RICHMOND — Virginia’s Republican-controlled Senate moved to claw power away from the governor Tuesday, passing a proposed constitutional amendment that would enable legislators to veto regulations created by the executive branch.
Under the measure, any regulations adopted by state agencies could be undone by a simple majority vote of the House and Senate.
Supporters said the amendment — proposed by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) and similar to one passed this year in the House — is needed to combat regulatory overreach that they described as pervasive in Richmond and Washington. Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election was fueled, in part, by “this feeling that regulatory agencies have begun to take over and run the government,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun).
“There are unelected bureaucrats who enact their own laws without any input from the legislature,” Black said. “It diminishes the power of voters to influence their government.”
Democrats called the resolution a risky maneuver that would shake up the balance of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. If governors overreach, the courts and legislature can rein them in, said Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax).
“I think it is highly dangerous for the balance of power for the legislature to step into the executive role,” he said.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, the measure would have to clear both chambers this year and next, and then win approval from voters. Governors do not have veto power over such amendments.
“The Governor opposes these needless legislative attempts by the General Assembly to inject itself both into the executive and judiciary branches,” said Brian Coy, a spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). “It will result in lobbyists and special interests being able to block administrative health and safety rules simply by donating to the right legislator’s campaign.”
The Senate passed the measure on “crossover,” the midpoint of this year’s 46-day session and the deadline for legislation to pass out of the chamber where it originates. Any legislation not voted out of a chamber is considered dead for the rest of the legislative session.
Also squeaking out of the Senate on a 21-to-19, party-line vote was a Republican-backed proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. Democrats opposed the measure because violent felons would have to apply to the governor to have their rights restored — and have to wait five years after completing their sentences and paying any restitution, court costs and fees.
The measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), set off a debate that was unusually heated for what has been a low-key session.
Democrats saw it as a step backward because McAuliffe has been using executive action to automatically restore rights to violent and nonviolent felons alike without requiring payment of fees and restitution. They said the state explicitly targeted blacks when it included felon disenfranchisement in the 1902 constitution and compared the fee-payment requirement to a poll tax.
Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) called the resolution a “cynical, dishonest and disingenuous proposal. . . . We will not be going backward on this issue.”
Republicans took offense, with Sen. David R. Suetterlein (Roanoke) rising to note that PolitiFact had debunked the claim that felon disenfranchisement had its origins in the Jim Crow era. He said the state constitution disenfranchised felons in 1830 — before blacks had the right to vote in Virginia.
“It was a law-and-order provision,” he said.
Norment blasted Democrats for opposing his measure after supporting a similar one in 2013, which also required payment of fines and applied only to nonviolent felons.
“I understand the comments made if you don’t like the bill or you feel bent over because of the governor’s pressure on you, but don’t give me these spurious arguments that are completely contrary to the intent of this bill,” he said. “Don’t invoke what happened in 1902 to try to stir up some emotions on this thing.”
Bills that were killed for the remainder of the legislative session include ethics legislation that would prohibit candidates from making personal use of campaign funds and all bills prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in employment and housing. Also dead is the so-called bathroom bill, which would have required people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificate, as opposed to their gender identity.
This is a sampling of legislation that is pending:
●Redistricting. The Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a redistricting commission.
●Guns. The House and Senate passed bills that would allow victims of domestic violence to take free gun-safety classes. Both chambers have also passed legislation allowing anyone covered by a protective order to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
●Immigration. The House passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would grant driver’s licenses to some noncitizens now prohibited from having them. Those include foreigners who have been victims of human trafficking and those with pending petitions for asylum or refugee status.
●Education. The House approved a bill requiring schools to inform parents about any instructional materials involving criminal sexual assault.
●Voting. The House passed a bill requiring anyone registering to vote to provide proof of citizenship.
●Abortion and birth control. The House passed a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood. The House has also passed a bill allowing women to receive a year-long supply of birth control instead of having to go back to the pharmacy every one to three months.
●Pornography. The House passed a resolution declaring that pornography leads to “individual and society harms.” The bill was watered down slightly from the original, which would have deemed pornography a “public health hazard.”
●Fracking and Freedom of Information. The House passed legislation that would exempt gas companies from having to disclose certain information about chemicals pumped into the ground for fracking. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the firms would have to disclose the names of the chemicals, but not their concentrations.
●Ticket resales. The House and Senate passed bills that would expand the rights of consumers to give away or resell tickets to concerts and sporting events on their own, as opposed to going through an original issuer such as Ticketmaster.