Virginia made steady gains in the environment and clean energy, acted to further clean up payday lending practices, and used federal stimulus funds to ward off deeper cuts to vital programs like health care, education and public safety. However, the conservative-dominated House blocked a measure to expand the state’s unemployment benefits – which are among the most meager in the country – and cost the state an additional $125 million in federal stimulus funds to the state. The Governor vetoed expansions of the death penalty and bills allowing licensees to carry concealed weapons in bars, although the legislature overrode one of the vetoes that would have prevented retired law enforcement officials from being able to carry a concealed weapon in eateries.
Unemployment Benefits and the Federal Stimulus: Even though the legislature rejected Gov. Kaine’s proposal to increase unemployment benefits with the help of $125 million in federal stimulus, the Governor is considering a special session for the legislature to reconsider the proposal, given rising unemployment rates and the fact that Virginia’s jobless benefits are among the most limited in the country. In a disheartening and callous move, one conservative lawmaker who owns a shipbuilding company and recently laid off 45 workers, voted against the expanded benefits.
Budget and Stimulus: Virginia passes its biennial budget in even-numbered years, but continued declines in tax revenue forced the legislature to consider cuts to health care, public safety and education programs. Softening the blow, the federal stimulus package helped to prevent an additional $800 million of spending reductions to key areas like Medicaid, education, and the state workforce.
Health Care and Public Health: The legislature passed and the Governor endorsed a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants with exceptions for establishments with separate ventilated rooms, patios and private clubs. According to the Washington Post, the number of tobacco-related deaths each year in Virginia exceeds 9,000 and the total annual cost associated with treating the ill effects of smoking is $2.08 billion. Medicaid alone spends $401 million each year on health care costs related to smoking. Unfortunately, legislators defeated the Governor’s proposal to increase the cigarette tax to 60 cents per pack, keeping it at one of the lowest levels in the country. Also, lawmakers passed a bill allowing insurance companies to offer health plans exempt of state coverage mandates to small groups who have not offered coverage to employees in the past six months. This measure, while potentially enabling insurers to offer cheaper plans, will mean those plans do not provide adequate coverage for health care needs – resulting in “health insurance” in name only.
Environment and Energy: Governor Kaine won approval of several environment, transportation and energy-related measures that are part of his Renew Virginia initiative. These include:
- SB 1248 provides cost recovery for investments in energy efficiency made by electric utilities. This helps to correct existing finance rules which make it more profitable to construct new plants instead of investing in energy efficiency.
- SB 1339 sets the goal of raising the state’s renewable energy portfolio to 15% by 2025. The bill also allows utilities to set “dynamic electric rates” which encourage consumers to reduce electricity use during peak hours. The bill will also increase reimbursement rates for private renewable energy systems that send surplus renewable energy back into the electric grid.
- SB 1186 reforms the Virginia Biofuels Production Incentive Grant Program to incentivize the creation of non-food-based biofuels.
- $20 million was set aside to continue efforts to combat pollution caused by agricultural runoff.
- And, lawmakers passed HB 2019 and SB 1398 to link transportation development and land use planning across the state. Specifically, the state will establish standards for coordinating transportation investments and land use planning, and consider alternative transportation systems as the state modernizes its transportation infrastructure.
Public Safety: Lawmakers agreed on a ban on texting while driving, although a driver can only be charged if pulled over for a different reason. Beyond that, the session overwhelmingly involved the Governor vetoing bad criminal justice and public safety bills:
- While many states are restricting or eliminating the death penalty, the Virginia legislature voted to expand the types of convictions eligible for capital punishment to include accomplices to murder and people convicted of killing fire marshals and auxiliary police personnel. Fortunately, Gov. Kainevetoed the bills and the legislature did not override his action.
- The Governor also vetoed a bill that would have allowed people with licenses to carry a concealed handgun into a bar. The veto was sustained.
- Also sustained were vetoes of a bill that would have exempted active duty military personnel or members of the Virginia National Guard from the state’s “one-gun-a-month” law on purchases of handguns and a bill that would have regulated and potentially limited localities from commending gun buyback programs.
- Conversely, legislators overrode the Governor’s vetoes of a bill that would allow retired law enforcement officials to carry a concealed weapons into a bar and a bill allowing on-line completion of the concealed weapons safety test.
Unfortunately, the legislature failed to pass legislation closing the gun show loophole, meaning anybody can buy a gun at a gun show from an unlicensed dealer without first undergoing a background check.
Elections: The state did make some minor adjustments to election law:
- After years of voters complaining about being turned away at the polls for wearing a campaign t-shirt under an overly strict interpretation of the state’s electioneering statute, a provision was passed that will allow voters to wear clothing that endorses a specific candidate in polling places.
- HB 1881 was enacted to allow military and overseas voters receive their absentee ballot by email. The completed ballot must be returned by mail.
- SB 993 and HB 1712 will conform Virginia’s absentee ballots with federal requirements and allow ballots to be returned until polls are closed.
Unfortunately, legislators defeated the governor’s priority election reform legislation, early voting, at the beginning of the session. Gov. Kaine tried again with a less expansive bill that passed the Senate at the end of the session but died in the House.
Immigration: Notably, the number of anti-immigrant bills in Virginia decreased from 110 introduced last session to 6.
- Of these, only two passed: HB 2580 allows local law enforcement to arrest and detain immigrants with prior arrest convictions who are waiting to be transferred into federal custody, and HB 2473 classifies libraries as places where loitering is not permitted, impacting day laborers who may gather near public libraries in search of work.
- In terms of positive legislation, HB 2016 relates to human trafficking and expands abduction to include abduction with the intent to subject the person to forced labor or services. Intimidation is redefined to include withholding a person’s passport or like documents. The bill also adds four new RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) crimes.
Local leaders believe that Gov. Timothy Kaine has been a leader in convincing the state that prominent anti-immigrant legislation poses a risk to Virginia’s image as business friendly. Advocates still worry however that once federal immigration reform is reintroduced, the issue will reignite at the statehouse.
Broadband: To build the state’s broadband infrastructure, lawmakers passed HB 2665 to create the Broadband Infrastructure Loan Fund. The legislation aims to support broadband projects undertaken by local governments. The program will prioritize projects where private industry will operate and maintain the broadband systems, projects where private involvement results in cost savings, and projects that serve two or more local governments and underserved areas. While passage of the bill indicates Virginia’s recognition of the economic and social benefits of broadband deployment, many details need to be sorted out in the implementation of the bill before advocates can judge the true implications of the initiative.
The legislature also passed HB 2423 creating the Broadband Advisory Council to advise the Governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the Commonwealth.
Payday Lending: Attempting to close a loophole on new payday lending regulations that became effective on January 1st, lawmakers passed a bill requiring payday lenders to choose between offering payday loans or open-ended loans, but not both. Open-ended loans are less regulated than payday loans and more likely to leave consumers with unlimited fees.
Civil Rights: Lawmakers failed again to pass legislation outlawing workplace discrimination by state and local governments based on sexual orientation. While both Gov. Kaine and former Gov. Warner have authored executive orders establishing this protection for state workers, the law would prevent those policies from being overturned by a subsequent governor.