- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

RICHMOND The Virginia House yesterday advanced a bill that would force school boards to come up with a policy to make sure materials sent home with students is neutral on political issues. The bill, which comes up for a final vote today, passed a tentative vote 52-45.

The bill stems from incidents last month in Fairfax County in which students at two schools were sent home with fliers from the school PTAs telling parents to oppose bills before the General Assembly that would have allowed tuition tax credits for parents of students schooled at home or at private schools.

The bill's sponsor, Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., Fairfax Republican, said he has heard of a number of other incidents in which advocacy fliers were distributed to students, including ones telling parents which candidates to vote for.

Opponents said the law, which calls for neutrality of information sent home with students, is too vague to be usable. They also worried about stifling activities in government and civics classes.

Even if the bill becomes law, it would have to be passed again next year for the provisions to take effect because some delegates wanted to send a message to school boards they consider the issue serious, but wanted to give the Assembly another year to be sure of the law's language.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III's administration has once again tweaked its six-year, $2.5 billion transportation plan in the hopes of picking up the votes necessary to win approval of a skeptical legislative committee.

Revisions offered yesterday by Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra were the second in two days and the third major change since the legislation was introduced.

Initially, the plan called for using all of the remaining unallocated money from Virginia's share of the tobacco settlement to help pay for transportation improvements. On Sunday, Mr. Gilmore revamped his plan so that one quarter of that money about $150 million over the next six years would go to health care instead.

Yesterday, he revised the tobacco settlement plan again so that an additional $71 million over the next six years would go to health care.

It's not clear whether those changes will be enough to win backing of the House Appropriations Committee, which decided yesterday not to vote on the issue until today.

The committee voted 16-13 against Mr. Gilmore's proposal Friday; several committee members said they were leery of using the tobacco money as Mr. Gilmore envisioned.

Some legislators objected to using tobacco settlement money to build roads. Others said it was financially unwise to take the tobacco money up front because doing so could potentially cost tens of millions of dollars in the long term.

Committee co-chairman Delegate Vincent Callahan, Fairfax Republican, who supports the governor's proposal, said Mr. Gilmore has tried to address legislators' concerns.

"He's bent significantly. I think he's already made very significant concessions," Mr. Callahan said.

He suggested Democrats have taken a partisan stand against the governor's plan.

Steve Vaughan, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, said Democrats have discussed the issue in their daily caucus meetings but have not taken an official position.

Mr. Vaughan said it was obvious that Mr. Gilmore has failed to convince even some Republicans who hold a majority on the committee of the plan's merits.

"The Republicans obviously did not have the votes to get it out of committee or they would have voted," he said.

The committee will also consider several alternatives to Mr. Gilmore's plan today, including Democratic proposals that leave the money from the tobacco settlement untouched.

For the second consecutive year, the Senate refused to pass a bill that would have banned open bottles and cans in the passenger area of cars. Currently, it is illegal for the driver to have alcohol, but passengers can drink, and already open cans and bottles can be carried. The bill would require that those cans and bottles be moved to the trunk.

The bill's backers said federal highway funds are contingent on the state adopting this new rule, much as the federal government forced states to raise their drinking age in the mid-1980s by threatening to withhold highway funds. But Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, the Fairfax Democrat who sponsored the bill in the '80s to raise the drinking age, said he did not think the government would actually cut off funds over the open-container issue.

Opponents also posed myriad scenarios where an open bottle could be in a car, either from someone taking home a bottle of wine from a restaurant or carrying empty cans to be recycled.

The Senate referred the bill to the Courts of Justice Committee, but that committee will not act on any Senate bills for the rest of this session, meaning the bill lies dormant for another year.

This roundup is based in part on wire service reports.

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