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From the Front Row: Kaye Kory's Richmond Report

By Kaye Kory

Published by the Falls Church News-Press on April 13, 2016

On Wednesday next week, the Virginia General Assembly will meet as the 2016 Reconvened Session. The purpose of the “Veto Session,” as it is called, is to reconsider bills the Governor has vetoed or for which he has recommended changes before signing into law. In its news story on the Veto Session, The Washington Post noted that “Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vetoed more legislation than any governor since Jim Gilmore in 1998….” Facing a legislature fully controlled by the opposing party, the Governor endured “enthusiastic passage of ideological bills” and responded with “swift vetoes.” Republicans chide the Governor for his failures to communicate with legislators, scoffing at the suggestion that they are increasingly partisan. Democrats criticize the Republicans for their zeal in currying favor with the Tea Party and religious activists.

To put this discussion into perspective, I think it is important to point out that Governor McAuliffe did sign into law 732 of the 811 bills sent to him. To achieve gun control improvements applicable to gun shows he accepted extensions to “concealed carry” licensing, demonstrating bi-partisanship and enduring vehement criticism from gun control activists. In addition to increasing funding for K-12 education, he has initiated educational reforms that will reduce standardized testing for most students. He has also sponsored high school curriculum reform to increase vocational and technical training and focus on STEM disciplines. He has been relentless in his drive for investment in economic development. One notable bill will ensure the Commonwealth creates a portfolio of “shovel-ready megaproject” plans.

I think it is beyond dispute that many legislators believe there are substantial political benefits from offering legislation that is purely symbolic, i.e. that has no chance of enactment given current political realities. Frankly, both progressives and conservatives can be criticized for offering legislation designed to appease partisan members of their constituencies. The free media visibility that can be generated by this strategy can be as valuable to media-savvy politicians as political donations. Not surprisingly, many media outlets are happy to abet politicians by framing their efforts in terms of conflict and, often, magnifying the controversy to appeal to their consumers. The public must endure these activities, though they are perceived as a waste of time. Symbolic legislation can also divert attention from actual problems that legislators should be addressing. However, this is the way we do politics in 2016 and few legislators are immune.

For example, one of the bills Governor McAuliffe vetoed this year would have prohibited state and local law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth from releasing individuals in their custody if those individuals are suspected of violating U.S. immigration laws. The pretext of the bill is to improve public safety. In reality, the bill – which was strongly opposed by most local police departments and sheriffs – is designed to require local officers to function as agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of Homeland Security. Notwithstanding the fact that in specific cases local police can and do hold individuals and contact ICE to deal with them, this bill would have required the local authorities to handle every case this way. In the real world, ICE is resource-constrained and could not possibly address the results of faithful application of this law. I don’t question the motives driving this legislation, just the wisdom.

In my view, a more significant public safety-related challenge posed by Virginia’s large population of undocumented workers is the number of such workers who are driving cars and trucks without possessing a valid driver’s license. This year I submitted a bill that would authorize the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to test and license such undocumented workers. Of course, the argument is that the public benefit of improving the accountability and integration of undocumented workers into the economy is substantial. Though controversial, California and 12 other states have found the arguments in favor of granting licenses to undocumented workers to be compelling. This year, my bill did not make it out of Committee. I intend to try again next year.