Jennifer McClellan: Governor's moves improve our commonwealth

Jennifer L. McClellan

This Wednesday, the Virginia General Assembly will reconvene for one day to take action on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s amendments to, and vetoes of, several pieces of legislation. At a press conference on March 30, Gov. McAuliffe outlined the standard he used to evaluate the 800 bills sent to his desk: “Does this legislation make Virginia more competitive and improve people’s lives, and if not, can I amend it to ensure that it does?”

Significantly, the governor signed the state budget with no amendments, closing a revenue shortfall while protecting the core priorities of education, economic development and health care. This year’s budget demonstrates that when we put our minds to it, Democrats and Republicans can find common ground to solve challenges facing our commonwealth.

We were also able to find common ground on reforming our workforce development system, strengthening our transportation-planning process, enhancing resources offered to Virginia veterans, building on our efforts to grow a 21st-century energy economy, reforming the Standards of Learning system, combating human trafficking and addressing sexual assault on college campuses.

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We also succeeded in passing needed reforms to Virginia’s ethics laws that hopefully serve to restore public confidence in public officials in the wake of the McDonnell scandal. These efforts over the past two years have sought to strike the right balance between permitting public officials to do their jobs while removing the temptation or opportunities for conflicts of interest or corruption. While the bills we passed last year and in February were significant steps forward, they were not the final step. The governor has proposed several amendments to further strengthen these reforms, which I support wholeheartedly.

First, the governor amended the bill to include a $100 aggregate cap on gifts from lobbyists and those seeking influence with the state. This cap also applies to gifts to legislators from entities seeking a contract with the state. Second, the governor amended the bill to ensure all travel paid by a third party must be disclosed.

Third, the Ethics Council will conduct semi-annual, random inspections for compliance with disclosure requirements, limitations on gifts, accuracy of information and deadlines. Fourth, the governor amended the makeup of the council to ensure representation from the executive branch, which must file the vast majority of conflict-of-interest forms. Fifth, the governor clarified the definition of a “widely attended event” to make clear that gifts of tickets to major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl or the Masters, are not exempted from the gift cap.

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Gov. McAuliffe also vetoed 17 bills that he found did not comply with his standard of growing and diversifying our economy and moving Virginia forward. These bills sought changes in law that he viewed to be counterproductive to the economic and social progress we need to better serve Virginia families.

Among these vetoes were six bills relating to redistricting, which were characterized during the session as combining split precincts or making minor technical adjustments to certain district boundaries. However, the governor was concerned about their constitutionality, since Article II Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution, as interpreted by a recent Richmond Circuit Court case, limits the General Assembly’s authority to reapportion Virginia’s electoral districts after the year 2011 to the year after the census is taken. The governor was also concerned that allowing the legislature to make substantive changes to electoral districts more frequently than once a decade injects further partisanship into the process.

Also related to voting and elections, the governor vetoed legislation requiring photo identification for persons seeking absentee ballots by mail, telephone or electronic transmission. This bill imposes barriers on eligible voters’ ability to obtain and cast an absentee ballot while providing no real assurance that it will prevent voter fraud. The governor also vetoed a bill to allow a general registrar who lives and is registered to vote in one locality to serve as registrar in an adjoining locality.

The governor also vetoed the “Tim Tebow Bill,”which would have effectively mandated that schools allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities run by the Virginia High School League. As I have stated many times on these pages, the bill would create am unlevel playing field by permitting students who are not subject to academic or attendance requirements of public schools to compete with students on public school athletic teams.

The governor also vetoed several bills that weaken Virginia’s gun laws. These include bills to prohibit information on concealed handgun permit-holders in the Virginia Criminal Information Network from being shared with law enforcement in states that do not have reciprocity agreements with Virginia for the carrying of concealed handguns — thereby hampering criminal investigations in other states — and to allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry a loaded shotgun or rifle in any vehicle on public streets, highways and roads.

When the veto session ends, the 2015 General Assembly session will come to a close. While we made significant progress on a number of issues facing the commonwealth, there is still a lot more work to be done to grow and diversity Virginia’s economy, improve our schools, keep Virginians safe and meet the health care needs of all Virginians.

As all 140 seats in the legislature come up for election this fall, Virginians have the opportunity to shape how those issues get resolved. I encourage you all to participate in the process and make your voice heard.