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Voting, gun rights among bills killed in recent session
Of General Assembly

Monday, February 25, 2013

RICHMOND (AP) — Long lines at the polls in November and a deadly school shooting the next month failed to prompt the 2013 General Assembly to make voting easier or curb gun violence.

Several bills intended to eliminate long waits at the polls were rejected in the 46-day legislative session, which adjourned Saturday after last-minute approval of the two major issues — a five-year, $3.5 billion transportation funding package and a Medicaid reform and expansion proposal embedded in revisions to the two-year, $88 billion state budget.

Before the late action on those measures, however, plenty of other issues attracted attention, including proposals to both relax and tighten voting procedures. Among the rejected proposals to streamline the process were bills to allow early in-person voting and no-excuses absentee voting, and to extend poll hours.

Instead, majority Republicans rammed through legislation making it harder for some to vote by requiring voters to show a photo ID. Democrats decried the measure as a voter suppression tool akin to Jim Crow-era poll taxes, pushed by a GOP smarting from back-to-back presidential election losses in Virginia.

“Voting is fundamental right for all Americans and we can’t allow Virginia Republicans to have a free pass changing the rules just because they’re sore losers,” Del. Charniele Herring of Fairfax County, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said in an email to supporters.

The memorandum provoked a sharp response from photo-ID proponent Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who noted that he first sponsored the legislation in 2005 after the election of Republican President George W. Bush. He said misguided criticism underscores “the weakness of the tired liberal arguments advanced against this common sense reform.”

Supporters of the bill said the photo ID requirement is intended to prevent voter fraud, although they offered no evidence that such a problem exists.

However, lawmakers needed only look north to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., for evidence that gun violence remains a scourge six years after the nation’s only worse shooting rampage — the one at Virginia Tech.

The shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook prompted several legislators to submit gun control bills, but conservatives did not budge from their longstanding pro-gun position. Bills to ban assault-style rifles and large-capacity magazines and to expand background checks of gun purchasers were summarily dismissed.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, lamented the assembly’s persistent opposition to gun control in a floor speech late in the session.

“You do not need a 100-round high-capacity magazine to kill a deer,” he said. “High-capacity magazines have one purpose only, to kill people.”

The only successful gun control measure was a modest increase in the punishment for rarely prosecuted “straw-man” purchases, which occur when a buyer transfers a gun to a person who is barred from possessing one because of mental illness or a felony or domestic violence conviction. That legislation was recommended by a school safety task force Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed after the Connecticut shootings.

Other task force recommendations approved by the General Assembly will allow the hiring of more school resource officers, provide grants for security equipment improvements, establish campus threat assessment teams similar to those used by colleges and require regular lockdown drills. According to Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker, a task force leader, more substantive proposals will be considered later because there simply wasn’t enough time for them in this session.

The legislature also approved several public education reforms championed by McDonnell, including proposals for the state to take over chronically failing schools and to grade schools on the same A-to-F scale used on students’ report cards. After losing a bid to revamp teacher evaluation and grievance procedures last year, McDonnell relaxed the measure enough to win the support of teachers and get the revised bill approved.

“The 2013 session of the General Assembly will be recognized for its breakthrough transportation funding solution, and for fundamental reforms to expand educational opportunities and ensure we have outstanding teachers and schools,” McDonnell said in his session-closing letter to lawmakers.

He did not mention a high-profile loss those legislators handed him when they rejected a proposal to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons after they serve their sentences. The Republican governor surprised legislators from both parties when he championed the traditionally Democrat-backed initiative in his State of the Commonwealth speech. Virginia’s Constitution allows only the governor to restore felons’ rights, and McDonnell has restored more than any other governor with nearly a year still left in his term.

Anti-abortion bills that dominated the 2012 session were less prominent this time. Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, said Republicans seemed to heed House Speaker Bill Howell’s admonition that they avoid the kind of contentious social issues that led to protests and arrests on Capitol Square last year and provided fodder for late-night comics and talk-show hosts.

“There was clearly a change in tone,” Plum said.

Democrats wouldn’t let the issues vanish completely, though, unsuccessfully pushing bills to repeal strict abortion clinic building standards and last year’s hotly contested law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion. And they are worried that McDonnell will amend a state health care exchange to prohibit participating insurance companies from paying for abortions, reigniting what they call a war on women’s rights when legislators return for the one-day veto override session on April 3.


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