Thursday, April 18, 2019

2019 Reconvene Session

Earlier this month the Virginia General Assembly reconvened for one day to consider the legislation vetoed and amended by the Governor, including the budget bill.

This year the Governor was able to use language amendments in the budget to bypass House GOP leadership and accomplish some important bi-partisan policy objectives.

Legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court costs and fees passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion during the regular session but was killed by 6 legislators on the Criminal Law subcommittee in the House of Delegates. Many advocates on both ends of the political spectrum agree that this practice puts many low-income Virginian’s in an untenable situation. Individuals are unable to get to work to earn the money to pay the fines they need to get their driving privileges restored so they can go to work to earn the money to pay the fines.

This year the Governor added language to the budget prohibiting this unfair practice for the rest of the biennium. We also added $4 million in additional support for the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address homelessness. Another budget amendment that we passed creates a dedicated revenue source for transportation improvements throughout the state, including additional funding for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) to replace some of what Delegate Hugo’s bill diverted to Metro last session.

Those were the highlights. Unfortunately, there were more than a few of the Governor’s recommendations that the House GOP defeated on the floor. Some noteworthy efforts that failed to pass:

Efforts to tackle the growing problem of distracted driving and the growing public safety threat it poses were frustrated by a controversial procedural ruling made by Speaker Kirk Cox. Earlier this session both the House and Senate passed a bi-partisan hands-free law that would have simply made it illegal for anyone to hold a phone in their hand while operating a motor vehicle.

This approach, the same one used in Maryland and Washington D.C., has the advantage of being able to be enforced objectively by the police, an issue of major concern to legislators concerned with the police using their discretion to disproportionately pull over African American drivers. That approach was rejected in a conference committee by 4 legislators who amended the bill that passed the House and Senate to create an exception for talking on the phone. Concerned that such an exception would force police to decide whether someone was holding their phone to talk on it or for an unlawful purpose, like texting or surfing the web, a majority of legislators voted against passage of the bill on the House Floor.

The effort to pass a truly hands-free law was revived when the Governor proposed amending a bill prohibiting the use of phones in work zones to apply everywhere. Unfortunately, the Speaker ruled the amendment out of order.

Regarding the budget, Republicans in the House & Senate defeated an amendment to include $1.5 million in the budget for census education and outreach to ensure a full and accurate census count. They also defeated an amendment to restore funding to the long acting reversible contraception pilot program to allow low income women access to this sort of contraception which is proven to reduce unintended pregnancies. An amendment restoring language (that already exists under current law) authorizing expenditures for abortion services that are necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman, provided that every possible measure is taken to preserve the life of the unborn fetus.

Finally, the House defeated the Governor’s amendment I argued for on the House Floor that would have prevented the creation of a special Amazon incentive slush fund in which to divert $40 million worth of new sales tax revenue generated by the Commonwealth’s ability to tax all e-commerce transactions, even when the seller doesn’t have a physical presence in the State. We’ve been told that the Amazon incentives are post-performance and will pay for themselves through additional income tax receipts. That said, I agreed with the Governor that we shouldn’t be taking money away from transportation and education to start squirreling it away to make payments to Amazon in the future.

As it is every year, the Reconvened session was a culmination of the regular session, allowing us to wrap up loose ends. Legislation that we passed and earned the Governor’s signature (including the state budget) will go into effect on July 1st.