Lawmakers in Richmond reached a new milestone in the current 45-day session Tuesday as bills from the General Assembly crossed over for consideration in the Senate. Hanging in the balance for Arlington delegates are bills addressing gun control, holes in the state's labor laws and education policy and care for the elderly. Debate in the Senate is already under way, with local Democrats facing fierce opposition from their Republican counterparts on issues like contraception.
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31st) said she felt compelled to pull her own contraception bill from the Senate floor after it was amended Jan. 24 by the body's only Republican woman, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34th). The bill sought to create a standard definition of “contraception” in the state code of Virginia. Before Davis' amendment, the bill defined it as “the use of any process, device, or method to prevent pregnancy, including steroidal, chemical, physical or barrier, natural or permanent methods for preventing the union of an ovum with the spermatozoon or the subsequent implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterus.”
The amendment ended the definition after the word “pregnancy,” a drastic change according to Whipple.
“It would not accomplish its purpose, which was to carefully define contraception and pregnancy,” Whipple said. “The amended bill left the meaning of those unclear, and as it is, it does not belong in the state code of Virginia.”
THE AMENDMENT WAS passed in a vote of 21-17. It marked Davis' second attempt to amend the bill. Her first sought to include in it a statement defining contraception as the “intentional prevention of contraception or impregnation.” When it comes to the abortion debate, she said, definitions matter.
“There is this continuing debate between religious and scientific definitions,” she said. “There have been a number of bills that tried to blur the line between abortion and contraception. My bill was supposed to be a middle-of-the-road bill.”
Several other bills Whipple put forth during the session have passed. One granting anyone over 65 the right to cast an absentee ballot passed in a unanimous Senate vote Jan. 31.
Among legislation coming before the Senate, a measure from Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49th) has two designed to protect workers from exploitation. One would make it a felony for an employer to pay workers with checks that later bounce, a charge that would carry a penalty of $1,000 and up to one year in jail. A second would designate any employer who refuses to pay workers as guilty of embezzlement.
The bill concerning bad checks stems from a series of incidents in 2004, Ebbin said, involving day laborers hired to remove asbestos before renovations of a building in Rosslyn. The subcontractor assigned to the job, USA Remediation, allegedly paid its workers with faulty checks.
“I've got their checks in my notebook to remind me,” Ebbin said. “One of them was issued on Christmas Eve, of all times.”
Those day laborers took their cases before the National Labor Relations Board in the fall of 2004. The checks, Ebbin added, have since been paid.
“The problem is that employers in these cases usually just face civil penalties,” Ebbin said. “If they could go to jail, they will take these cases more seriously. These bills shouldn't alarm responsible employers. They are really for the worst of the worst. The kind of employers who would engage in that kind of exploitation aren't exactly the kind that would join your local chamber of commerce.”
EBBIN'S ROSTER of bills hitting the Senate floor also includes an appropriation to establish state-funded research teams to gather data on deaths of disabled adults and senior citizens. The teams, he said, could be used to determine the degree of elder abuse and neglect in Virginia.
“The review teams would allow us to see what patterns there are in these cases and to make recommendations to the state,” he said. “The problem is that there are many reasons why seniors die. It may not always be obvious what the cause of death is.”
The House passed Ebbin's proposal to allow local governments to establish their own interest rates for deferred real estate tax payments. The bill, he said, offers an incentive for homeowners to keep their homes. The rate, it stated, would not exceed that set by the Internal Revenue Service.
“It would allow counties and cities to make it more affordable for you to stay in your home and to keep it,” he said.
FRESHMAN DELEGATE Al Eisenberg's (D-47th) bill aimed at granting colleges and universities in the commonwealth the authority to set their own policies regarding gun control on campuses was sent to the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety Jan. 21.
“It lets them tailor their own policies,” he said. “Oddly enough, you can request a roommate who doesn't smoke, but you can't request one who isn't packing heat.”
Eisenberg sponsored an important part of Arlington's legislative agenda, the renewal of the transient occupancy tax, a tax on hotel stays in the county. It passed Jan. 27 with 71 votes. The revenue is used to promote local tourism. Eisenberg also ushered a proposal through the House to grant Arlington developers the ability to transfer property densities and other rights from one parcel of land to others.
The bill is now before a Senate committee. Eisenberg pulled several bills from his agenda for review like a comprehensive ban on assault weapons that included the .50-caliber sniper rifle. A bill to set tighter guidelines for police pursuits in the state was also removed. That measure was first put forth, he said, after a group of local high-school students died in car crash that began as a high-speed chase.
A key factor of the current session in the Republican dominated House, Eisenberg said, is a series of bills targeting immigrants. Del. Thomas Gear's (R-91st) measure to prohibit illegal aliens from attending state-funded universities passed 67-28 Feb. 3.
“They're against everybody and anybody who was not born in this state and in this country,” he said. “The General Assembly is increasingly hammering immigrants. But what they don't see is that we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are descended from one of the native tribes, your ancestors came from someplace outside of what is now the United States.”
Eisenberg has his own bill to counter the Republican proposal, one that would grant in-state tuition to asylum seekers in the state who are awaiting an answer from the federal government on their status. That bill was tabled Jan. 31 and is now in a House Committee on Education.