The Virginia legislature was in session for roughly 2 months this year, convening on January 11, 2012, and adjourning on March 10, 2012. Republicans were in control of Virginia’s General Assembly this session with a 67-33 divide in the House and a 20-20 split between parties in the Senate. Republican control of the legislature allowed many of this party's preferred bills to make their way into law this session. According to a press release by Governor McDonnell, Virginia’s General Assembly passed bills that addressed 88 percent of his agenda. The Governor’s agenda included issues ranging from job creation to public safety and education. However, most of the attention this session was given to controversial social issues. The legislature addressed controversial topics such as women's reproductive health and adoption, passing legislation that was covered by both local and national media. In addition, high-profile bills relating to firearms and voter identification requirements incited significant debate among legislators and residents of Virginia.
By far the most controversial bill of this session was HB 462, a bill that would require an ultrasound before an abortion. Supporters of the bill argued in favor of the ultrasound in order to determine the age of the fetus for women seeking an abortion. The fetus’ age would be included in the woman’s informed consent document, which she is required to sign before the abortion can be performed. While the ultrasound method was not specified in the bill it became apparent that, in some cases, a vaginal ultrasound might be required for fetuses of a certain size. This possibility caught the attention of national media and sparked protests in Virginia from opponents of the bill. In response to the negative attention, the Senate amended the bill to require only a trans-abdominal ultrasound. Despite the removal of the vaginal ultrasound requirement, many Senators remained opposed to the bill. One of these opponents was Democratic Senator Barbara Favola, who said, “…there is no room for the state government in these decisions.” The amended bill passed both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by Governor McDonnell on March 7, 2012.
Another pair of contentious bills were HB 940 and SB 323. These identical bills would repeal the purchase limit for handguns. For 19 years, the purchase of handguns in Virginia has been limited to one gun purchase per person every 30 days. The limit on handgun purchases was introduced in 1993 in an effort to curb gun trafficking. HB 940 and SB 323 would remove the limit on the number of handguns that can be purchased by non-dealers. Opponents of HB 940 and SB 323 were concerned that gun trafficking would increase with the repeal of the limit. Supporters of the bill, however, argued that new systems for identifying gun purchases would prevent an increase in gun trafficking. Republican Senator Charles Carrico, the sponsor of SB 323, argued that “now that we have background checks that we didn’t have in 1994, one gun a month has outlived its purpose.” Both bills were signed by Governor McDonnell and will go into effect on July 1, 2012.
Two bills this session dealt with voter identification requirements: HB 9 and SB 1. These bills require a voter to have a valid form of identification in order to vote. If voters do not have a valid form of identification, they would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot and then provide identification within 6 days for the vote to count. This legislation is similar to bills recently passed by Texas and South Carolina. These measures were blocked by the Justice Department, which stated that requiring photo identification “would disproportionately harm minority voters.” Unlike Texas and South Carolina’s bills, however, HB 9 and SB 1 do not require photo identification. A voter could present a current copy of a utility bill, bank statement, or pay stub in lieu of photo identification and still be eligible to vote. However, the bills were still controversial. Supporters of the bills said that they would prevent voter fraud: according to Republican Senator Stephen Martin, the bill will “…ensure the integrity of the electoral process.” However, opponents of the bill argue that the new requirements will discourage the elderly, minorities, and college students from voting. The bills passed both Houses and were sent to the Governor, who returned them to the legislature with recommendations. Some, but not all, of the recommendations were approved by the legislature, but Governor McDonnell ultimately decided to sign the bill on May 18, 2012.
HB 189 and SB 349 would allow private adoption agencies to deny adoption placements based on religious or moral beliefs. The bills contain language often referred to as the “conscience clause,” Supporters of HB 189 and SB 349 claim that the legislation will protect religious freedom: according to Republican Representative Todd Gilbert, the bills will “…chisel into law the principle that people of faith can adhere to their convictions without fear of reprisal from those who would discriminate against their religious beliefs regarding how we should raise our children.” The bills would prevent state or local governments from discriminating against agencies that use their religious or moral beliefs in placing children with adoptive families. However, opponents of the bill say that it sanctions discrimination: according to Democratic Senator Adam Ebbin, “it has always been about denying LGBT Virginians the right to form families.” Both HB 189 and SB 349 are similar to a bill passed in North Dakota.
Some issues were left unresolved by the end of Virginia's 2012 legislative session. Bills that will be brought up for reconsideration next year include HB 1, HB 48, and HB 1112. HB 1, also known as the “personhood bill,” would specify that life begins at conception. The bill stipulates that any rights provided to residents of Virginia are extended to “unborn children.” The bill also states, however, that a woman can not face legal consequences for unintentionally harming her “unborn child” due to unsatisfactory personal or prenatal care. HB 48 dealt with the use of force in self-defense. Sometimes referred to as the “castle doctrine,” this bill would allow occupants of a dwelling to use deadly force against an intruder if they believe they are in danger of bodily injury or if the intruder acts violently towards them. The “castle doctrine” is already a part of Virginia’s common law, but would be codified with the passage of this bill. HB 1112 would have repealed Virginia’s HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine requirement. Virginia currently requires girls entering the sixth grade to receive the HPV vaccine.
Despite the active nature of Virginia’s legislative session, one major issue was not settled: the budget. SB 30, the proposed budget for 2012-2014, failed in the Senate on February 23, 2012. Although the vote was 20-17, the bill required a majority of elected members to pass and 3 senators abstained from voting, causing the bill to fail. Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling has had to vote as a tie-breaker in over 20 pieces of legislation this session due to the 20-20 party split in the Senate. However, the Lieutenant Governor cannot break tied votes regarding the budget. Since Virginia’s legislators could not agree on a budget, they returned for a special session to settle the issue. Legislators were unable to agree on a budget by the time the special session ended on May 15, 2012, so they returned on June 20, 2012, to try again. Despite this setback, Virginia’s legislature passed an extraordinarily high number of bills this session when compared to other state legislatures.
Caitlin Heckroth is a student at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in Sociology and a current intern with Project Vote Smart. For more information on internship opportunities with Project Vote Smart, contact us at email@example.com or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.