Midway at the GA: Bills to watch

Now that we have reached the midpoint of the Virginia Legislative Session and some bills have died a quiet death, these are the remaining bills that VCOG will continue to advocate in opposition or support. One note, the descriptions of the bills are mine, and are intended for clarity and not the actual legislative information system descriptions.   Please contact your legislators to express your opinion of any or all of these bills.   [Click here to learn who represents your district]

If you have any questions or would like more detailed information on any of the below, please contact Jennifer Perkins at jperkins@opengovva.org.

Thank you,
Jennifer L. Perkins, Executive Director, VCOG

HB 1007 Virginia Fusion Intelligence Center
D. Jones
The bill provides that papers, evidence, information, etc., and databases or other information in the possession of the State Police related to criminal activity are confidential and not subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act or the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. The bill restricts the release or dissemination of information without prior authorization from the Virginia Fusion Intelligence Center. An amendment to the bill stretches the provisions to cover all agencies assigned to the Fusion Intelligence Center.

VCOG Position: Strongly Opposed.   This bill not only amends FOIA to exclude documents in an overbroad way but also raises other constitutional concerns.

Status:   Passed House, referred to Senate Courts of Justice Criminal Sub-committee.   

HB 407 and SB 130 Secret Donors to Public Universities in Virginia
Oder / Houck
The bill exempts records maintained by a public institution of higher education that are (i) personal fundraising strategies relating to identifiable donors or prospective donors or (ii) wealth assessments; estate, financial, or tax planning information; health-related information; employment, familial, or marital status information; electronic mail addresses, facsimile or telephone numbers; birth dates or Social Security numbers of identifiable donors or prospective donors. In addition the bill allows the identity of the donor to be secret if the donor has requested anonymity in connection with the donation.  And a good amendment by VPA says: the provision provided by this subdivision shall not apply to protect from disclosure (i) the identities of sponsors providing grants to or contracting with the institution for the performance of research services or other work or (ii) the terms and conditions of such grants or contracts.

VCOG Position: Strongly Opposed.   This bill sets a precedent for bad public policy and further erosion of FOIA by allowing for secret donations to a public entity. Secondly, it eliminates public oversight of possible relationship of donations to admittance of prospective students or to receiving lucrative contracts for services or products with the university.

Status:  Each bill has passed its respective chamber and been referred to the opposite General Laws Committee.

HB 982 Access to Concealed Weapons Permit Holders Information
As amended, the bill eliminates from public disclosure permittee names and descriptive information held by the Department of State Police for purposes of entry into the Virginia Criminal Information Network. However, the information would still be available to law-enforcement agencies, officers, agents in the course of law-enforcement duties, and any entity that has a valid contract to perform official duties for the law-enforcement agency. Non-identifying statistical information would be available to the general public. An amendment added on the floor of the House would remove local access at the circuit court level by making it discretionary with the court clerk as to whether or not to release the information.   

VCOG Position: Strongly oppose amended version that would eliminate the public’s access to local information via the circuit courts on concealed weapons permitee holders. Would not oppose compromise bill that came out of the FOIA Council that closes access to the full State Police database but not at the local circuit court level.

Status:  Senate bill has been re-committed and will be studied by the FOIA Council.   House bill by Nutter is still alive and kicking and its fate is uncertain.

HB 662   DHC
L. Lewis
The bill includes as a confidential tax document any document that is required to be filed with the Department of Conservation and Recreation under the land preservation tax credit program.  The credit information received by the DHC is for people applying for tax credits worth over $1 million.

VCOG Position:  Opposed. This bill amends FOIA to close out information that it is not necessary to close.  Sensitive tax documents and income-related documents can be withheld without a blanket exclusion that would include the name of the applicant and the property description.   Land use issues are important at the local level, as is transparency to the operation of the program by the DHC. These tax credit applications are voluntary and are not at all like a tax return document that should be withheld.   VCOG has asked for an amendment to the bill that would allow the name and property description to remain public. Thus far the amendment has not been accepted.

Status:  Bill has passed the House and been referred to Senate Finance Committee.

HB 622/HB 1106  Circuit Court Clerks bill
Clarifies a number of issues for circuit court clerks including: use of the last four digits of a Social Security number on judgments (filer is responsible); that the clerk may provide information from a locality to remote access users; filer is responsible for cover sheet accuracy; allowing the clerk to rely on the cover sheet to index; the difference between e-filing of court records and e-recording of land records. The bill also provides standard definitions of subscriber, secure remote access, public access, and electronic recording of land records. The bill establishes a $5 per document fee for e-recording of a land record and provides for a subscription rate not to exceed $50 per month for remote access to land records. The bill also increases various fees collected by clerks to generate revenue for deputy clerk salary increases.

VCOG Position: Not Opposed.  We support the idea of standardizing the fees at a reasonable level rather than the current practice of some clerks charging very large fees for court documents and others not. There is some concern however that this bill would use those fee increases for raises for clerks.  As a policy matter shouldn’t the salary increases for clerks who perform many functions in addition to providing documents, come from the full Virginia population via the budget rather than funding the raises on the backs of those who request documents?

Status:  Each chamber has passed its bill, but House bill removed all fee increases in section 17.1-275.   Senate subsequently put fees back in during a hearing in committee on 2/13 and reported the bill out of Senate Courts. The question remains if the House will pass the bill with the fee section intact.

SB 96/SB 246/HB499 Involuntary Commitment Hearings
(As part of SB 246)The bill clarifies that recordings of any involuntary commitment hearing shall be held by the clerk of the general district court where the hearing is held, and that all recordings and records of such hearings shall be confidential, unless such confidentiality is waived, in a signed writing, by the subject of such a hearing. The bill provides that the dispositional order of such hearing may be made available by court order, if such disclosure is in the best interest of the subject of the hearing or the public.

VCOG Position:   Opposed

Status:   Passed by the Senate. All three bills have now been combined into a mental health omnibus bill.

HB 1332/SB 423 newly amended DEQ bill
In committee substitutes passed by both chambers, the bill sets a process to provide for public hearings when there is substantial public interest in a Department of Environmental Quality-issued permit, there are significant legal or factual issues that are both germane to the draft permit and within the Department’s jurisdiction, and the public hearing could provide additional information.  A newly added amendment in the nature of a substitute allows for public hearings to be held before less than a quorum of the DEQ board. The board could meet by electronic means with only one site being open to the public.

VCOG Position: Oppose unless amended.  Would significantly erode progress on the careful tailoring of the use of electronic meetings versus in-person meetings done by the FOIA Council and requirements for same under FOIA. The bill needs to be amended to reflect current FOIA electronic meetings law & requirements.

Status: Passed House with substitute amendment; referred to Senate Agriculture, Conservations and Natural Resources Committee’s special Subcommittee on SB 423.

HB 634/SB132 [GDCDPA] Bill Reduces Government Overcollection of SSN’s.
The bill would require all local and state agencies to report why and where they collect Social Security numbers.   It further provides that no agency shall require an individual to furnish a Social Security number unless (a) expressly authorized or required by law, AND (b) collection is essential for the performance of that agency’s duties.

VCOG Position:  Strongly Support.   For many years VCOG has advocated that there is an overcollection problem by state and local agencies that leads to documents being withheld that need not be.  This bill would provide us with a report of all the places SSNs are collected; reduce the number collected; and increase access to public document and possible the cost of FOIA request (by reducing redaction)  through reduction of this sensitive information.  

Status: Each bill has passed its respective chambers and now heads to the opposite chambers General Laws committees.

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