By Amy Gardner and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
RICHMOND, Feb. 20 -- The Virginia General Assembly will allow local governments to set up cameras to catch drivers who run red lights, renewing a program that safety advocates say reduces accidents and aggressive driving.
The Senate voted 30 to 10 Tuesday to approve a bill that would let towns, cities and counties with populations of 10,000 or more install photo-monitoring systems at intersections with traffic signals. The House has already approved the measure, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has said he will sign it.
Nearing the close of their 45-day session, lawmakers also voted Tuesday to phase out touch-screen voting machines because of concerns about their accuracy. And House Republicans blocked an effort to raise the state's minimum wage to $6.50 an hour. The session ends Saturday.
The red-light camera program would replace an experiment that expired in 2005 in Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Vienna, Virginia Beach and Arlington and Fairfax counties. In addition to the District, Maryland and 11 other states use automated cameras for traffic enforcement.
"This is the best opportunity this legislature has had since I've been here for 12 years to establish a statewide safety program," said Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News). "This is for all localities in Virginia."
The real hurdle was in the more conservative House of Delegates, where lawmakers had approved the measure this month 63 to 35. It is one in a series of measures to be approved this year after historic resistance by House members who have argued against what they view as unnecessary government "nannyism" through regulation.
The House also has approved laws requiring restaurants to prominently display signs if smoking is allowed on the premises and requiring children to be restrained in a booster seat until age 8. Last week, a House committee approved a law prohibiting teens from using cellphones while driving; the bill is likely to come before the full House on Wednesday.
"Virginia is a very weird state," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "There's a vast difference of opinion about what the people want. I never thought we'd ever see photo-red get out of here. But a lot of the rural guys are just sick and tired of this fighting with the Senate. In order to compromise, we have to give up some of the things we like."
Others attributed the shift to election-year jitters. With all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for election in November, Republican lawmakers are mindful that Virginia's electorate has been trending toward Democrats in recent years and is turning to government to solve problems such as the traffic crisis in Northern Virginia as well as health and safety concerns.
"I think they are recognizing that all their ideological talk about the 'nanny state' not only isn't working, but it is also portraying them as callous and indifferent to measures that protect our families and kids," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington).
Sprinting through their final week, lawmakers addressed dozens of other measures Tuesday. Responding to bipartisan concern that electronic voting machines are susceptible to fraud and error, the House approved a bill by state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) that would no longer replace them when they break down.
Local government agencies that administer elections will instead have to buy machines that offer a paper trail, most likely optical scanners.
"What it really came down to is people are concerned about voting integrity," said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who sponsored an identical bill that was approved by the House.
About 100 of 134 jurisdictions use paperless machines. Although some advocates have pushed for an immediate switch to paper machines, local registrars have opposed the move, saying it would be too costly. Hugo said it would probably be a decade before all the touch-screen machines are replaced.
House Republicans stymied the effort to raise the state's minimum wage to $6.50 an hour after they decided to send the bill to a committee that isn't scheduled to meet before the session ends Saturday.
The decision to refer the bill, approved 53 to 43, caps weeks of wrangling over an issue that Democrats are expected to highlight in this fall's legislative races.
Virginia has historically followed the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour. But Democrats in Richmond, emboldened by their party's successful use of the issue in last year's congressional races, have sought to impose a higher state wage this year.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted this month to raise the wage to $6.50 an hour. But Republicans on the House Commerce and Labor Committee, under pressure from GOP leaders, voted several times to block the measure. Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) said Republicans were worried that the bill could cost the state money because some state employees earn the minimum wage.
Sue Capers of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness called it a "a sad day for Virginia's low-income workers."
"It is almost unbelievable to me they would defeat this bill. Virginia is a wealthy state, and all we asked for is $6.50 an hour," Capers said. "While it's a disappointment for those of us who worked for the bill, just imagine the people who are doing the work. I just hope people remember who did this when they go the polls in November."