Offbeat Bills Help Close Out Virginia General Assembly Session

One bill would have prevented homeowner associations from banning clotheslines.
One bill would have prevented homeowner associations from banning clotheslines. (Istockphoto.com)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 27 -- Among the pressing matters the General Assembly attended to this year: guaranteeing the right to hang laundry on clotheslines, enshrining the Eastern box turtle as state reptile, protecting kids from cigarette lighters disguised as rubber duckies, taxing pay-per-view movies in hotels and cracking down on Segway riders bent on motoring down the interstate.

The gravity of the annual General Assembly session usually gets a little levity when lawmakers file well-intentioned but offbeat bills. This year was no exception, although everyone agreed there were many fewer such bills.

Why so serious?

Maybe it's the lack of money. Others theorized that the short 45-day session limited lawmakers' creativity, as did a new House rule limiting delegates to filing 15 bills.

"People didn't have time to fool," said Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield). "If you come down here and put in screwball legislation at a time when the public is really worried about their jobs, their kids in school, health care, all these things -- you better concentrate on what you're doing."

That, Watkins said, might be why the Eastern box turtle got kicked around when Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) put forth a bill to make terrapene carolina the official state reptile. Besides its work ethic and humility, Petersen said, the turtle had "paid the ultimate sacrifice" by serving as snapper soup for Jamestown settlers.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) said enough time had been wasted on state designations for bat, fish, insect, fossil, seashell and beverage.

"What's next?" he asked. "A state doughnut?"

Anyway, Obenshain said, a more suitable choice for state reptile might have been lawyers or politicians.

When lawmakers debated turning state revenue agents loose on pay-per-view hotel movies, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) stood in opposition, arguing that the state should not be relying on the "porn industry." At least there were no gland problems. Last year one delegate stirred things up with an ill-fated bill to outlaw fake bull testicles that motorists hang from trailer hitches.

This year, there were echoes -- distant perhaps -- of Webster vs. Clay as delegates debated clotheslines. The energy-saving bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), would have prevented rule-happy homeowner associations from banning clotheslines.

Taking aim at the bill as if wielding a rug-beater, Del. Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline) said Northern Virginians might regret seeing clotheslines strung from "tree to tree to tree."

"Go ahead and pass this, and then when your folks come screaming that this looks like a West Virginia subdivision,'' Orrock began, but boos cut him off.

Then Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) rose in the bill's defense.

"This is a bill about freedom!" Sickles said. "The freedom to dry your clothes outside."

Hoots filled the chamber as Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas) chimed in.

"My question is, wouldn't it be reasonable to think it would be free for a group of people to want to have certain rules and not have the state government come down on them and tell them, 'We're changing your rules against your will?' ''

Laundry workers of Virginia, unite: Support for the clothesline bill dried up. It died, 40 to 60.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company