Beneath a political cloud in Richmond, legislators emerged with policy ‘success,’ says Harrisonburg’s delegate

By Andrew Jenner

Despite a legislative session that The Washington Post described as “the strangest … in anyone’s memory” amid a trio of scandals in Virginia’s executive branch, Harrisonburg’s state Del. Tony Wilt said it ended up being a “very successful legislative year.”

Wilt, a Republican from Broadway, said he and fellow Republicans considered it a productive session even as controversies dominated the headlines, after Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted to wearing blackface as young men and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women.

“It was sad that there was that cloud hanging – and continues to hang – over the state of Virginia,” Wilt said. “[But] we had a lot of great success. That’s what we were committed to … and we held up our part. I’m happy with what we got done this year.”

He called the nearly $1 billion in tax relief signed by Northam earlier this month a “pretty monumental” accomplishment that will return tax dollars “back to the people who paid it.”

The measure will refund to taxpayers a windfall of cash the state received as a result of the federal tax cut signed by President Trump in 2017. Although Northam originally proposed spending that money on various programs and tax breaks for low-income families, he later agreed to the tax relief bill that came through the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Wilt told The Citizen he was disappointed by Democrats railing on the House floor against the “Trump tax scheme” before proposing to use the infusion of cash it sent Virginia’s way for various programs. “How can you get up and say ‘we hate this plan but we want the money?’” Wilt said.

The legislature’s passage of 5 percent pay raises for teachers and an assortment of school safety measures were also among the session highlights for Wilt.

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R), Harrisonburg’s other state legislator, did not respond to several interview requests.

Below are updates to several other legislative stories that The Citizen followed this year or are otherwise of note:

Interstate 81

Heading into the session, a major priority for legislators from the region had been finding solutions to congestion and safety hazards on Interstate 81. While Obenshain & Del. Steve Landes (R-Verona) originally proposed funding $2.2 billion in priority improvements by tolling, that didn’t find enough support to pass. Instead, the legislature created a new commission that will spend the rest of this year studying funding mechanisms. The Citizen will have more on this in an upcoming report.

Senate committee kills bill mandating jail time for some school threats

Earlier this month, The Citizen covered a proposal by Del. Jeffrey Campbell, from Southwest Virginia, that would have mandated jail time for anyone who makes a bomb threat against a school. While it passed the House of Delegates by a 61-38 vote (Del. Wilt joined the majority in voting for it), the measure didn’t make it out of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. Obenshain, who chairs that committee, joined the majority of his colleagues in voting to pass the legislation by indefinitely.

Glitch removed from student directory disclosure bill

In January, The Citizen wrote about a bill Wilt introduced to undo an unintended consequence of legislation he’d carried in 2018. The original bill – which took effect July 1, 2018 – prohibited universities from disclosing student contact information in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. As enacted, it also had the effect of prohibiting professors from disclosing student contact information to other students in the same class by doing something as simple as sending a group email to several of them. After hearing about this from several higher education groups, Wilt introduced this year’s bill to resolve the “cumbersome” effect last year’s bill had on some university faculty and staff, while maintaining its underlying purpose of prohibiting release of student contact information to off-campus people or groups.

The bill sailed straight through the legislature without a single vote against it, and now awaits Northam’s signature.

“Everybody realized it was just a cleanup measure and was fine with it,” Wilt said.

Contact information for voter registration drive drivers, take 2

Unlike the glitch fix to the student directory disclosure rules, another of Wilt’s bills cleared the General Assembly on strict party-line votes. It would direct anyone who helps someone else complete a voter registration application or collects completed paper registration applications to provide their name, phone number and organizational affiliation to the local registrar’s office. (As written, it’s more of an ask than a command; no penalty is set for failure to provide that information, and registration applications delivered by someone who doesn’t provide that information will still be accepted.)

Last year, Will carried a nearly identical bill that was also approved along party lines but ultimately vetoed by Gov. Northam, who said it would place “an unnecessary burden on those facilitating or participating in voter registration drives and could result in denied or delayed voter registration applications for eligible voters.”

Wilt said he introduced the bill on behalf of local registrars to help them contact people who submit registration applications in case there are problems with those applications, such as missing information, that could result in the applicants not being registered to vote. He bristled at the implication that it is intended to suppress voting.

“It’s nothing nefarious. I’m not trying to disenfranchise anyone. I’m trying to help [register voters],” Wilt told The Citizen. “How this thing has got construed that I’m somehow trying to suppress votes, in my opinion, it’s ludicrous.”

Harrisonburg Registrar Debbie Logan said she supports the measure, although she has seen “very small number” of instances in which it would have been helpful. That’s partially because state law already requires anyone who collects 25 or more registration applications to provide contact information to her office, which works very closely with groups such as Dukes Vote that conduct large student registration drives in Harrisonburg.

“For the majority of [applications] that come in in those big registration drives, we have a working relationship with the people that are doing them,” Logan said.

Wilt’s bill, she said, could help in rare instances where people turn in smaller batches of registration applications. If a recurring problem was found in those applications, Logan said, contact information collected as a result of Wilt’s bill could allow her office to contact the person who dropped them off and alert them to the problem. At the same time, Logan added, issues with an individual registration application are something her office addresses directly with the voter – not the person who assisted them in completing the application or delivered it to her office.

Regardless, Wilt’s bill will once again head to Northam’s desk.

“I’ll be surprised if he signs it,” Wilt said.

ERA ratification measure passes Senate, but not House

Had a measure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment passed this year, Virginia would have been the 38th — and final — state needed to ratify the constitutional change approved by Congress in 1972. While it passed the Senate – with Obenshain joining 13 other Republicans in voting against it – the bill died in a House subcommittee in January. In a story published two weeks later, The Citizen spoke with several local advocates of the amendment about their next steps. During the final days of the session, a procedural effort by Democratic delegates to circumvent the subcommittee vote and bring the measure to the full House floor failed by one vote.

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