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Lynchburg-area legislators discuss politics over pancakes ahead of General Assembly session

View story at the News & Advance...Less than a month before the Virginia General Assembly convenes for its 2023 session, Lynchburg-area state legislators gathered with members of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance to discuss politics over breakfast.

Sen. Steve Newman, Sen. Mark Peake and Del. Wendell Walker spoke at the annual Pancakes & Politics Legislative Outlook Breakfast, hosted by Liberty University’s Center for Law and Government on Tuesday, offering a preview of what Lynchburg businesses and residents should expect out of January's session.

The Republican legislators offered insights on some of the bills and programs they would support. Among the most-discussed topics was public safety, including the state's emergency custody order (ECO) and temporary detention order (TDO) crisis.

ECOs and TDOs require law enforcement officers in Virginia to stay with people who are in need of mental health treatment, potentially removing those officers from being on the street for extended periods of time.

"Some of you know that we've been pushing bills for ECO and TDO reform," Newman said. "This is the front end of the mental health system, and it is broken. The Deeds commission in the State of Virginia passed a bill ... and it broke the system. It was one of the worst bills I've seen."

In 2014, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill sponsored by state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, that increased the duration of emergency psychiatric holds from four hours to 24 hours. It also extended the time period a person can be held involuntarily under a TDO from 48 to 72 hours. Newman said because of the nature of the law, Lynchburg "doesn't have the [police] presence on the streets you've had in the past."

In the 2023 session, Newman said, he expects there to be funding and a push to have the private hospitals to take their share of mental health patients, and that "most importantly, locally, we're going to have a crisis receiving center.
"With over $1 million, Horizon [Behavioral Health] is working right now on finding a location. Not sure if they've done it yet, but we're working on that, and we should have a center right here in Lynchburg," he said.

Additionally, Newman said he wants to repeal and replace 2021 legislation signed by then-Gov. Ralph Northam that tied Virginia to California's vehicle emissions standards.

A bill signed into law in 2021 directed the State Air Pollution Control Board to implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later, also binding Virginia to California's vehicle regulations if the bill isn't repealed or amended.

"I kind of took the lead on the floor, for two reasons. One, I thought it was bad policy to link us to their activity just fundamentally," Newman said. "We should not give away our sovereignty to anyone like that. It was a bad conceived bill."
Newman later said his bill would roll all of those regulations back and establish that Virginia will make "Virginia air decisions" and that it will hopefully have the support of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Lastly, Newman touched on Youngkin's fiscal year 2024 budget priorities, which will be released Thursday, declaring "it's going to be a bold proposal" with an additional $3 billion in revenue to work with, he said.

Peake used most of his time to talk about the state of the education system across the commonwealth. He said he believes the state Senate is "going to address a lot of social issues" in the upcoming session.

"What is going on in our state and in our country today, it's shocking," Peake said. "It's shocking what is going on in our public schools, that schools in this area are having drag queen reading hours. Or drag queen shows at our public schools."

"This is absolutely shocking the turn that our state ... has taken in just a short number of years. And this affects your public schools. It affects who comes in here to teach. It affects who comes in here with their businesses," Peake later added.

On schools specifically, Peake said the state needs to focus on Standards of Learning (SOL) scores and talk around potentially changing them.

"Our children are failing the SOLs, so we need to change the SOLs. Think about that. Think they're doing that in China? Or India? Or Japan? Or anyone else that our kids will be competing with?" Peake asked aloud.

"We've got to set standards for our students. We've got to set standards for our teachers. And we have to make sure that they meet them. You don't change the standards because they are not meeting them."

On the budget, Peake said he believes the biggest focus this year is going to be on teachers, nurses and police officers and figuring out ways to address staffing shortages in all three critical areas.

Walker focused much of his time on law enforcement needs and said he plans to put forward three bills in response to public safety needs in 2023.

"We have enough shooting going on in our city that we need to make sure that law enforcement has the resources," Walker said about his priorities.

One specific bill Walker said he might put forth would be a bill on "swatting," an issue that has moved to the forefront of public safety discussions in Lynchburg.

Swatting is the act of making a hoax communication to 911, or even to a private citizen who then communicates the false information to 911, regarding a threat to human life with the intent to draw law enforcement response, which could potentially involve a SWAT team — hence the name.

Lynchburg City Council has made swatting one of its several legislative agenda priorities following an incident at E.C. Glass High School in September.

Walker said "great things are happening here" in the area on business and economics, citing last week's announcement that Virginia MetalFab would expand in the former Thomasville Furniture Industries plant in Appomattox, investing $9 million and creating 130 jobs over three years.