Virginia Senate Republican Caucus

Senator Obenshain's Senate Week in Review - Jan. 28, 2011

ajohnston's picture
Thu, 2011-01-27 19:00 -- ajohnston

We are edging closer to crossover, the day when all Senate bills are transmitted to the House and vice versa. In the Senate alone, 741 bills and 136 resolutions have been introduced, with many hot-button issues represented.

I haven't shied away from those issues.

Eminent domain reform (SJ 307), for instance. It was heard by the subcommittee this week. Unfortunately, the subcommittee failed to report the bill - not a huge surprise, as the subcommittee is actually more hostile to property rights than the full Privileges & Elections (P&E) Committee.

Fortunately, in the Senate, bills aren't supposed to be able to die in subcommittee; they get a vote in full committee whatever the recommendation of the subcommittee. Or at least that's how it used to be - but more on that later. Suffice it to say, Democrats on the committee threw out the rule book to kill eight bills and amendments on which they didn't want to cast recorded votes, and my eminent domain reform amendment is slated to be the next victim.

A revised version of the bill I've carried to close the "triggerman loophole" (SB 1200) received a positive recommendation in subcommittee this week and goes to the full committee next week. Under this bill, accessories who share the willful, deliberate, and premeditative intent to commit a rape-murder, but did not himself pull the trigger, can be prosecuted for capital murder. This is a scaled back version of the triggerman bill that I have carried in the past that would close the loophole altogether.

My bill (SB 1195) ensuring that slots parlors don't take hold in Virginia under the guise of "sweepstakes" is also moving forward. This bill, which is supported by the Attorney General and enjoys broad bipartisan support, passed subcommittee with a favorable recommendation yesterday, and I am very optimistic of its chances of passage.

If you want to know more about this issue and the problems these ventures pose to our communities, take a look at this article.

Elsewhere, I carried legislation designed to improve educational opportunity for children in struggling public schools. My SB 1320, a bill to make charter schools viable in Virginia, was heard before an Education and Health subcommittee earlier this week, but three Democrats and the Virginia Educators Association (I know, it's redundant) said no.

The bill contained several tweaks, modest in themselves, that removed huge roadblocks to creating successful charter schools. For example, even though charters are public schools, their employees are not eligible to participate in the Virginia Retirement System - this despite the fact that they receive paychecks from the public school division.

These are modest changes, but they would have helped create a framework of real, workable public charters in Virginia, like they have in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere The left has hobbled the charter school movement here: while charter schools elsewhere in the country serve over 1.5 million children across 5,000 schools, Virginia has but three charter schools - and that number hasn't moved for a long time.

Of course, nobody said carrying conservative bills in a Democrat-controlled Senate would be easy, but I was hoping it would be fair. The other day, however, we witnessed a strikingly raw exercise of power when, in a clear violation of the rules that govern the Senate, the Senate Committee on Privileges & Elections (P&E) refused to allow an up-or-down vote on eight bills that received a negative recommendation in subcommittee.

In fact, the bills were not even on the agenda. When I made a simple and routine motion to add the bills to the calendar, the committee chair, Senator Howell, immediately ruled it out of order. Such a motion is never out of order.

I asked the Chair to state the basis of her ruling - why is it out of order? What rule or authority do you rely upon? I must admit that the reply was not very revealing. Or perhaps it was, in its own way: "Because I believe it's out of order."

(As an interesting side note, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw had a bill he wanted to add to the agenda of another committee the other day. I asked whether the motion to add a bill to the calendar was in order; apparently there are two sets of rules, one of the majority and the other for the minority.)

A transportation lockbox (SJ 353 - Obenshain), charter school expansion (SJ 360 - Obenshain), a Right to Work Amendment (SJ 323 - McDougle), the Repeal Amendment (SJ 280 - McDougle), voter identification (SB 808 - Obenshain; SB 864 - Martin) and more - vanished from the committee docket on the whim of the chair.

Thomas Jefferson, in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which still governs proceedings in the Senate of Virginia, spoke to just such violations, noting that "the only weapons by which the minority can defend themselves against similar attempts from those in power, are the forms and rules of proceeding which have been adopted ... by a strict adherence to which, the weaker party can only be protected from those irregularities and abuses which these forms were intended to check, and which the wantonness of power is but too often apt to suggest to large and successful majorities."

To his great credit, the Democratic president pro tempore, Senator Chuck Colgan, delivered a compelling lecture to his fellow Democrats, telling them that even though it was common to steamroll the minority in years past, "It was wrong then and it is still wrong today."  If only the rest of his caucus had been taking notes.

Finally, just a quick note about a small bill I carried which would have affixed a sticker to each fuel pump in Virginia (SB 1210) - at no cost to either the state or the service stations - showing our gas tax rates. Some, of course, think our gas taxes are too low. Others think they're too high. My point is only this: the sales tax shows up on your receipt, but the gas tax is completely hidden. We deserve the same transparency.

This one really should have passed - it was approved unanimously in the Transportation Committee, but on the floor, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) sent it back to the Senate Finance Committee, pledging to kill it there. Apparently even a little tax transparency is too much for some people.

Even the craziest of weeks, however, have a daily silver lining - the groups from the district that stop by to encourage me, challenge me, sometimes disagree with me, but always to bring that hometown spirit to Richmond.

This week, I met with friends from Eastern Mennonite University, Blue Ridge Community College, from great local organizations like RESPONSE and the Blue Ridge Arts Council, and with local representatives - many of them long-time friends - of the credit unions, our local banks, the Farm Bureau, the Chamber, and from dedicated public servants like our law sheriffs and police and treasurers. I appreciated each visit, each opportunity to sit down with friends from back home.

There's still plenty of time to pay us a visit here in Richmond.  If you're coming to Richmond during session, please make sure to stop by our offices in Room 429 of the General Assembly Building.  And as always, if you hear about an issue that you'd like to weigh in on with your opinion, please drop me an email at

I'll have more to tell you in next week's column.  Until then, I hope you have a great week.

With best regards,

Mark D. Obenshain

Virginia State Senator

P.S. Don't forget to take my online survey!