About that veto session: I-81 funding, restoring driver’s licenses for people who owe court fines, Census funding and more

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers met for more than eight hours yesterday. The Republican majority didn’t have the votes to overturn any of Northam’s vetoes, but they did consider a hefty package of legislative recommendations, delivering several significant policy breakthroughs that had Northam declaring it a successful session by day’s end.

Suspended drivers licenses: With bipartisan support in both chambers, lawmakers approved a budget amendment that will end the practice of suspending drivers licenses over unpaid court fines and fees.

More than 600,000 people will be eligible to get their driving privileges back at no cost when the provision goes into effect on July 1.

Opponents worried it would eliminate any incentive for people to pay court fines for traffic infractions and argued payment plans are already available. Supporters said it amounts to a modern-day debtors’ prison. “We should never be punishing people for being poor,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch for a full story.)

I-81 funding: It’s an issue that’s vexed lawmakers for years. Northam abandoned a proposal he had backed at the beginning of the session to add tolls along the 325-mile stretch of road, instead striking a deal with the trucking industry to increase the gas tax in localities along the interstate. The plan will also hike tractor-trailer registration fees.

The new revenue will fund long-planned roadway and safety improvement. (See The Roanoke Times for a full story.)

Tax rebates for low-income earners: Northam’s proposal to extend tax rebates — $110 for individuals and $220 for families — to about 150,000 low-income residents passed in the House but failed on a party line vote in the Senate, with Republicans opposing.

There was debate over whether some people would end up getting more money back than they actually paid in taxes, though the administration insisted that was not the case.

Hands-free driving: Northam tried to revive legislation that would ban driving while holding cell phones, but as promised, House leadership refused to consider the amendment.

Census money: Northam had also proposed dedicating $1.5 million to fund outreach efforts to make sure as many people as possible are counted. Again, it passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Police body cameras: Northam asked lawmakers to eliminate a ban on Virginia State Police using body cameras, which the agency already purchased as part of an equipment package. House Republicans refused, citing the cost associated with storing and reviewing the footage, which they said can be especially burdensome for prosecutors in small localities.

They promised to take the issue up again next year, framing the ban as a temporary moratorium.

Minority contracts: Republican lawmakers also shot down Northam’s package of budget amendments aimed at making sure more state contracts go to minority- and women-owned businesses, who, at last report, won less than 3 percent of the state’s business.

They argued that the office established to help those businesses is set for a major audit this year and it didn’t make sense to boost their funding or implement new programs until that work is complete.

Abortion: The House rejected Northam’s attempt to remove language in the budget that restricts state funding for abortion services unless required by federal law on a 45-50 vote.

Under the Hyde Amendment, federal funds can pay for an abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. But Virginia also covers the procedure for low-income women if a physician certifies that the fetus has an incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.
Katie O'Connor
Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.