Infotech Laws Make Gains in Richmond

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Infotech Laws Make Gains in Richmond

By Neil Munro

Staff Writer

Lobbyists for Virginia's infotech businesses say new laws passed by the state legislature will bolster their campaigns for education reform, easier access to venture capital and expansion of a statewide communications network.

Virginia's General Assembly wrapped up its 1997 session in late February after rejecting several bills regulating use of the Internet, passing a bill allowing contracts to be signed with digital signatures, creating a cabinet adviser for science and technology, and establishing a permanent technology commission of 10 legislators.

Also, Virginia's State Corporation Commission voted to prepare a plan by January 1999 for reform of the state's securities legislation.

However, the new laws won't have any impact until the state legislature meets again in 1998, following the election in November 1997 of a new governor, lieutenant governor and 100-member House of Delegates. The 40 state senators face re-election in 1999.

One of the new bills passed by the legislature directs Gov. George Allen to appoint a top-level adviser on science and technology policy.

The new science adviser post created by the legislature will "evolve into a chief information officer for the state," while the technology commission will help industry push through pro-technology legislation, said Ray Pelletier, director of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, based in Herndon, Va.

Formation of the commission "is a significant step, but I would not say it is a leap" for Virginia's high-tech companies, said Bob Templin, director of the Herndon, Va.-based Center for Innovative Technology.

The changes made by the legislature will help businesses push for a statewide technology promotion strategy, which should include a high-capacity data network, education reforms and state-sponsored technology research, he said. From the late 1980s, the state spent roughly $35 million via Templin's organization to promote innovative technology research.

High on Pelletier's priority list are laws promoting education reform and new rules to ease access to capital. The legislature should provide tax breaks to new companies, persuade the banks to treat intellectual property as collateral for loans and require the Virginia Retirement System to invest more of its funds in new high-tech companies formed in the state. The "VRS still needs to play a role and they have not bellied up to the bar," he said.

The new seven-person panel's review of securities rules and the permanent 10-person legislative commission will help achieve these goals because their members will better understand the needs of the high-tech industry, he said. "The General Assembly will give a great deal of credence to what the [10 legislators'] opinion is," he said.

The panel's likely impact can be seen in the debate over the digital signatures bill, rejected in 1996 by the legislature because of its complexity. The legislature then formed an ad-hoc group of legislators to study the issue. The group reviewed and recommended the bill, which was then approved by the General Assembly's committees and passed unanimously by the legislature after being amended. The law, SB 923, requires the Virginia government to draft regulations by September 1998 giving legal recognition to digitally signed contracts.

Bills Rejected by the Legislature
HR 1623/ Harassing E-mail
Would have made transmission of profane, indecent or threatening language via e-mail a misdemeanor offense.
HR 1638/ Restrictions on Internet service
Would have allowed the subscribers of an online service to force the provider to sanction other subscribers that violated the terms of service.
Bills Approved by the Legislature
HJ 665/ Reform of the Commonwealth's Securities Laws: Establishes a seven-person commission to recommend improvements to the state's oversight of securities trading.
HB 2138/ Joint Commission on Technology and Science: Establishes a permanent panel of 10 legislators to provide advice on pending technology-related legislation.
HJ 566/ Technology and Science Adviser: Directs the governor to appoint a top-level adviser on science and technology policy.
SB 923/ Digital Signature Act: Requires the governor to establish regulations by September 1998 that allow enforcement of contracts approved with digital signatures.

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