With crossover behind us, the next major event will be the release of the House and Senate budgets on Sunday, with the debate to occur next Thursday. In the last several days, the House considered two controversial measures: the so-called Government Nondiscrimination Act and a bill to extend the coal tax credit for another four years.
WHEN NONDISCRIMINATION BECOMES DISCRIMINATION
Under the misnamed Government Nondiscrimination Act, the Commonwealth of Virginia would be prohibited from taking any action against any person who discriminates against another person so long as the discriminator believes that the other person is gay, transgendered, or has engaged in sex outside of marriage. Although it was presented as a cure for recent celebrated news stories, such as the two Oregon bakery owners who declined to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, the bill is far reaching and probably unconstitutional. It nonetheless passed the House 56-41. Interestingly, a number of younger Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with every Democrat against the bill. We are seeing a generational shift in the House of Delegates, and the younger Republican members are showing more tolerance on social issues than their elders. Nonetheless, the fact that this bill passed by such a large majority, should give us all pause. It now heads to the Senate, where it faces an unpredictable future. The Governor will likely veto the bill, and given the strong “no” vote by the House, that veto would likely be sustained.
The Coal Tax Credit has been on the books since 1988, and it has cost Virginia taxpayers more than $630 million. The monies go primarily to coal mine operators and electricity generators. Since the credits were enacted, coal production has dropped precipitously and industry employment has gone from 11,000 workers to about 2,800 today. A JLARC report published five years ago indicated that the coal tax credit had outlived its initial purpose, which was to provide jobs and maintain coal production. Since then, the market has changed dramatically, and natural gas has largely replaced coal as an energy source. Some coal is still exported overseas, but prices for other fossil fuels have dropped so low that it is hard for coal, especially Virginia coal, to compete. Those of us who argued against extending the Coal Tax Credit suggested that it is inefficient to use taxpayer monies to prop up an industry that is in steep decline. When there are critical needs for public safety, education and job creation in Virginia, millions of dollars that we send to a few large companies could be better spent elsewhere. Southwest Virginia is in serious economic decline, but it would be better off if we invest monies in the region to grow educational credentials and support new businesses. The extension of the credit was passed on a 75 to 23 vote; I voted no. The Governor may veto the bill; if that happens, there will be another vote as to whether to sustain his veto.
UPDATE ON BILLS
Among the bills that failed in the first half of the session were:
- An effort to end the requirement that a woman undergo a fetal ultrasound before an abortion. You may remember the controversy when that law was enacted several years ago. We tried to repeal it, which the Republicans blocked.
- A measure that would prohibit abortions after twenty weeks went to Committee, but was removed from consideration for this year by Republicans who were concerned about the optics of passing such a bill.
- All efforts to redesign the redistricting process.
- Efforts to increase the minimum wage to the Federally-mandated level of $7.25 per hour.
- My effort to prohibit discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
- An effort to require public school restrooms and locker rooms to be restricted to males or females on the basis of their anatomical features at birth.
- A bill to allow those over the age of 65 to vote absentee or early.
- An effort to reduce the required gross receipts ratio for mixed-beverage restaurant licensees, calculated from the sale of food and non-alcoholic beverages consumed on premises, from 45 percent to 25 percent of total receipts.
- Creation of a Casino Gambling Commission.
Items that passed the House included
- The requirement that the Department of Environmental Quality seek approval from the General Assembly before creating our state’s Clean Power Plan. This will likely be vetoed by the Governor.
- The gun compromise trio of bills that give greater protection to victims of domestic violence, provide for voluntary background checks at gun shows, and remove the reciprocity prohibitions that would prevent Virginians from carrying concealed across state lines.
- My resolution on religious freedom and tolerance.
- A repeal of the Certificate of Public Need (COPN) regulations. This bill will likely be changed substantially as it goes through the Senate.
- An expansion of the definition of stalking to include circumstances after a victim notifies the stalker that the victim does not want to be contacted or followed.
- My bill that will allow localities to fine motorists who have passed a stopped school bus by sending them a summons in the mail.
- A bill to prohibit the tolling of highways, bridges or tunnels without approval of the General Assembly with certain exceptions in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Please remember that for all of the above passed bills, it is necessary for it to clear the other house and be signed by the Governor before they become law.
THE BUDGET AWAITS
On Sunday, both chambers will release their respective budgets and I will write to let you know what is in them.