By Sen. Lynwood Lewis
While the General Assembly adjourned sine die (without a definite day to resume) in February, we returned to Richmond last week as we do every April for veto session. During this session, the Senate and the House vote on any legislative amendments handed down from the governor and to uphold or override vetoes. We also take action on any amendments to the budget the governor has offered in the interim.
There was little fanfare around the governor’s 17 vetoes and all of them were upheld. However, we remained in session until late in the evening handling amendments to bills and to the budget. Many of these carried significant policy implications across the commonwealth: a landmark transportation funding deal to fix I-81, hands-free driving legislation to make our roads less dangerous, the restoration of census funding and a bipartisan effort to end the practice of suspending drivers licenses for unpaid fines.
Ending the practice of suspending drivers licenses for unpaid court fines has been a bipartisan legislative priority for several years. This is not an attempt to undermine the rule of law; on the contrary, it is a response to what has proven to be a largely ineffective policy with far-reaching economic consequences. It amounts to criminalizing poverty. Individuals who can’t afford to pay their fines are faced with the choice of driving on a suspended license or losing their job. Without a job, the likelihood of their court debt being paid is low. This is especially problematic in areas without major systems of public transportation – mostly rural areas throughout the commonwealth. Legislation to reform this practice usually passes the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote only to meet a quiet death in a 7 a.m. House subcommittee. This session was no different, as Sen. Bill Stanley’s (R – Franklin) bill easily passed the Senate floor and was killed in a House subcommittee. The governor sent down a budget amendment this veto session in line with the legislation’s intent. It passed easily in both chambers with bipartisan support – including in the House, where it passed 70-29 despite never making it out of subcommittee during session. Now, 627,000 Virginians will have their licenses restored, along with their ability to drive to work and pay their fines. Moving forward, we will have to maintain this line item in the budget each year or pass legislation that reforms the code.
This progress was accompanied by approved additional funding for affordable housing and a transportation funding deal that will send millions to interstates across the commonwealth while also making critical improvements to I-81 and freeing up over $930 million in state dollars for other priority Smart Scale projects throughout Virginia. Unfortunately, however, we were not able to restore the $1.5 million in Census Complete Count funding that was removed from the governor’s proposed budget during budget negotiations in February. This came as a surprise to many of us in the Senate, as the House passed the governor’s budget amendment. So much hinges on an accurate census count – including the allocation of federal and state dollars for public education – that it was unexpected for the amendment to fail on a party-line vote in the Senate. Rural and urban areas are disproportionately affected by an incomplete census count. This is further complicated by the fact that these are also the most challenging areas to count accurately. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Richmond to ensure that the Eastern Shore has the resources we need to ensure a complete 2020 census count.
We adjourned sine die late Wednesday evening and now we move into the 2019 campaign season, as all 140 seats in the Senate and the House of Delegates are on the ballot in November. Primary elections are June 11. It is sure to be a busy and interesting year.
As always, I will be holding town halls and public meetings throughout the district to discuss the final outcomes of the 2019 General Assembly session, as well as ongoing legislative work. My office will publicize event details as they become available. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns. I can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.