Virginia extends session to consider contentious measures

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia lawmakers extended their session Saturday night amid a dispute over how to handle the state budget, which will also allow additional work on several other contentious measures.

After hearing earlier in the week during an Equal Rights Amendment fight about the importance of rules, a group of House Democrats objected to efforts to waive a rule requiring 48 hours of review of any budget deal before a vote. The budget agreement was posted online Saturday morning.

As a compromise, the House and Senate agreed to extend the session one day to bring lawmakers back at 11 a.m. Sunday, providing a 24-hour waiting period.

The House voted 79-13 in favor of the rule changes, while the Senate voted 40-0 in favor.

The dispute highlights the tensions in the Virginia Capitol after 46 days of a tense legislative session, exacerbated by this fall’s elections and the scandals surrounding the state’s top leaders.

A number of lawmakers have announced they are not running again this fall when all 140 seats are on the ballot. Former House Minority Leader David Toscano added his name to that list Saturday.

Handheld cell phone ban that wasn’t

Virginia’s upcoming ban on handheld cell phone use while driving may not completely ban the practice, after all, despite both chambers passing bills earlier in the session that would have instituted the traffic safety law.

In an unusual move, the house of delegates rejected the conference committee agreement 50-45 that was meant to work out identical language on the bills since it eliminated significant parts of the originally proposed bans.

Instead of banning holding a phone at all, the revised bill would have banned a driver from holding a phone in his or her hand only “while physically manipulating the device to view, read, or enter data,” but allowed other handheld phone use.

The conference report also would have removed an exception to handheld operation for the use of GPS systems that is part of current law, and further delayed implementation from January 2020 to April 2020.

The bill went back for more negotiations Saturday night, although it was unclear if a deal could be reached Sunday. The Senate had passed the agreement 37-3, with some supporters hoping Gov. Ralph Northam might offer amendments to the bill for consideration in April.

Currently, Virginia only bans entering text into a phone or reading an email or text message, not other phone use by drivers. That has proved difficult to enforce since the ban is so specific to text messages and email.

“What we are now voting on becomes way more subjective,” Del. Jay Jones said before Saturday night’s vote.

He had supported the original bill before o a conference committee, but is concerned the changes could create more “driving while black” problems, where drivers are pulled over disproportionately due to race.

“It’s a hands free bill that’s not,” Del. Marcus Simon said in opposing the bill.

Del. Mark Cole called it a slight expansion of the current law, but fellow Republican Del. Todd Gilbert called it a significant improvement on current law.

The Senate approved the conference report 37-3.

Tougher penalties for drunk boating, failing to move over on the road

Failing to move over for law enforcement, fire or medical first responders parked on the side of the road will become a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, if a separate bill is signed into law.

The bill, introduced after fatal crashes, now only provides that tougher penalty of a reckless driving offense for failure to move over for police and fire vehicles, not other vehicles such as private tow trucks.

Reckless driving in Virginia can carry a penalty of up to 1 year behind bars.

Failure to move over to provide a buffer for the people at risk on the side of the road or, if that’s not possible, failure to “maintain a safe speed for highway conditions,” would now qualify as reckless driving if the vehicle being passed has flashing, blinking or alternating blue, red or amber lights.

The safety violation would remain only a traffic infraction if the vehicle is a tow truck, highway work vehicle, trash truck, mail truck, delivery truck, chase vehicle for a hot-air balloon or farm vehicle, flashing only amber lights.

In the event the driver’s actions lead to a crash, a court is additionally allowed to suspend that driver’s license for up to a year. If someone is hurt or killed, the suspension could be up to two years.

In another bill, lawmakers also toughened penalties for drunk boaters who cause serious injury to someone.

Gambling

Lawmakers voted to permit casinos in Virginia in four cities outside of Northern Virginia, as long as there is a local referendum to approve the practice.

The General Assembly’s watchdog agency is also set to conduct a $200,000 study of gambling in the state, but the conference agreement on the casino bills lays out how casinos can move forward under the supervision of the Virginia Lottery.

The lottery would be empowered to permit and regulate the following: baccarat, blackjack, twenty-one, poker, craps, dice, slot machines, sports betting, roulette wheels, Klondike tables, punchboards, faro layouts, keno layouts, numbers tickets, push cards, jar tickets, pull tabs, online gaming, and any other activity that is authorized by the Board as a wagering game or device.

Marijuana oil at school

The General Assembly approved protections for nurses who become responsible for administering CBD or THC-A oil at school, but rejected additional provisions that would have also outlined protections for students who use the oil with a doctor’s note or required school systems to have policies to address the substances.

Sex offenders in shelters

The General Assembly approved a requirement for registered sex offenders to notify emergency shelters of their status, while making clear that the shelter may only turn someone away if they were convicted of a sexually violent felony.

Parental leave for state workers

The General Assembly approved bills guaranteeing paid parental leave for state workers who have children or adopt.

That codifies existing policy under a governor’s executive order.

The bills do not include the paid leave that is provided under the executive order for foster parents.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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