Virginia state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Del. Randy Minchew (R-10) highlighted the divide on several major issues facing the General Assembly in the 2017 session. Speaking at a forum at the Rust Library in Leesburg on Feb. 4, the Loudoun lawmakers took different stances on contested issues like school funding and religious liberties.
Minchew has co-patroned HB 1605, which establishes parental choice education savings accounts. The bill allows individual parents to take a portion of money allocated for public education and use it instead for education costs of their choice, including for tuition to private schools or for homeschooling.
A similar bill was passed by both houses of the Republican-controlled General Assembly last session, but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Minchew said this bill, introduced by fellow Loudoun County delegate Dave LaRock (R-33), addresses some of the governor’s concerns and will be an asset to both low income and special needs students.
“Our primary goal is to keep our pubic schools well financed. That being said, I think there is room for solid parental school choice opportunities, be it homeschooling or whatever,” Minchew said.
Critics, including Wexton, have said the reallocated resources will weaken public schools.
“You’re handing over a bunch of money to people with no way of knowing where it goes, no oversight, no infrastructure to make that happen,” Wexton said. “That’s not something that’s good for Virginia.”
Like the parental choice account, SB 1240 allows funding for public schools to be reallocated to individuals, in this case to Virginia’s virtual school. The bill would allow up to 5,000 Virginia students to take their piece of allocated public school funding and instead enroll in the virtual school by the 2019-2020 school year.
Wexton opposed a similar bill last year and said it was a failure in other states that have tried the system.
“It was a disaster because there was no accountability,” Wexton said.
With Republicans with small majorities in both houses, it’s likely both bills will be passed by the General Assembly and sent to the governor’s desk for passage into law. McAuliffe will then most likely veto both bills, and it’s unlikely to garner enough support from either chamber for the two thirds vote needed to override the veto.
The two also disagreed on hot topic social issues. Minchew said he supported HB 2025, which allows anyone not to participate in the solemnization of any marriage that goes against a “sincerely held religious belief.” That would allow a person not to officiate a same-sex marriage if it was against their religion.
Wexton countered that a catholic priest wouldn’t have to officiate a sex-sex marriage, but a civil celebrant, acting on behalf of the government of the Commonwealth, should be compelled to carry out its laws.
The pair agreed on several other issues being debated in Richmond, including bills to combat distracted driving.
While some efforts in the Senate have faltered, Minchew said he was hopeful for bills emerging out of the House of Delegates. That included HB 2345, which expands the prohibition of using a handheld personal communications device while operating a motor vehicle to all communications unless the device is specifically designed to allow voice and hands-free operation. Introduced by Minchew, it was incorporated into HB 1834.
Current statues prohibit texting or emailing while driving, but are effectively unenforceable because they allow use of GPS services, aps and many other features of smartphones. HB 1834, introduced to close some of those loopholes, failed in committee.
The Virginia DMV reports that 24 percent of fatal crashes involved distracted driving in 2016. In the past decade, Virginia has averaged approximately 700 fatal crashes a year, including an infant in Loudoun County last August.
HB 1606, which strengthens existing penalties for distracted drivers in work zones, passed the House with bipartisan support and is now awaiting passage from the Senate. Both Minchew and Wexton said they’re finding resistance for what fellow lawmakers view as government overreach in their respective chambers, but are taking steps to combat distracted driving.
“Things take a long time in the General Assembly. We will reach critical mass eventually,” Wexton said. “We’re going to keep at it and eventually we’ll get where we need to be, but sadly that won’t be this year.”