The General Assembly has ended the state’s practice of suspending people’s driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees, setting the stage for restoration of suspended licenses for 627,000 Virginians on July 1.

The House of Delegates, in its first full vote on an issue that has been bottled up in subcommittee, voted 70-29 on Wednesday to scrap the policy. The Senate sealed the issue on a 30-8 vote, despite a late glitch that sent supporters scrambling to fill an unanticipated budget hole for funding state trauma centers.

“I think the General Assembly rose to a tremendous occasion and passed a budget amendment that brings fairness and justice to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Virginians,” said Amy Woolard, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which worked with a bipartisan coalition from both ends of the political spectrum.

The vote to abolish the license suspension policy also was a victory for Gov. Ralph Northam, who had proposed the amendment at the request of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. Stanley had sponsored the legislation that a House subcommittee killed in February despite bipartisan support in the Senate.

Northam, attempting to regain his political standing after a scandal that erupted two months ago over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, also won passage of a package that will raise $278 million a year to make crucial improvements to Interstate 81 and generate money for work on other interstates across Virginia.

Stanley told senators that the move to end license suspensions for unpaid fines “gives those people the opportunity to rejoin society and the community. They don’t have to drive in fear anymore because they’re trying to keep their job.”

Northam called the elimination of the license suspension policy “another great step forward on criminal justice reform,” in a statement issued Wednesday night after lawmakers wrapped their one-day session to consider the governor’s vetoes and proposed amendments.

“This inequitable policy criminalizes poverty and a change was long overdue,” he said.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, castigated the House for approving a measure that he had helped kill legislatively during the winter session. Gilbert said it removes accountability for people who violate the law and fail to pay their fines.

“The idea that we’re not giving a pass to these people is just preposterous,” Gilbert said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Interstate 81

As for the highway funding measure, Northam said: “For too long, we have discussed action to make Interstate 81, a major transportation artery, safer and more reliable for all who travel on it and I am pleased we have finally arrived at a solution.”

After the assembly failed to find a way to pay for improvements to I-81 during the regular session, the governor proposed a package of amendments that will impose a 2.1 percent regional gas tax in five western Virginia planning districts, raise diesel and road taxes on trucks by almost 17 cents a gallon over three years, and increase truck registration fees.

The package passed the House by a 58-39 vote. The Senate voted 25-13 for amendments to raise the truck registration fees, based on vehicle weight, and 22-14 for the remainder of the tax package. Both chambers later approved each other’s version of the same amendments.

The package does not include use of bonds to pay for more than $2 billion in improvements the state says are necessary to improve safety and reduce long waits to clear crashes on I-81, a heavily traveled truck route that runs 325 miles along the length of western Virginia.

“It’s a ’50s-era highway,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, one of 12 Republicans to back the I-81 package in the House. “It’s had very limited improvements.”

But the sweeping tax package shocked Republicans in both chambers, in that it came ahead of elections for all 140 seats in the assembly and it bypassed the normal committee process for approving legislation.

“This is a major tax increase,” said Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun. “Let’s just call it what it is.”

LaRock won his seat in the political fallout after passage in 2013 of a $6 billion package of state and regional taxes that replenished Virginia’s transportation trust fund and set the stage for major transportation projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

“In 2013 we were told that that was going to be the solution,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, a former aide to Sen. Ralph Smith who replaced his boss in the Senate in 2016.

But Suetterlein said the new taxes didn’t collect as much money as hoped as gas tax revenues decline. “I believe that this bill is part two of the 2013 transportation bill,” he said. “And I didn’t trust what happened in 2013. And I don’t trust what’s happening today.”

Central State

Both chambers approved $4 million in additional funding for the Virginia House Trust Fund to expand affordable housing opportunities and authorized $315 million in bonds to replace Central State Hospital, both priorities of Northam and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Separately, they approved the governor’s proposal to allow the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to use $6.3 million of private money to begin planning a proposed $125 million expansion of the facility in Richmond and count the money toward its share of the cost of the project once it’s approved in the future.

However, Northam suffered several major setbacks during the so-called “veto session” Wednesday. As promised, House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, ruled out the governor’s attempt to revive a proposed ban on motorists holding cellphones while driving on any road. Cox said the amendment was not germane to the underlying bill, which would bar motorists from holding cellphones while driving in work zones.

Cox’s ruling killed the amendment, which the Senate had approved Wednesday by a 34-3 vote. The work zone bill now returns to the governor for action.

As a result of party-line action in the House, GOP measures will remain in the budget to prevent Virginia from joining a regional initiative without assembly permission to control greenhouse gases and combat the effects of climate change. The House also blocked any state funding of abortion services unless required by federal law.

Tax refunds

The Senate also voted 20-18 on party lines to kill Northam’s budget proposal to expand eligibility for income tax refunds to almost 151,000 Virginians, almost all of them earning less than $50,000 a year. The House passed the proposed amendment on a 62-37 vote, with support from 13 Republicans, including Cox.

“It was based on political ideology, not on tax policy,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said after the vote.

Senate Republicans disagreed, saying Northam was attempting to get tax refunds for Virginians who weren’t actually paying income taxes because the earned income tax credit and other credits covered their entire liability. “He who pays the tax should certainly be entitled to a refund,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City.

The Senate also killed the governor’s attempt to restore $1.5 million to the budget for outreach to ensure all Virginians are counted in the 2020 U.S. census, another priority of the black caucus.

The House had approved the census amendment, but killed a trio of Northam proposals to boost opportunities for businesses owned by minorities and women to get state procurement contracts.

Other action

In other action, the House approved a budget amendment proposed by Northam at the request of House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, to ensure that the Joint Legislative Audit and Revenue Commission will be able to attend all meetings of the Board of Corrections in order to assess the effectiveness of state investigations of unexplained deaths in regional and local jails.

However, at Jones’ request, the House rejected the governor’s proposal to eliminate a budget provision for future funding to pay incentives for Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Arlington County. The 57-40 vote retains a new policy to put the first $40 million in internet sales tax revenues in the next two-year budget into a new fund to pay future incentive obligations for jobs created by Amazon at its planned $2.5 billion headquarters in Crystal City.

The governor wanted to eliminate the provision as premature because it would limit his ability to propose a budget in December that will cover July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022.

Jones said the new policy was first suggested by Senate Finance Committee staff.

“I kind of wish it had been my idea,” he said.

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mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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