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Roanoke Times: Bills see last-minute changes Print


Created:  Wednesday, April 11, 2012

RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell wants the General Assembly to give local election officials more discretion to count provisional ballots that would be cast under a new law requiring voters to show identification at the polls.

McDonnell's proposed change to the divisive legislation was among several last-minute amendments and vetoes disclosed Tuesday, hours after the governor's deadline for acting on bills passed during the legislative session that ended March 10.

McDonnell vetoed seven bills and acted on several other high-profile measures, including bills making major changes to the state pension system and creating tax credits for contributions to private school scholarships. The General Assembly is scheduled to vote on McDonnell's vetoes and amendments in a one-day session April 18.

The General Assembly last month passed legislation (HB9 and SB 1) that would require voters to present valid identification in order to cast a regular ballot. The bill cleared the evenly divided Senate thanks to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote.

Earlier this year, black political and civic leaders likened the proposal to voter suppression tactics that Virginia employed during the Jim Crow era. Democrats argued that the bills could affect the voting rights of seniors and other voters who may be less likely to have the required identification.

Under the legislation, voters could present any of a variety of documents to verify their identities, including a driver's license, voter registration card, government-issued photo ID, Social Security card, bank statement or utility bill. People without identification would be allowed to cast provisional ballots, but legislators decided that those ballots would be counted only if individuals could produce identification before votes are canvassed.

Under McDonnell's proposed change, local electoral boards or general registrars can count a provisional ballot if they determine that the signature on the ballot matches the voter's signature in the locality's poll book. The governor's amendment mirrors a provision in the original version of a bill passed by the House of Delegates.

"In reviewing this legislation, I want to preserve this goal of preventing illegal voting while promoting voter participation, and making sure we do not stand in the way of legitimate voting," said McDonnell, a Republican. "I also want to ensure that this legislation complies with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

McDonnell vetoed seven bills, including a measure (SB471) that would have allowed localities to impose a license tax of up to $250 on Virginia residents who have their cars registered in other states. He also vetoed a bill to implement screening of newborn babies for critical congenital heart disease. McDonnell said his administration already has a work group looking into the issue.

The bill's sponsor, Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington County, said he wasn't aware of the work group and was "extremely saddened" by McDonnell's veto. Hope said the governor's veto could jeopardize an application for federal funds to implement the program.

McDonnell also acted on bills that make major structural changes to the Virginia Retirement System. He signed a bill (HB 1130) that will reduce benefits for employees with less than five years of experience and create a new "hybrid" retirement plan for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014.

The governor amended a separate bill (HB 497) requiring teachers and local government workers with Virginia Retirement System-administered plans to contribute 5 percent of their pay toward their pensions. The governor's change would allow localities to phase in the requirement for local employees over a five-year period beginning in July. The phase-in provision already was in place for teachers.

Local government and teacher organizations had asked McDonnell to delay or scrap the Virginia Retirement System bills, arguing that they will shift costs to localities and reduce benefits without shoring up the underfunded pension system.

McDonnell signed legislation (SB 131) that will award tax credits to individuals and corporations that contribute to private school scholarships. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, extends scholarship eligibility to students from families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The state would cap the tax credit program at $25 million annually when it takes effect in 2014. McDonnell recommended minor changes to a companion measure (HB 321) sponsored by Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico County.

Most Democrats opposed the legislation, arguing that the tax expenditures will drain money from the state's general fund, which supports public education. It took Bolling's tie-breaking vote to get the measure through the Senate.

Stanley's original bill limited scholarship eligibility to only students who would qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in public schools. Stanley said he still believes the program, under the version signed by McDonnell, will help economically disadvantage students. The law would expire in 2017 unless legislators renew it.

"This sunset provision gives us a period of time that we can show that this school choice bill is successful in helping young children and their parents break the cycle of poverty by giving them choices in education," Stanley said.