Pickle sellers, crank calls could get a hearing in Va. General Assembly

Why spend the hereafter in a box six feet under when your cremated remains can ride a rocket to a galaxy far, far away? Especially if the state of Virginia opts to give tax breaks for intergalactic interments.

Under a bill proposed by Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), the commonwealth would offer an income-tax deduction of up to $8,000 to anyone planning to have his ashes blasted from the Old Dominion to outer space.

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Kilgore is dead serious about his legislation, which he thinks could boost Virginia’s space economy. Yet he also says with a laugh that it could be a contender for “craziest bill of the year.”

But it’s early yet.

Thousands of bills and resolutions come before Virginia’s House and Senate every year. About 150 have been filed so far for the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 11, and that relatively small sampling is long on offbeat. So far, there are bills to:

Revamp pickle regulations. Impose jail time on crank callers. Let bicyclists regard red lights as stop signs. Allow Virginians to reject emergency text messages from the president of the United States.

“There’s just a lot of bizarre stuff that goes on here,” said Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus. “Sometimes you find out after the bills are closely examined that there is some serious issue going on. Sometimes they’re just unusual.

“One year we were totally embroiled in whether we should require people to pull their pants up,” Ryer said, referring to 2005’s ill-fated “droopy drawers” bill, which sought to impose a $50 fine for wearing pants in a way that exposes underwear. “We certainly got a lot of attention probably three years ago now on things you hang from the trailer hitch from one’s truck.”

That’s Ryer’s delicate way of referring to faux bull testicles, which a doomed 2009 bill sought to ban for use as automotive frills.

Helping home picklers

This year, the General Assembly session will be crammed with the hefty work of a biennial budget, congressional redistricting and perennial hot-button issues such as abortion and guns. Onto that full legislative plate, Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem) has placed pickles.

Habeeb wants to help home picklers sell their kosher dills and sweet gherkins at Virginia farmers markets, something that’s harder to do than you’d think.

“Under Virginia law, in order to sell an acidic good, you have to take a two-day course that costs $275, pass a four-part test, file paperwork with the state and, probably most importantly, every single batch of pickles you make has to be sent out for testing,” Habeeb said.

There are no pickle-testing labs in the commonwealth, so picklers must send their briny cukes out of state, at a cost of $100 to $200 per batch.

“After all that, you can sell your $3 bottle of pickles at the farmers market,” he said, exasperated. His bill would free picklers, as well as makers of salsas and relishes, from those restrictions.

Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, said Habeeb has one thing wrong: Picklers don’t have to submit every batch for testing; if their initial batch comes up clean, they’re good to go. If they make more than one variety of pickle, however, each recipe must be tested. Haymore acknowledged that picklers have to jump through lots of hoops but said all are necessary to keep deadly botulism out of Ball canning jars.

“If that occurs, the foods are no longer high risk,” he said. “They can be deadly.”

Bearing ‘by request’ tag

If the commonwealth seems to have an abundance of oddball bills, that need not mean Virginia is especially long on quirky lawmakers. The reason could be legislative sessions that are especially short. Senators and delegates spend just two months in Richmond, leaving 10 months in their home districts to rub elbows with picklers, space-burial enthusiasts and others with ideas for new laws.

“It is a side effect of having a citizen legislature,” Ryer said. “They’re back home and they’ll hear from people in the grocery store checkout line who come to them with different ideas for legislation. . . . I have watched the debates before where members were carrying such bills, and some were quite passionate about it and some were quite sheepish.”

Some of the stranger bills bear the tag “by request,” a lawmaker’s way of signaling, “This wasn’t my idea.”

Del. Robert Tata (R-Virginia Beach) gave a less-than-ringing endorsement when a reporter asked about his bill to increase penalties on anyone who causes a telephone or pager to “ring with intent to annoy.” The bill would jack up maximum penalties on the misdemeanor from a $500 fine to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

“That’s coming from the commonwealth’s attorney, Harvey Bryant,” Tata said. “I’m just being his messenger. . . . It’s pretty much a nothing bill unless you’re at the other end of the phone that’s ringing all the time.”

The gen­esis of a bike measure from Del. James E. Edmunds II (R-South Boston) is less certain. He did not return e-mail and phone messages seeking comment. The bill would free bicyclists who approach red traffic lights from the need to — who knew? — wait two minutes before pedaling on.

Whatever its origins, the bike bill is a curiosity. Of the more than 150 bills filed before the end of the year, Edmunds’s bill was the seventh most accessed on the General Assembly’s Web site, attracting more looks than proposals to require drug testing for welfare recipients; expand gun rights; and, drawing inspiration from last summer's sensational Casey Anthony murder trial, make failure to report the death of a child a felony.

‘Get any more ‘1984’-ish?’

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) is working on legislation that would allow Virginians to reject emergency text messages from the president. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is launching a new emergency text-alert system, to be rolled out nationwide this spring, with three types of texts: Amber Alerts for missing children; alerts involving imminent threats to public safety; and alerts issued by the president. People can opt not to receive the first two alerts, but they cannot block the presidential ones.

“Can you get any more ‘1984’-ish than the president saying, ‘You will get this text message’? I think a system like that is very frightening,” Marshall said. “This [cellphone] is something I personally carry on me. You can track my movements if you want to. What if they decided, ‘We’re going to go after people of a certain profile. Are they home? Do they go to some preordained meeting? Let’s send it to all known conservative Republicans . . . Let’s see what happens.’ ”

Rachel Racusen, FEMA’s director of public affairs, said the system would not be used for political purposes or to track anyone’s movements. It does not allow an opt-out for the presidential message, she said, because that would make it a less reliable way to deliver an emergency message to the American people.

Blasting ashes into space

Perhaps the most unusual bill of the bunch is Kilgore’s space-burial measure. That came about at the request of a constituent who serves on the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.

The bill would give a tax break to anyone contracting to have his remains shot into space from Virginia. So far, only one company provides such a service, Celestis of Houston, which has launched about 600 deceased space travelers out of Florida, California, New Mexico and overseas. Space burials start at $995 for a 15-minute suborbital jaunt and top out at $12,500 for an unending deep-space voyage.

The remains would hitch a ride on rockets carrying scientific experiments, commercial satellites, space station cargo and, perhaps someday, space tourists. That would help defray the cost of those ventures and make Virginia a more competitive launch site, Kilgore said.

It might also spur earthbound tourism. You’ve heard of destination weddings. With space burials, there are destination funerals, as loved ones gather to watch a portion of the departed’s ashes — as much as will fit inside a vial the size of a lipstick tube — blast off.

“You’ll never go to a funeral where you’ll see that much high-fiving and cheering,” said Celestis founder and chief executive Charles Chafer.

The bill should also give a lift to lawmakers otherwise immersed in weighty matters of government.

“We’ve got budgets to deal with and we’ve got a lot of serious issues — criminal law and all this,” Kilgore said. “Every once in a while, you’ve got to think outside the box.”

 
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