- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

RICHMOND A Virginia Senate panel yesterday approved a bill that would prohibit schools or parent-teacher associations from sending children home with political or campaign fliers.

The bill stems from incidents in Fairfax County this year, first reported in The Washington Times, in which students at two schools were sent home with fliers urging parents to oppose a plan before the General Assembly for tax credits for home-schooled and private school students.

A new version of the bill, sponsored by Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., Fairfax Republican, passed the Senate Education and Health Committee on an 8-5 vote yesterday. It now goes to the full Senate floor, where it is likely to pass. Then the House, which approved an earlier version of the bill, must approve the new version.

The Education and Health Committee was just one of three assembly committees meeting yesterday to try to clear their dockets before today, the deadline for bills to come out of committee. The Senate and House Courts of Justice Committees also met to dispose of the bills still before them.

As it passed the Senate committee, Mr. O'Brien's bill would require school boards to come up with a policy on prohibited material, but the policy must clearly include anything that advocates or opposes a candidate, ballot question (such as school bonds) or any issue pending before the local school board, the local governing body or the state assembly.

"I think it's a better bill than it was before because it goes after the single issue that bothers most people, which was the use of students in political advocacy," Mr. O'Brien said after the new version of the bill passed the committee.

One of the bill's biggest supporters on the committee was Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, who told of fliers being sent home urging parents to vote for a particular School Board candidate in last November's election.

But representatives from both PTAs and the state School Board Association opposed the bill, arguing that local school boards don't need to be told what to do.

Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, agreed: "I think we should leave matters like this and many other things in local control."

Fairfax County and some other school boards already have policies to control what may and may not be sent home with students.

But Mr. O'Brien pointed out that the flier that went home opposing tax credits in Fairfax County went home under the auspices and logo of a school PTA, and county officials said it was perfectly acceptable under the county's existing policy. He also said policies such as that of Fairfax that give preference to just the PTA but not other nonprofit groups, invite a court challenge.

Several committee members, including Mr. Saslaw and Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, belong to both the Education and Health and Courts of Justice committees. They spent yesterday darting back and forth between committee meetings so as not to miss important debates or votes.

Sunday committee work is unlike any other day at the assembly. Lawmakers dressed down yesterday, with some wearing loud plaid shirts or garish sweaters.

But lawmakers were all business, clearing their dockets of critical bills, such as the bill before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee to prevent Virginia counties, cities and towns from joining the list of jurisdictions nationwide that are suing gun manufacturers to recoup costs associated with gun violence.

That committee also debated and pared down a bill that would have offered convicts on death row an entire new avenue of appeals based on newly discovered evidence.

Currently, those sentenced to death have 21 days after the order is entered by a judge in which to find and present new evidence. After years of trying, Delegate James F. Almand, Arlington Democrat, had gotten the full House to pass a bill allowing up to three years for appeal on new evidence.

But a majority on the committee believed Mr. Almand's bill set up a system that would mean years tacked on to the appeals process, and they rejected his version. Instead they passed a version that extends the 21-day period to 45 days.

Still, the committee did pass a version of the bill. That means it can be altered closer to its original form on the Senate floor, and would still have to go on to conference after that where a stronger version could be approved.

The Courts of Justice Committee unanimously endorsed legislation to make it easier for nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights. Felons currently must petition the governor for restoration of their rights.

Delegate Jerrauld C. Jones, Norfolk Democrat, originally wanted to give circuit judges the authority to restore rights, subject to the governor's veto. That bill was killed by the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

However, with support from the governor's office, Mr. Jones revived a modified version of the bill in the courts committee. The new version would allow nonviolent felons, except those convicted of drug distribution or election fraud, to petition the Circuit Court. If the judge found that the petitioner had completed his sentence and any probationary period and had no new charges pending, an order restoring voting rights would be sent to the governor for his approval.

Mr. Jones said the bill shifts the burden for making sure a petitioner is qualified to the court a change that should lead to speedier action by the governor.

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