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RICHMOND — On a party line vote, the Virginia Senate has killed legislation that would require local social services agencies to screen welfare recipients for possible drug use and subject some to drug tests.
Senate Bill 721 is sponsored by Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County).
The bill died on a 20-19 vote, with all of the Senate’s Democrats opposing it. One Republican senator was not present for the vote in the evenly split Senate.
This is the second year in a row that Republican lawmakers have pushed for such legislation, which Democrats have blasted as an effort to exploit the poor for political purposes. A similar House-sponsored bill has stalled in the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Carrico’s bill would have required local social services departments to screen each participant in the Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare (VIEW) program and determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe the person is using drugs. Those suspected of using drugs could be required to take drug tests and lose benefits for 12 months if they refuse and test positive.
Democrats argued that the bill was unconstitutional and singles out the poor.
Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said welfare recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the general population. She questioned why Carrico’s bill wouldn’t also apply to “legislators or bailed out CEOs or any other recipient of public aid.”
Carrico said his bill was different than a Florida drug testing scheme that was found to be unconstitutional, because his proposal would not automatically subject welfare recipients to drug testing.
“This system has a mechanism to suspect that there was some type of use of drugs before the test takes place,” Carrico said.
The requirement would cost the state more than $462,000 in its first year, according to fiscal impact analysis of Carrico’s bill.
When the bill was rejected the last time in the General Assembly, opponents pointed out that the costs of the program, including drug testing, would far exceed the amount that Virginia could reasonably expect to save by removing drug users from welfare rolls.
The drug testing program also would entail additional costs for local governments, according to fiscal impact statements attached to Carrico’s bill. The Commission on Local Governments received impact statements from 20 localities, which reported widely varying cost estimates, from less than $5,000 to more than $93,000.
The House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee endorsed a similar bill (HB 1769) by a vote of 14-8 and sent the bill to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle County) sponsored the bill, which incorporates measures sponsored by other Republican delegates.
Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County) asked if the Division of Legislative Services had assessed the constitutionality of the bill. The committee’s chairman, Del. Bobby Orrock (R-Caroline County) said the agency no longer issues such opinions.
“That is a court call, not staff call,” Orrock said.
OTHER GENERAL ASSEMBLY ACTION
Senators pull plug on prayer amendment
A proposed state constitutional amendment aimed at guaranteeing the right to pray in public schools and government meetings has been shelved for the year at the request of its lead sponsor.
Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County) asked the Senate on Tuesday to return the bill to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee. The procedural move effectively kills the bill for the year, because Tuesday was the deadline for the Senate to act on its own legislation.
Stanley’s district includes Galax and most of Carroll County. It is co-sponsored by Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County).
“I believe that we need to do some more work so that we’ll bring it back next year and make sure that it is stronger,” Stanley said in brief remarks on the Senate floor on Feb. 5.
Senate Joint Resolution 287 would require schools and other public venues to accommodate prayer, and also prohibit public schools from compelling a student “to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs.”
The Republican-controlled Senate Privileges and Elections Committee endorsed the bill last week. But when it reached the floor of the evenly-divided Senate, Stanley twice asked members to postpone action on the bill before having it sent back to the committee.
The Senate has 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, cannot break tie votes on constitutional amendments.
For a constitutional amendment to be enacted, it must pass the General Assembly in consecutive sessions separated by an election, and then be approved by voters in a referendum. That means the Senate and House of Delegates would have to pass the amendment in 2015 and 2016 before voters could decide the issue.
Carrico argues that there is need to protect the rights of individuals and public bodies to pray on public property and protect students from religious discrimination.
“I believe this is one of the most important issues that I ever have addressed as a legislator,” said Carrico, a longtime advocate of amending Virginia’s constitution to permit prayer on public property.
The executive director of Virginia’s American Civil Liberties Union argued last week that the proposed amendment was intended to move Virginia toward being “a Christian state” and warned that it would be challenged in court if enacted.
Senator seeks end to ‘shacking up’ penalty
Unwed cohabitation may still be living in sin to some, but it would no longer be illegal if legislation working its way through the General Assembly becomes law.
Sen. Adam Ebbin’s proposal to remove Virginia from the dwindling number of states that penalize such behavior — he said four other states have similar statutes — has unanimously passed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
His legislation, SB 969, would repeal language that’s been on Virginia’s books since 1877.
It defines unmarried couples who shack up as engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior, conduct punishable with a $500 fine for a first offense.
Conviction for subsequent offenses carries up to one year in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine.
Ebbin, an Alexandria Democrat who is gay, said his bill applies to straight and gay couples, as the current law does.
He noted that an estimated 140,000 Virginians live with an unmarried partner.
“These men and women share that relationship openly, and without shame,” Ebbin said, adding that state and federal Supreme Court decisions have already made such laws unconstitutional.
Ebbin said the unanimous passage of his bill out of committee shows “times are changing” in Virginia, though it still faces a full Senate vote, and if it survives that, review in the House of Delegates.
The proposal got a mild endorsement from Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In a radio interview, McDonnell said the law is antiquated and violators shouldn’t be subjected to criminal penalties.
“I do think that people have different views on that issues as a matter of faith and morals,” the Republican governor said during his monthly appearance on the WTOP radio station, adding that repealing the criminal element of the law “probably makes sense.”
Tougher penalties for texting behind the wheel
Both houses of the General Assembly passed legislation Feb. 5 to strengthen enforcement and increase penalties for texting while driving.
The identical bills would allow police to stop drivers for using a “handheld personal communications device” to send or view text messages and emails. Virginia’s existing law treats texting while driving as a secondary offense, meaning police must have cause to stop a driver for a separate offense before issuing a citation for texting.
Drivers found guilty of the offense would face a $250 fine for a first offense and $500 fines for subsequent offenses. The legislation also would impose a $500 mandatory minimum fine for someone convicted of a reckless driving that occurs while a driver is texting.
“Texting while driving has become a serious problem on our roads and it should be treated in Virginia as a serious traffic offense,” said Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge County), who helped negotiate a compromise bill (House Bill 1907) that passed the House by a vote of 92-4.
The Senate passed an identical measure (Senate Bill 1222) by a vote of 24-15.
“If someone is driving and they are stopped by a law enforcement officer for reckless driving and they are texting away at the same time, then they deserve the punishment that they receive,” said Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City County), who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Lawmakers in both parties decided to work toward a tougher texting-while-driving law after a Fairfax County judge acquitted a motorist of reckless driving in connection with a 2011 fatal accident, despite evidence that the driver had opened a text message about the same time as the crash.
Some legislators who believed the state’s reckless driving law had covered texting were involved in negotiating the compromise that passed this year.
‘Tebow bill’ delayed
RICHMOND – For the time being, legislation that would allow students educated at home to play public school sports has been held back in the Virginia Senate while similar legislation survives in the House of Delegates.
Two bills from Sen. Tom Garrett would prohibit public schools from joining an interscholastic governing organization, such as the Virginia High School League, whose rules restrict home schoolers from participating in public school athletics and related activities.
Garrett asked the Senate Education and Health Committee to strike his bills, (SB 792 and SB 812).
One of those measures had an exception for private school students who want to join a public extracurricular activity not offered at their school.
Similar legislation is pending in the House of Delegates, which passed the same bill last year before it narrowly failed in a Senate committee.
Such proposals have been dubbed “Tim Tebow” bills named for the NFL quarterback who was allowed to participate in public school athletics as a Florida home schooler.
“I continue to be a champion for this idea and will work to see Virginia fall in line with the majority of other states that allow this” said Garrett (R-Louisa County), expressing hope the House bill will gain traction when it comes to the Senate.