Area Lawmakers Convene for Annual Legislative Forum

December 20, 2007

Dec. 20, 2007 — Reform of the state's mental health care system dominated lawmakers' remarks at the University of Virginia's annual Legislative Forum, held Thursday.

About 100 people gathered at lunchtime in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom to hear from Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-25th), Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-24th), Del. Robert B. Bell III (R-58th) and Del. David J. Toscano (D-57th).

The General Assembly convenes a 60-day session on Jan. 9.

The focus on mental health issues — particularly when speaking in a collegiate setting — was understandable, as the legislators are gearing up for their first session since the April 16 massacre of 31 Virginia Tech students and faculty members by a mentally ill student.

Bell is a key figure in the deliberations over mental health reform legislation. He is chairing a subcommittee of the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee that will review mental health-related bills. Toscano is also serving on the subcommittee.

According to Bell, the big question is "What do you do with someone who refuses to get treatment, but is a threat to others or themselves?" Questions of involuntary commitment and treatment, he said, are "fundamental to a free society."

He expects legislation to loosen the standards by which mentally ill people can be forced into treatment, and to ensure greater follow-through with those who are directed to receive outpatient treatment.

More specific to higher education, the legislature will likely debate measures that would increase the flow of communication among university officials about students who appear troubled, lower the barriers to notifying parents about distressed students, and pass along mental health information between high schools and colleges as part of the admissions process, Bell said.

He acknowledged that there was a danger of overreacting to the Virginia Tech tragedy. "We are really trying not to do that," he said, adding that the vast majority of people who are in mental distress recognize their circumstances and seek treatment on their own.

Parental notification measures, in particular, appear contentious. On one side, many parents feel that as long as they are paying the bills, they should be notified if their children — even those of legal age — seek mental health care. Opposed are many mental health professionals, who fear that students will not seek treatment if confidentiality is not assured.

Neither Bell nor the other legislators took any explicit stands on mental health reform, other than to acknowledge that the system needs work.

As always, money issues will also be front and center. Legislators must close a $641 million gap in the current fiscal year's budget, and pass a spending plan for the next two years.

The current year's gap resulted from an economy that grew at a slower rate (3.3 percent) than was projected (6 percent). As part of his plan to close the gap, Gov. Timothy Kaine ordered a round of spending cuts earlier in the fall, while seeking a $261 million withdrawal from the state's revenue stabilization fund, also know as the "rainy-day fund."

There is some question whether the slower-than-projected growth qualifies as a "rainy day" under the constitutional rules that govern the fund, though none of the four legislators at the forum appeared prepared to make that case. Should the legislature balk at the withdrawal, however, other measures would be needed to balance the budget.

As for the upcoming biennial budget, Kaine's budget proposal, unveiled earlier this week, calls for delaying salary increases for state employees from December 2008 until July 2009. Toscano expressed some reservations with delaying the raises.

The governor also proposes the issuance of $1.65 billion worth of general obligation bonds to support higher-education building projects, including two at U.Va.: $77.6 million for a complete renovation of New Cabell Hall and $37.9 million toward the construction of a information technology engineering building.

"Even in tough years, it's important to continue to invest" in higher education, said Deeds, who has announced his candidacy for governor in 2009.

"The governor's budget I think advances the ball on higher education," Toscano said.

In response to questions from the audience, the legislators:

• Expressed support for capping interest rates on so-called "payday loans";

• Signaled pessimism over the funding for construction of a long-sought replacement facility at Western State Hospital, although Hanger said he would offer a budget amendment to keep the project moving forward;

• Declined to propose or support legislation that would give public employees collective bargaining rights; said Deeds, "That legislation is not going to pass in Virginia, and I'm not going to introduce it";

• And expressed interest in measures that would support the growing "local food" movement by removing some of the barriers to direct farm-to-consumer sales.