RICHMOND — Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday failed to override any of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 17 vetoes and backed his efforts to resurrect a hefty highway funding plan — suggesting that the scandal-tainted Democrat still has sway in the Capitol.
The General Assembly returned to Richmond for one day to consider vetoes and amendments that Northam had made to bills passed during this year’s 46-day legislative session.
Neither the House nor the Senate came close to mustering the necessary supermajority to override the vetoes.
Overrides are a tall order, given that Republicans control both chambers by just two seats apiece. The legislature never managed to override Northam’s Democratic predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, over his four years in office.
But some wondered whether Democrats would stick by Northam after calling for him to step down in February, when a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced and he admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest that same year.
“What are they [Democrats] going to do?” Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) said ahead of the session. “Be independent of Ralph or fall in line?”
For the most part, they fell in line.
“I hope the body would trust the governor here,” Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) said as he argued in favor of Northam’s amendment to a bill related to killing police dogs. The original bill would have required a mandatory six-month sentence for killing a police dog, but the governor recommended leaving the sentence to the discretion of judges and juries.
The amendment squeaked by on a 19-to-19 vote, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) casting the tie-breaking vote. The House narrowly rejected it.
House Republicans kicked off the day on a partisan note, with a news conference calling attention to Northam’s scandal, as well as those surrounding Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who admitted to wearing blackface as a college freshman, and Fairfax, who has been accused of sexual assault by two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson.
Fairfax, who has said both sexual encounters were consensual, called a news conference to pass out copies of polygraph tests that he said proved his innocence.
Some of that partisan edge subsided when the House and Senate gaveled into session about noon and Fairfax presided over the Senate with seemingly good cheer. And even Republicans who wanted to override Northam’s vetoes did so without rancor.
“I think the world of the governor, but he’s flat wrong,” Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George) said as he tried — and failed — to get the Senate to overcome Northam’s veto of a bill related to certain insurance plans.
Under the Affordable Care Act, only people age 30 and younger are allowed to buy those plans, which have high deductibles. The bill would have allowed the state to seek a federal waiver to make those plans available to Virginians regardless of age.
“This bill passed this chamber 38 to 2,” Stuart said, trying to nudge Democrats not to fall in line behind the governor.
The House and Senate supported Northam’s budget amendment to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court fines, which had been a priority of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
The legislature did buck Northam on some things, including a bill intended to take some of the politics out of the State Board of Elections. The bill expands membership from three to five and allows the board members to appoint the chairman, something the governor does now.
Northam amended it with the goal of retaining the power to appoint the chairman, but the Senate rejected those amendments.
Now the bill goes back to the governor, who can sign it in its unamended form or veto it. If he opts for the veto, the General Assembly will not have a chance to override it.
The Senate voted overwhelmingly to support the governor’s recommendation to ban handheld cellphone use while driving. But House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) ruled the amendment out of order, saying it greatly expands the underlying bill, which banned handheld use only in highway work zones.
The bill goes back to the governor, who can either approve the ban on handheld cellphones in highway work zones or veto the entire bill. It is illegal to text or email while driving in Virginia. But phone use is not otherwise restricted, and police say it is difficult to enforce.
Perhaps the biggest win for Northam was a funding bill for Interstate 81 in western Virginia.
Heading into the session, he rolled out an ambitious, bipartisan plan to make $2.2 billion in fixes to I-81, to be paid for with tolls. But the plan fell apart. Advocates had to settle for legislation calling for a study of the highway.
But Northam made an amendment to the bill that brought it back to life, in a way that shifts most of the cost to operators of heavy trucks that do the most damage to roads, and spreading some of the benefits to other parts of the state.
It boosts truck registration fees and diesel tax rates as well as imposes a 2.1 percent regional motor fuels tax along the I-81 corridor. That will bring in $151 million a year for I-81, which can be leveraged with bonds to bankroll $2 billion in improvements. Other interstates across the state will also benefit, including $40 million a year for I-95 and $28 million for I-64. In addition, $20 million will go to Northern Virginia roads via the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
About 6:30 p.m., as the House wrapped up votes on the governor’s amendments and vetoes, Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) returned to the scandal that had caused much attention at the start of the day.
She said she was disappointed that Republicans were trying to politicize the allegations against Fairfax by pushing for a public hearing where both of the women and Fairfax would be called to testify under oath.
“Enough is enough,” she said. “Women, Virginians, Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson all deserve better.”
Del. Rob Bell (R-Albermarle) said that it was Tyson and Watson who have been calling for a bipartisan public hearing and that Republicans had been trying to negotiate terms with Democrats, who were stonewalling.
He chastised Democrats for continually saying that they support Tyson and Watson but were not willing to allow them to share their stories.
“This is good news for Lieutenant Governor Fairfax but a bad day for women who simply want their testimony to be heard,” he said.
Bell asked Democrats to consent to begin preparations for a hearing.
“Right now, say ‘yes,’ ” he said. “We will schedule this today.”
Democrats remained silent, and they moved on to other issues.