Weekly Column: Veto Session on Ethics, Voter ID, Government Surveillance
The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of April 5, 2015.
Veto Session on Ethics, Voter ID, Government Surveillance
Last week, we returned to Richmond for the annual Reconvened or Veto Session where we considered about 20 vetoes and 60 Governor's amendments to various bills.
First, Governor McAuliffe signed the state budget we passed so there were no budget amendments to consider for the first time in my six sessions. However, that did not speed things up.
Governor McAuliffe vetoed several bills relating to firearm violence prevention. These included bills that would enhance Virginians ability to purchase machine guns and carry loaded shotguns in vehicles. I voted to sustain these vetoes and they were ultimately sustained by the Senate.
Governor McAuliffe also vetoed legislation to require Virginians to provide a copy of a photo identification when submitting an absentee ballot application. I fought this bill on the floor and it was amended due to some of the issues I raised — e.g. unfairness to veterans deployed in combat — but it still unduly burdened people without access to copy machines. His veto was sustained on that legislation as well.
The Governor also vetoed the "Tim Tebow" bill — or legislation that would allow homeschooled children to participate in public school sports upon approval of a policy by the Virginia High School League. I voted to sustain the Governor's veto. I do not see public school education as an a la carte service. I could easily see this policy spreading to band, art, or science competitions. Plus, homeschooled children do not live by the same grading or conduct policies as public school students and such a policy could not be fairly implemented. The Governor's veto was sustained.
We also had a lengthy debate about government surveillance. We passed legislation to limit the government's ability to passively gather personal information on Virginians outside of active criminal investigations or without search warrants.
The most famous examples of this are license plate readers — devices which capture the dates, times and places license plates are seen. They have been used in Virginia to track people entering and leaving Washington, D.C., but they could also be used to track attendance at political rallies, gun shows, churches, community meetings, or other activities.
There are other examples. The Fairfax County Police purchased a device called a "Stingray." These devices are the size of a suitcase and mimmick cell phone towers. After tricking a cell phone into locking in to the device, law enforcement can determine the cell phone identifier or every person present at a location, in a building, or even in a room. They have been used without warrants in criminal investigations in other jurisdictions.
The Governor proposed to amend this legislation to limit it to only restrict license plate readers and to allow the police to keep data up to 60 days. I did not support either amendment because I felt that they violated Virginian's privacy and that personal information should only be gathered by the government pursuant to warrants issued based upon probable cause after having been reviewed by a judge or magistrate. The Governor's Amendment restricted the legislation to license plate readers passed. The 60-day limitation failed.
Finally, we also debated several Governor's amendments to ethics reform legislation. We previously passed legislation limiting gifts to $100. However, the legislation lifted the aggregate cap on gifts allowing an elected official to accept multiple sub-$100 gifts per year. Governor McAuliffe proposed to create a $100 per year cap, require annual random "inspections" of forms filed, and providing staffing resources for the new Ethics Advisory Commission.
The Governor's $100 annual cap passed — which I supported — after some procedural gymnastics necessary to cure some drafting errors. But most of his other amendments unfortunately failed. We will continue to debate this next year. The reforms passed this year do not go far enough.