by Megan Schiffres
Members of the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature failed to overturn any of Gov. Ralph Northam’s vetoes when they met for the final stage of the 2019 legislative session on April 3.
Gov. Northam vetoed 17 bills on a range of issues, from banning sanctuary policies in the state, requiring law enforcement officials to notify immigration and customs enforcement when incarcerated undocumented individuals are released from jail, and prohibiting Virginia from participating in carbon dioxide cap-and-trade programs or programs to lower regional transportation emissions.
Despite failing to get the 2/3 majority needed to override the vetoes, Republican lawmakers had the simple majority to reject several amendments proposed by Gov. Northam. These bills will return to the governor’s desk in the form they were passed by the General Assembly, and Gov. Northam will have 30 days to either sign them into law or exercise his veto power.
The legislature rejected Northam’s amendment to Senate Bill 1768, which prohibits drivers from holding a personal communication device while operating a vehicle through a highway work zone. Gov. Northam’s amendment would have imposed a $250 fine on drivers who hold a personal communication device while driving anywhere in Virginia unless they are operating an emergency vehicle and engaged in official duties.
The Senate passed by Gov. Northam’s amendment to Senate Bill 1579, which establishes the criteria by which congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn in 2020. Gov. Northam’s amendment would have required that these districts be composed of contiguous and compact territory and would have prohibited districts from being drawn with the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party or legislator, or for the purpose of denying or abridging a person’s right to vote on account of race, ethnicity, or color.
The Senate also rejected Gov. Northam’s amendment to House Bill 2053, which adjusted the state’s requirements for how many students a single full-time school counselor can be responsible for overseeing. Gov. Northam’s amendment proposed to lower the student-to-counselor ratio by making elementary school counselors responsible for a maximum of 375 students, counselors in middle schools responsible for 325 students and high school counselors responsible for a maximum of 300 students. Under the existing legislation, school counselors would oversee a maximum of 455 elementary school students, 370 students in middle schools and 325 students in high schools.
The legislature accepted some of Gov. Northam’s suggestions, including an amendment to Senate Bill 1716, to establish a funding source for the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund. Under his amendments, additional fees for registering motor vehicles not designed or used for transporting passengers and farm motor vehicles were created. The amendments also imposed an additional tax of 2.03% on diesel fuel state-wide, beginning July 1, 2021, and distributors of both gas and diesel in localities that line the I-81 corridor will face a tax increase of 2.1%.
An amendment by Gov. Northam to Senate Bill 1455, which increases the membership of the state board of elections from three to five members, was also accepted by the legislature. Northam’s amendment staggered the term expiration dates for members of the board so that a new member is appointed each year from a different political party than was appointed the prior year.
The legislature also voted to partially adopt a series of amendments proposed by Gov. Northam to the 2019-20 budget, including an amendment to eliminate the suspension of drivers’ licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs. This budget amendment allocated an additional $2.8 million to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to make up for the loss in revenue generated from reinstatement fees. According to Northam, this action will help over 600,000 Virginians regain their licenses.