Thursday, September 28, 2023

Va. House Won’t Take Up 20 Constitutional Amendments Still Pending in Committee

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, during the 2023 General Assembly session. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Proposals to change Virginia’s Constitution require a lot of work, because many of them deal with the basic structure of government and the fundamental rights Virginia residents have.

Among the 20 proposed constitutional amendments pending in the House of Delegates are resolutions to eliminate the state’s outdated ban on same-sex marriage, establish a right to farm and exchange seeds, end the lifetime disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions, strengthen parental rights, enshrine a right to abortion at the state level and allow new tax exemptions for military spouses, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and low-income homeowners threated by gentrification.

But none of those ideas will be taken up by the House before next week’s deadline to act on them, according to House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

“I think the inclination at this point would be to wait until we see what the Senate is going to send over,” Gilbert said Thursday.

It’s not unusual for legislative leaders to refuse to docket proposals that may be causing skittishness or division within their caucus, especially in a politically divided legislature where nothing can pass without bipartisan support. However, it’s somewhat rare for so many proposals, sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, to die all at once for lack of a scheduled hearing. And rank-and-file delegates have occasionally complained that top-down edicts on what bills can be discussed impedes their ability to represent their communities as they see fit.

House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said Republican leaders were trying to avoid open debate on issues that might not be helpful to the GOP in November’s elections, even when Republican delegates are filing bills on those issues.

“You know what’s going to happen to those constitutional amendments,” Scott said Thursday. “Everything they’ve done so far this session is making videos for those who are in primaries against their own members or making sure they have election talking points. They’re not here to govern.”

Because 2023 is the beginning of a two-year cycle for approving constitutional amendments, the House’s inaction means Senate Democrats will have a chance to make the first move in deciding what constitutional amendments should potentially be put on voters’ ballots in 2024.

The Democratic majority in the Senate is expected to approve several constitutional amendments. Proposals to create a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom,” automatically restore felons’ voting rights after they’ve done their time and repeal Virginia’s defunct 2006 ban on same-sex marriage are heading toward final votes before Tuesday’s crossover deadline, when each chamber must complete its own business.

The abortion amendment appears to be a nonstarter for the House GOP, but some Republican delegates are backing versions of the amendments dealing with marriage equality and felon voting rights.

Del Tim. Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored an amendment to take the same-sex marriage ban out of Virginia’s Constitution. Four Republicans are co-sponsoring an amendment with Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, that would automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences and paid off any fines, fees or restitution owed. Both of those proposals are among the 20 GOP leaders chose not to docket.

Proposed amendments to Virginia’s Constitution must be approved by the General Assembly two years in a row, with an election in between those votes. Amendments approved by the legislature then advance to ballot referendums, with voters asked to weigh in directly on what the state Constitution should say.

House Republicans are also not pressing forward with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to ban elective abortions after 15 weeks, a proposal that cannot pass the Senate no matter what the House does.

“I think I was very clear at the beginning of session that the current setup and makeup of the General Assembly was not conducive to any progress being had on that issue on either side,” Gilbert said of the decision not to put the 15-week bill up for a vote. “So we just determined not to spend much time grappling with that when we have so much else to deal with that is still viable.”

All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot this fall.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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