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Democrats take control of Virginia Senate

Democrats regained control of Virginia’s Senate in late January after Norfolk Democrat Lynwood Lewis assumed the District 6 seat vacated by Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after an 11-vote victory against his Republican opponent.

Lewis’s installation kept the state Senate split 20-20, with Northam casting most tiebreaking votes. The newfound majority prompted Democrats to alter committee assignments and Senate rules, just as Republicans did in 2012 under the tiebreaking authority of former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).

The new committee assignments give Democrats an advantage over Republicans in 11 committees. The rules change confers special vetoing powers allowing new Senate Rules Chairman Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Dist. 21) to singlehandedly kill any bill that is “substantially” amended by House Republicans.

Sen. Thomas Norment (R-Dist. 3) lost his position as majority leader to Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Dist. 35) as a result of the special elections.

“The rules change giving unprecedented authority to the Chairman of the Rules Committee was by far the most egregious actions of the Democrats,” Norment stated in an email. “They scuttled the rules without the approved two-thirds vote.”

According to a release issued by the Democratic Caucus, Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Dist. 9) urged Republicans to come to a power-sharing agreement in 2012, warning that if Republicans choose not to share power, there is no going back.

“We will be at 20-20 sometime in the future, and perhaps there’ll be a Democratic lieutenant governor,” McEachin said in a floor meeting at the time. “And perhaps the shoe will be on the other foot.”

Republicans dismissed the argument at the time and called on Democrats to accept the decision, according to the caucus’s release.

“When Republicans took control of the Senate, we asked for power sharing,” McEachin stated in the release. “Now that we have control, we will be fair to our colleagues … but we will use our majority to work on the issues for which the voters spoke.”

— Eric Luther and Jackson McMillan, Capital News Service

Reorganized Senate committee tries to reverse abortion limits

Two abortion-related bills were passed last week by the Virginia Health and Education Senate Committee a day after the House of Delegates struck down a pair of identical measures in committee.

The Senate bills, SB617 and SB618, passed on party-line votes a week after Democrats took control of the Senate and reorganized several committees, including Health and Education.

The Senate bills seek to add abortion procedures to health care coverage and to repeal a required ultrasound law for women seeking an abortion.

“It’s nobody’s damn business,” said Senate Majority Leader and committee member Richard L. Saslaw (D-Dist. 35). “The state has no business injecting their big nose in anybody’s business.”

The issue has the state legislature split, as both measures attempt to overturn laws that were passed in 2012 and 2013 under a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Senate committee Democrats say they doubt their bills will pass in the House.

“This is about the 30th year we’ve been dealing with this issue,” Saslaw said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know when it’s going to end.”

With Republicans controlling the House of Delegates by 67-32 vote, the Senate bills are likely to be dead on arrival. Earlier this week, a House companion bill to remove the ultrasound requirement was tabled in subcommittee.

— Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

Red light cameras remain legal

Red light cameras will remain legal in Virginia for at least another year, as the House Transportation Committee defeated a bill this past week that would have forced the discontinuation of such photo-monitoring systems.

The committee voted 13-8 against House Bill 973, which would have repealed local authority to operate the systems known as “photo red” or “red-light cameras.”

Virginia police from several localities attended this past week’s meeting to lobby in favor of keeping the cameras, citing safety as the No. 1 concern. Localities that have implemented the systems have reported decreases in red-light violations as high as 33 and 40 percent.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Dist. 41), and committee chair Del. Tom Rust (R-Dist. 86), were among the House members voting against the bill.

“My main reason for voting against it: safety,” Rust said. “A lot of people were saying it saves lives and stops crashes.”

Filler-Corn, a fellow Fairfax County delegate, echoed Rust’s opinion.

“In Fairfax County we don’t have red-light cameras,” Filler-Corn said, “but I do feel strongly that we need to retain the option and flexibility because I do believe it saves lives.”

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently decided not to pursue a photo red light program at this time because of the cost of implementing the system.

Among those opposing the monitoring systems and voting for the bill was Del. Timothy Hugo (R-Dist. 40) who questions the localities’ motivation.

“You’ve seen what they’ve done in D.C. — they shorten the lights to basically increase the revenue,” Hugo said.

Virginia Beach is home to the state’s longest-running photo-monitoring program. The city reported it netted $3.3 million on 12 cameras from 2009 to 2012. Fairfax city has made $500,000 in profit on just three cameras since 2011 and has plans to add three more.

— Quinn Casteel, Capital News Service

Bill seeks to limit local regulation of agritourism

An bill that would restrict local regulation of customary agricultural and farm activities has passed the Senate.

Senate Bill 51 would prohibit Virginia counties from regulating the management of agritourism for-profit events; the sale of agricultural or silvicultural (forest) products or related items; the preparation or sale of foods that are not otherwise in violation of state law and other customary activities without a “substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public.”

Localities would not have the authority to require a special-use permit for any of the activities listed above.

No local ordinance regulating sound produced by the activities listed above could be more restrictive than the general local noise ordinance, except if an ordinance regulates the sound of outdoor amplified music.

Sen. William Stanley (R-Dist. 20) says SB51 would empower farmers.

“We want to make sure that we’re encouraging agritourism,” Stanley said, “that we’re encouraging the product of the small farmer to be brought to market on the farmer’s terms, rather than being the captive of a vendor.”

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Dist. 34) said the bill would allow the wine industry in Virginia to grow by combating local overregulation for winery owners.

“A lot of counties have tried to restrict, regulate and frankly put these wineries out of business,” Petersen said.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Dist. 30) voted against SB51. Sam Bosch, Ebbin’s legislative aide, stated the senator opposed the bill based on issues of “clarity in the language” because the meaning of both “substantial” impact and “regulate” are not clearly defined in the bill.

Stanley says residents — including farmers — in Fauquier County and members of the local government are responsible for much of the lobbying against SB51.

“There seems to be a desire at the local level there [Fauquier County] to overregulate and minimize farm production,” Stanley said. “And the ability to make a living.”

— Kate Miller, Capital News Service