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Texting While Driving Bill Goes to Governor

Legislation cracking down on texting while driving is only the governor’s signature away from become law after passing the Senate on Tuesday.

House Bill 1907 would change texting while driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense. Currently, you can be charged with texting while driving only if you have been stopped for some other violation.

Moreover, the bill, which passed the Senate on a 28-12 vote, would drastically increase the fines for texting while driving. The penalty would jump from $20 to $250 for a first offense and from $50 to $500 for repeat violations.

Woodbridge Del. Richard Anderson (R-Dist. 51), one of several delegates to introduce similar legislation, said a hometown tragedy prompted him to introduce the bill.

“I found out while having coffee with a neighbor last spring that they had lost their brother to a texting driver, so I decided something had to be done,” he said.

Anderson said he has received hundreds of emails this session in favor of the bill, and only one that opposed it.

The House of Delegates had approved HB 1907 by a vote of 92-4 on Feb. 5.

The bill does not prevent drivers from making mobile phone calls or using GPS systems. It applies only when a motorist is using a “handheld personal communications device” to “manually enter multiple letters or text” or “read any email or text message.”

If McDonnell signs the bill, it would take effect July 1.

— Sam Isaacs, Capital News Service

Activists say bills make it harder to vote

As if waiting in hour-long lines at the polls this past November wasn’t bad enough, voting rights acivists say legislation before the General Assembly might make it even harder for some citizens to vote.

Tram Nguyen is a naturalized United States citizen. She was born in a refugee camp during the Vietnam War but has lived in the Uniited States almost all her life. She graduated from the Henrico County Public Schools and then from college. Now she fears she might not be able to cast a ballot in the next election.

Nguyen, the associate director of the Virginia New Majority, a group dedicated to “progressive civic engagement,” joined Democratic state legislators in a press conference Monday to express her opposition to bills that may erect obstacles at the polls.

For example, Senate Bill 1077, would require the state to check a federal database to ensure that people seeking to vote in Virginia are indeed citizens.

“SB 1077 targets people like me,” Nguyen said. “When I turned 18, I was finally able to go through the naturalization process and become a U.S. citizen. I took an oath of allegiance to the United States. I and naturalized citizens like me take that oath very seriously and very proudly.”

If the bill passes, she said, naturalized citizens would “have to go through extra steps to secure our fundamental right to vote.”

As Del. Alfonso Lopez (Dist. 49), a Democrat from Arlington, explained, “SB 1077 would authorize the State Board of Elections … to access a federal database for the purpose of verifying the citizenship status of everyone who is registered to vote.”

Critics say the database, called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program, is flawed. The lieutenant governor of Colorado, a state that has used the program, said it was “riddled with errors.”

“U.S. citizens would be incorrectly targeted and flagged for removal from the voter rolls,” Lopez said. “An expensive and inaccurate system that targets naturalized citizens is simply not a system worth pursuing.”

SB 1077 was approved by the Senate, 23-17, and is now before the House.

Democratic lawmakers also expressed concerns about SB 1256. It would require voters to show an official photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport – “a kind of ID these politicians know many voters don’t have,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, (D-Dist. 2), of Hampton.

Locke said the bill “will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Virginians to vote. (It) would disproportionally affect seniors, students, low-income and minority voters.”

SB 1256, also sponsored by Obenshain, squeaked through the Senate after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast a tie-breaking vote. The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that delegates approve it.

Supporters of SB 1077 and 1256 say the bills would help prevent voter fraud. But Lopez said they could “easily deny actual U.S. citizens their right to vote.”

— Maella Somerville, Capital News Service

Indoor tanning bill killed in committee

A bill that would have banned minors 14 and younger from tanning at a tanning salon has been killed for this legislative session.

The House Committee on Commerce and Labor voted Thursday that Senate Bill 1274 be “passed by indefinitely,” meaning it won’t go any further this year. The bill, sponsored by Sen. George Barker (D-Dist. 39), of Alexandria, previously had passed the Senate, 34-5.

Virginia is one of 19 states that have considered indoor tanning legislation this year, according to AIM at Melanoma, a foundation that promotes prevention and research involving skin cancer.

Virginia’s current law, which took effect in 2007, states that to use a tanning facility, minors under 15 must get written permission from a parent or legal guardian every six months.

Barker’s legislation would have banned minors younger than 15 from using tanning salons at all. And it would have required 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds to obtain parental or guardian consent before visiting a tanning parlor.

Barker said he plans to propose similar legislation next session. He said tanning should be recognized as a health risk that is just as dangerous as smoking or drinking.

“We already do have a number of things where we say that the dangers are significant enough that we will prohibit it for minors and other types that we restrict with parental consent and that sort of thing,” Barker said.

“I think part of the issue is getting the members of the House of Delegates committee comfortable that this is in a similar category in terms of danger.”

Barker said the House Committee on Commerce and Labor “knows that there is some damage that clearly occurs with tanning beds. But the members of the committee may not understand the science behind it as they do with cigarettes and alcohol.”

— Allison Landry, Capital News Service