Va. assembly votes: Abortion, phone use by drivers, concealed carry, discrimination

Virginia lawmakers voted Wednesday to repeal some abortion restrictions, require concealed-carry permit training be done in person, and to ban handheld cellphone use by drivers.

The Senate voted to repeal abortion restrictions imposed by Republicans, including a 24-hour waiting period and mandatory transabdominal ultrasound, following a similar vote in the House on Tuesday.

In the Senate, the bill only passed after Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie, which was created when Sen. Joe Morrissey, a Richmond Democrat, joined Republicans to oppose the measure. The Senate version is slightly different from the bill approved by the House, which includes physician’s assistants among those authorized to perform abortions in certain cases. The Senate bill doesn’t mention them.

The differences are expected to be worked out so the bills can be passed by the end of the session March 7. But the chambers are mostly focused on their own bills for now — less than two weeks remain until the crossover deadline, when bills must pass at least one chamber to remain alive for the year.

Road safety measures

Drivers would no longer be allowed to hold a phone behind the wheel under a measure that has nearly become law in past years and passed the Senate again Wednesday.

The bill has exceptions for emergency vehicles, parked vehicles and drivers reporting an emergency.

“This problem today is an epidemic,” Fairfax Sen. Scott Surovell said. “All you’ve got to do is look to your left, to your right when you’re driving down the road — you will see somebody with a device in their hand looking at it instead of paying attention to what they’re doing.”

The proposal is also included in a wider-ranging transportation bill that could come up for votes in coming days.

The Senate also approved a separate bill that would make handheld cellphone use by drivers illegal in school zones.

Another road safety bill passed by the Senate would allow Fauquier County to implement speeding fines that are $15 higher in zones along U.S. 15 and U.S. 17, where there are significant safety issues. The county would pay for the signs warning of higher penalties.

A more procedural bill, approved 89-8 in the House, would remove the requirement to honk when passing another car on the right.

The House has also voted to give local governments more time to create regulations for shared dockless bikes and scooters; the Senate voted to allow towing companies to charge an extra $30, up from $25, for night and weekend towing in certain areas.

Concealed carry

Changes for training requirements to get a concealed-carry permit passed the Senate, 21-19.

The bill would eliminate the option of taking courses online, which Sen. John Bell, a Loudoun County Democrat, said are frequently focused on speed rather than actual safety instruction.

A House version of the bill, introduced by Republican Glenn Davis, is awaiting a hearing.

The House is expected to take up broader gun bills Thursday, including universal background checks on gun sales, a red flag law to allow temporary removal of guns from those who pose a threat to themselves or others, a return of Virginia’s one-handgun-per-month purchase policy and a bill that would give local governments the authority to restrict the possession or transportation of guns or ammunition in their city or county.

Resolutions fight

The House voted 54-36 Wednesday to recognize global warming has created a climate and ecological emergency.

The Senate also approved a bill that would ban offshore drilling in Virginia, as well as any state support or permits for onshore facilities or pipelines that would help carry such oil or gas.

Other House resolutions that prompted at least some Republican opposition included a 60-30 vote to designate June 1 each year as gun violence awareness day, a 58-23 vote to designate Nov. 20 each year as the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and a 62-21 vote for a resolution affirming Virginia’s commitment to diversity and safeguarding the civil rights and dignity of all Virginians.

GOP leader Del. Todd Gilbert tried to strip that last resolution down to just the title, but that effort was rejected.

The rest of the resolution addresses racism, hate crimes, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender or gender identity and “the rise of hateful and intolerant acts.”

Other bills passed

After outrage over state prison policies, the Senate passed two bills outlining the rules for visitors at state correctional facilities.

One bill would require notice of any items banned for visitors and bans any additional searches if metal detectors and canines do not raise any red flags.

The Senate would also restrict strip searches of any visitors under 18 and prohibit the Department of Corrections from suggesting a person could be permanently banned from visiting if they decline a strip search.

The House and Senate also passed a number of alcohol-related bills Wednesday that change licensing requirements or other rules.

The House approved a bill that would ban alcohol for anyone attending any public school-sponsored activity, even when it is held off school property.

Other bills would remove the requirement to have a license for a still if it is being used to distill something like water rather than alcohol, and would allow Virginia distillers to sell their products online.

One house or the other also approved bills allowing for a designation on driver’s licenses for people with traumatic brain injuries, a requirement that the Department of Motor Vehicles provide additional information about services for veterans, and making Arlington’s hotel tax permanent.

Other bills passed by one chamber Wednesday include changes to disclosure rules after concerns about donations to George Mason University, defining milk as only something that comes from an animal, allowing people to sell their own wildlife mounts after they are stuffed rather than forcing them to use an auctioneer, and banning the transport of bait fish out of state.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct which district Sen. Joe Morrissey represents.

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