding to rollback cuts to state police overtime.

Funding is also included for the state’s share of a 1.5% teacher pay raise and a $190 million deposit into the teacher retirement fund. The $190 million deposit included in the House budget is $40 million more than proposed by Governor McAuliffe.

The House will vote on the proposal this week. It will then go to the Senate for their consideration.

My House Bill (HB) 1287, which would require a criminal conviction before property used in connection with a crime could be forfeited and taken by the government, passed the House and will now go to the Senate. Earlier this session, the Senate defeated a similar measure in order to study the issue. I encourage you to contact your State Senator and ask them to support HB 1287.

Asset forfeiture was implemented years ago with the intent of taking the profit out of crime. It allows law enforcement to seize property that was used in the commission of a crime or that may have been purchased with money from a crime, and then sell that property and use the money to supplement its budget.

While most Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Sheriffs use the program responsibly, there have been cases of abuse and requiring a conviction makes it less likely that an innocent person could lose their property. I just think it is fundamentally un-American for the government to be able to take your property when you have not been convicted of a crime.

House passed legislation to reform transportation funding. HB 1887 changes how Virginia allocates its transportation dollars in order to increase transparency and send more money to localities.

The bill simplifies the old, complicated funding formula into three simple pots of funding: Now, 40 percent of funding will be spent to fix bridges and pavements, 30 percent will be sent to local districts for local projects, and 30 percent will be spent on key statewide needs.

This new formula will send more funding to localities than the old system. Basically, it takes money currently controlled by political appointees in Richmond, and distributes it to the local transportation districts, where it is more likely to be spent on projects that will relieve traffic congestion.

There is nothing in this bill that raises taxes or creates new tolls.

By simplifying the system and reducing the number of funding pots from 10 to 3, we will increase transparency and make it easier to follow the money.

January 21, 2015

Session is moving along very quickly. I wanted to take this opportunity to report to you some of the legislation I am sponsoring this session.

House Bill (HB) 1287 has gotten a fair amount of attention. It would require a criminal conviction before property used in connection with commission of a crime could be forfeited. Currently, no conviction is required before property can be seized and forfeited.

Asset forfeiture was implemented years ago with the intent of taking the profit out of crime. It allows law enforcement to seize property that was used in the commission of a crime or that may have been purchased with money from a crime, and then sell that property and use the money to supplement its budget.

While most Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Sheriffs use the program responsibly, there have been cases of abuse and not requiring a conviction makes it more likely that an innocent person could lose their property.

I call House Joint Resolution (HJ) 500 the “pass a budget or you’re fired act.” Last year we had the longest budget standoff in Virginia history and came very close to having the first state government shutdown in Virginia history. This proposed amendment to the state Constitution is to deal with this situation in the future.

If adopted, this Constitutional amendment would require that 30 days before the current budget would expire, if no new budget has been adopted, the House and Senate will form a single body to vote on a budget. If they still cannot agree to a budget by the time the current budget expires, then the entire General Assembly will be fired, and special elections called. Hopefully this would give enough motivation to the General Assembly to avoid a protracted budget standoff and government shutdown.

HB 1579 would do away with the requirement that cars and other vehicles be re-registered every year. There is no good reason for you to have to re-register your car every year (or every two years). Once a car has been registered, it is in the DMV database and should only need to be re-registered if it is sold or moved to another address.

I expect this bill will face an uphill battle in the General Assembly. While I think most legislators would agree with the premise of the bill, the problem will be the revenue generated by the registration “fee”. This bill would have a big revenue impact on the state budget. The registration fee is really a statewide car tax disguised as a fee. If not passed this year, this bill should at least start the discussion about eventually eliminating the annual registration requirement.

HJ 505 would establish a study group to reform Virginia's state and local taxes. Our state and local tax code is complex and archaic. It is based on a structure that was set-up more than a hundred years ago and needs to be simplified and updated. Much of our income tax code is based on the Federal IRS code, which everyone complains about as being too complex and unfair. I think we would be much better off to move towards a flat or fair tax.

HB 1309 is another bill that has received a fair amount of press coverage. It would allow local school boards to arm of school security officers with non-lethal weapons such as tasers and pepper spray. It would not require them to be armed, but would give the local school board the option to arm them. In light of recent school shootings, I feel we need to beef-up our security at schools.

Some schools have School Resource Officers (SRO), which are fully armed law enforcement officers. Other schools do not have an SRO but do have School Security Officers (SSO), which are civilians hired by the school to assist with school security: making sure doors are locked, monitoring halls, and checking parking lots. However, SSO’s are unarmed so they would be of limited help in the event of an armed intruder in a school. In the past I have sponsored legislation to put an SRO in every school, however, it did not pass which is why I am sponsoring this legislation.

HB 1328 is an attempt to determine the fiscal impact illegal immigration on our schools. This bill would require local school districts to report the number of students that are not lawfully present in the US and report that number to the Department of Education. The Department of Education will then request payment for the costs for educating these students from the Federal government.

The Federal government requires state and local governments to provide an education to all children, regardless of their immigration status, so I think it is fair to ask them to pay for students who are in the country illegally. Most of them are here because Washington has failed to do its job to secure the border and enforce immigration law.

I am also co-sponsoring several bills, including:

HB 1302 allows expedited retakes for Standards of Learning tests when a student fails the test.
HB 1308 strengthens privacy protections for electronic communications.
HB 1318 closes a loophole in our current voter ID law, by requiring a photo ID for absentee ballot applications.
HB 1362 would require a run-off election in the event that no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote for a statewide office.
HB 1750 expands access to investigational drugs for terminally ill patents.
HB 2111 allows a person who is required to carry certain hunting, trapping, or fishing licenses or a hunter education certificate to meet the requirement by carrying an electronic copy of the relevant license or certificate.

January 15, 2015

The 2015 General Assembly session opened on Wednesday, January 14 and got off to a brisk start. Delegates old and new are working hard to get a lot done in a short, 46 day session. I look forward to a productive session working for you in Richmond this year.

House leadership opened up the first day of session by welcoming five new members and going over some legislative priorities for this session, including reforming K-12 education, making higher education more affordable, holding the assembly to the highest ethical standards, and adopting a responsible budget that funds the core functions of government without raising taxes.

Governor Terry McAuliffe delivered the annual State of the Commonwealth address to the Joint Assembly of the House of Delegates and Senate. Unfortunately, he chose to focus much of his speech promoting issues like the expansion of Medicaid included in Obamacare. I have heard from so many of my constituents that this is the wrong approach. The Governor went on to propose new spending without suggest a way to pay for them.

In contrast, Delegate Margaret Ransone and Senator Jeff McWaters delivered the Republican response, laying out a legislative agenda that would prepare Virginia for long-term growth. It includes measures to:

• Improve our public schools by supporting our teachers and better measuring student success;
• Make Virginia’s colleges and universities more affordable by placing limits on unreasonable student fees;
• Ensure Virginia’s college campuses are safe places for our students;
• Jumpstart the creation of new long-term care centers for Virginia’s large – and growing – population of veterans; and
• Further strengthen the new ethics and transparency reforms we approved last session.