- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

RICHMOND — The General Assembly’s black caucus yesterday outlined a legislative agenda focusing on voting rights, state contracts with minority businesses and transportation services for Virginians without cars.

The 17-member caucus is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for felons to regain their voting rights.

Felons must now petition the governor for restoration of their rights.

The constitutional amendment backed by the black caucus would allow the legislature to create a process for automatic restoration of the rights of nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society, including any conditions of probation or parole.

Similar efforts have failed in several previous sessions.

“If you don’t consistently try, you won’t get it done,” said Delegate Onzlee Ware, Roanoke Democrat.

The caucus also is advocating legislation authorizing localities to provide election materials and ballots in languages other than English and requiring polling places to be as accessible as possible to voters who depend on public transportation.

Legislation intended to encourage more state contracts with small businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities, also are part of the caucus agenda.

One bill would address the consolidation or “bundling” of state contracts for procurement, services or construction — a process that often cuts out minority subcontractors. The bill would develop guidelines for unbundling contracts when doing so would not increase costs or sacrifice quality.

Another measure would establish an office of Small Business Advocacy within the Virginia Department of Business Assistance. The office would evaluate the impact of state policies on small business and advocate for change.

Delegate Dwight C. Jones, Richmond Democrat, noted that transportation is the top issue in the 2006 session, and the caucus wants to make sure all Virginians benefit from whatever the legislature accomplishes.

The caucus is supporting a bill by Mr. Jones requiring the Commonwealth Transportation Board to address the needs of people with limited mobility, including the inner-city working poor who must rely on public transit.

While acknowledging that they have a lot of work ahead, caucus members said they are encouraged by the appointment of five black delegates — the most ever — to the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“We’re in the game,” said Mr. Ware, one of the five blacks on the 24-member spending panel. “Now it’s up to us to take advantage of it.”

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