RICHMOND — At the end of Wednesday’s seven hour special session of the Virginia Legislature, Gov. Tim Kaine (D) retreated to his newly-remodeled office in the State Capitol, closed the door and told a reporter, “All in all, I think we had a pretty good day.”
The triumphant moment for Kaine’s legacy came in the late afternoon, when the House of Delegates and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve his transportation funding amendments, which will pump $3 billion into building and repairing the state’s clogged road arteries and expand mass transit. After years of partisan bickering, it was the first meaningful transportation funding bill since 1986, and could help the one-term governor form a legacy.
“People are just sick and tired of sitting in traffic,” said Sen. Jeannmarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax). “They understand this was going to take a huge infusion of cash to make the problem better, so we’re happy we could reach a compromise with the governor.”
Kaine said the bipartisan compromise legislation would now allow the state to protect newly-generated transportation dollars in a “lockbox,” so Virginians would not be concerned that the funds would be diverted to other purposes. “Some of this money goes to work almost immediately in Northern Virginia,” Kaine said. “I think it was a pretty good deal in the end.”
The transportation legislation was formed out of compromise between Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who just two weeks ago was vowing to vote against a package out of concerns on how it would be funded. Kaine’s plan, which successfully passed the House by a vote of 85-15, establishes local taxation and borrowing of $3 billion over a decade. The Senate voted 29-10 in favor of Kaine’s amendments.
Howell said the hammered-out compromise was forged over multiple cell phone calls between the governor and Republican lawmakers. “Voters wanted a good solution and I believe we delivered one,” Howell said.
About 140 delegates and senators will stand for reelection this fall, so there was a palpable eagerness among many lawmakers not to be seen as ineffective on legislating a transportation solution. Howell, in particular, said previously that Kaine and the Democratic lawmakers were attempting to box them into inaction, in order to score political points to regain control of the House and Senate.
For his part, Kaine said that Democrats can now campaign in a unified fashion as a party than can “get the important work done.”
“Under Democratic leadership, we’re the best-managed state in America,” he added, as he walked back to the Governor’s Mansion at the end of the day. “We are the most business-friendly state and our educational system is near the top in this country. That’s a lot Virginians can be proud of under Democratic leadership.”
Less noteworthy moments for Kaine came when the two Republican-held houses rejected by large margins his ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and blocked his vetoes of bills to expand the use of the death penalty. Both Houses overrode Kaine’s veto of laws that would make the killers of judges and witnesses eligible for the death penalty, and the House voted to override his veto of a bill that would make accomplices eligible for capital punishment, by a margin of 59-40. However, the Senate agreed with Kaine, so the bill will not become law.
But Republicans charged that the governor’s veto of the death penalty legislation shows he’s a liberal-leaning and out of touch with law-and-order voters. A staunch Catholic, Kaine said he was morally opposed to the death penalty but that he would uphold state law. Since being inaugurated last year, Kaine has allowed four executions but halted one because the convicted killer was suspected of being mentally ill.
Since 1976, Virginia has put to death 98 inmates, more than any state other than Texas. “Virginia is second-in-the-nation in the number of executions it carries out,” Kaine said. “While the nature of the offense targeted by this legislation is very serious, I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life.”
The House Democratic caucus chair, Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), and a majority of other House Democrats voted to override Kaine’s vetoes on the death penalty. I have tremendous respect for the governor’s strong faith-based objection to the death penalty, but on this issue, we respectfully disagree,” said Moran, a leading candidate for governor in 2008 and last year’s Virginia Sheriffs Association Legislator of the Year. “As a former prosecutor, I strongly feel the highest penalties should be available for the most heinous crimes.”
Moran said these crimes included those that directly enabled murder for hire, kill a judge or witness in a criminal case, or those that assist in terrorism. “These are dangers to our society and warrant the maximum sentence available,” he said. “Virginia families deserve the safest streets we can provide and that means the maximum deterrent for our most violent offenders.
Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-Alexandria) scoffed at the notion.
“We’re number two in the country for killing people,” Ticer said. “We didn’t need any new categories for the death penalty.”
Smoking ban defeated
There was more support among fellow Democrats for Kaine’s proposal to ban smoking in public areas, though that measure too was defeated. Virginia would have become the 22nd state in the country to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.”It was just too much too soon,” said Moran. “The fact that the effects of second-hand smoke were being debated on the floor was a significant accompliment alone.”
Virginia’s Restaurant and Hospitality associations had lobbied vigorously to oppose the smoking ban, and Richmond is home to the headquarters of the world’s largest cigarette maker, Phillip Morris.
“Virginia had an opportunity to be a real leader on something that’s inevitable,” said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Fairfax). “This was a real disappointment.”
Republican lawmakers said the governor’s proposal was too broadly defined because it did not make exceptions for things like hot dog stands and catering services, and might have also banned smoking at catered weddings, sporting events, county fairs and private clubs. I’m still opposed to a widespread, general ban on smoking in public,” argued Kaine. “The bill, with my amendment, was narrowly targeted to prevent smoking in restaurants, which I feel is an important step to protect the health of both patrons and employees.
Democratic legislators vowed to bring up the smoking ban again when the legislature reconvenes in January.
By 7:10 pm, both Houses had wound down their business, and the new electronic boards inside the legislative chambers flashed the message, “The House and Senate are at Ease.”
Lawmakers streamed out of the newly-renovated State Capitol building, past the signs of “fresh paint” and the looming statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. The first day back at the Capitol, after reopening after three years of renovations, had gone pretty well, according to most. One lawmaker was overheard saying to another, “Pretty fancy digs here…Kind of fit for a queen.”
Speaker Howell said the session took a little longer than expected, but, all things considered, “I was very happy with how it went. A good session, all in all.”