Va. General Assembly to face gun control, transportation issues
By Laura Vozzella,
The General Assembly returns to Richmond on Wednesday for a jampacked month. Virginia’s legislative sessions come in two sizes: short and long. This is a short year, lasting 45 days.
Good thing, too, because there’s lots of politicking to get on with once it wraps up. With all three statewide offices open this year, it seems as though half of Richmond is running for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general — mostly lieutenant governor. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election.
Here are some of the big issues senators and delegates will take up.
With Virginia expected to be out of transportation funds by 2017, finding a new way to pay for road construction and repairs will be a top priority. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has promised a package that would generate at least $500 million a year by 2018. Expect a fight over where that money will come from. McDonnell wants to get a big chunk of it from the general fund, something Democrats say will cheat schools and social services. McDonnell tried and failed to get that through the General Assembly last year. He might try to win more votes this time by offering to tie the flat gas tax to prices at the pump.
Democrats started scrambling to submit gun-control bills days after the mass killings at a Connecticut elementary school. Some plan to submit legislation that they have pushed in the past without success, hoping the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month has changed some minds. Among those in the works is a bill that would order schools to arm some teachers and staff members and a measure that would close the gun-show loophole, which allows some sales without criminal background checks. The General Assembly has been more inclined to loosen restrictions than tighten them, and some gun-rights Republicans say that’s unlikely to change. Last session, legislators repealed the one-per-month limit on handgun purchases and stripped localities of the right to require fingerprints from people applying for concealed handgun permits.
Jobs and workplace rules
Virginia Republicans are proposing tort-reform and right-to-work bills that they say would create more jobs. With the latter, they are catching an anti-union wave that has swept over traditional union strongholds such as Michigan. The commonwealth is already a right-to-work state, meaning workers cannot be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. The push now is to enshrine that law in the Virginia Constitution. Another bill would amend the constitution to guarantee voter privacy in union elections. Unions say the measures are meant to intimidate workers.
Southside Virginia is home to the country’s largest known uranium deposit, but a 30-year ban prevents it from being mined. Legislators will take up whether to allow the $10 billion lode to be mined. Expect passionate arguments predicting jobs and energy independence on one side and environmental damage and regional stigma on the other.
The state’s Republican leaders are said to have little appetite for anything that might get them lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” They got that treatment last year, because of a bill that, before it was amended, would have required women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. Hot-button bills such as a ban on “sex-selective” abortions might quietly die in committee this time around. But Democrats will be eager to fan the “war on women” flames, which might have helped them win the presidential and U.S. Senate races in November and might help with statewide races this year. There will be no avoiding debate on the reappointment of a gay judge to Richmond’s General District Court. The city’s Circuit Court judges appointed Tracy Thorne-Begland to the bench in June, a month after the House rejected his nomination. But it was only an interim appointment, one legislators must confirm or reject.
McDonnell has proposed an education package that would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. The governor failed to eliminate tenure-style job protections for public school teachers last session. This time, he has sweetened the pot with a 2 percent raise and a chance for merit pay. McDonnell also seeks to eliminate “cost of competing” funds for school support staff members; the funds are usually provided to Northern Virginia schools to help them attract staff members in an expensive job market. McDonnell wants to maintain the funds for teaching staff but eliminate the $12.2 million provided to support workers in fiscal 2014, which begins July 1. Several bills also aim to repeal the “Kings Dominion law,” named for the amusement park, which prohibits school districts from opening before Labor Day without a waiver from the state. The measure fell last session to fierce opposition from the tourism industry.