|Thursday, April 22, 2004
Warner's amendments die in House
|Democratic Gov. Mark Warner said he expected an uphill fight with the Republican-controlled legislature.
By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND - The General Assembly turned aside Gov. Mark Warner's attempts to alter several high-profile bills Wednesday, rejecting his amendments to legislation dealing with civil unions of same-sex couples, the killing of a fetus and changes to Virginia's 21-day rule.
House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell also thwarted Warner's attempt to push through legislation that would have limited the ability of discount-brand cigarette manufacturers to compete with major tobacco companies involved in a 1998 legal settlement with Virginia and 45 other states. Warner's amendments were aimed at maximizing the annual settlement payments the state receives from the big tobacco firms.
The legislative action occurred in a one-day session in which lawmakers responded to Warner's vetoes and amendments of bills passed during their winter session.
Warner, a Democrat, said he expected an uphill fight when he amended several bills that passed the Republican-controlled legislature with overwhelming majorities.
The day's most heated debate centered around the governor's proposed amendment to a bill (HB 751) banning same-sex civil unions and partnership contracts.
Warner wanted to strip language from the bill that prohibits a "partnership contract or other arrangement" between people of the same sex. He said the bill's "vague and expansive language" could have the effect of nullifying existing contractual rights and prohibiting certain business contracts between people of the same sex.
Both houses rejected Warner's reasoning and defeated the amendment. They then passed the original bill with majorities of at least two-thirds, meaning the measure will become law without going back to Warner's desk.
The bill's sponsor, Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, said the law will prohibit recognition only of domestic partnerships that "bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage." The House passed the original bill by a vote of 69-30.
"Civil unions are a proxy for marriage, and domestic partnerships are a proxy for civil unions," Marshall said. "This has nothing to do with abrogating the ability of anyone entering into a [business] contract."
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, led an unsuccessful effort to defeat Marshall's bill in the Senate, calling it "overly broad and patently unconstitutional." The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 27-12.
Both houses rejected Warner's change to legislation designating the unwanted termination of a pregnancy as murder. The so-called "feticide" bills (HB 1 and SB 319) were inspired by cases such as the high-profile murder of Laci Peterson, a California woman who was nine months pregnant at the time of her death.
Some abortion-rights advocates fear that the law could be exploited to curtail access to legal abortions. Warner offered a one-sentence amendment stating that nothing in the law would limit abortion rights as defined in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade.
Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said Warner's amendment "has nothing to do with Roe v. Wade. It is a murder bill, plain and simple."
The House defeated Warner's amendment by a vote of 69-31. The Senate rejected the governor's change to an identical bill by a vote of 25-15.
Warner has 30 days to decide whether to sign or veto the bills. He told reporters he would review the measures again before making that decision.
But Warner was quick to say he will sign legislation (SB 333) ending Virginia's 21-day time limit for convicted felons to introduce evidence that was unknown or unattainable at trial, even though the House rejected his proposed amendment. The new law will not apply to defendants who plead guilty or enter a so-called Alford plea.
Warner wanted to strike a provision that would limit a defendant to just one post-conviction petition. House Republicans insisted on the provision earlier this year, adding it to legislation developed by the Virginia Crime Commission and passed by the Senate.
The Senate unanimously approved Warner's amendment at the urging of the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ken Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. But the House rejected it, with opponents arguing that it would deny finality to crime victims and their families and open the door to frivolous petitions by prisoners. Warner said he still considers the bill a major advance.
Lawmakers never had to vote on a package of amendments that Warner said would close a loophole allowing tobacco companies outside the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement to cut into the market shares of major companies such as Richmond-based Philip Morris USA.
Nonparticipating companies must make payments into an escrow fund as a deposit against future health-related lawsuits. But a loophole enables some small, regional manufacturers to immediately recoup most of those payments and hold down their prices. Some small companies consider the provision critical to their ability to compete with major manufacturers.
Howell, R-Stafford County, ruled that Warner's amendments had nothing to do with the purpose of the original bill (HB 862), which deals with cigarette revenue stamp regulations. The ruling killed the amendments and prevented what could have been a heated floor debate.
Both Warner and lawmakers who opposed his amendments agreed they must work out a compromise by next year that addresses the competitive concerns of both big and small tobacco firms in the state.