- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

The Virginia House yesterday narrowly and without debate approved changing sodomy from a class-6 felony to a class-4 misdemeanor.

Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has introduced a bill every year for at least the past six years legalizing sodomy for consenting adults. But this year, rather than trying to legalize it, she proposed reducing it to a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine rather than the one to five years in jail maximum for the felony.

A coalition of Northern Virginian Republicans joined with mostly Democrats to pass the bill 50-49.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

For the first time in three attempts, the House also approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would make adults who assault sports officials serve a mandatory two days in jail. A judge could not suspend the sentence.

"These people are being asked to do something special. We are putting them in a special class," said the bill's sponsor, Delegate John S. Reid, Henrico Republican. He pointed to an adult soccer player in Fairfax County who, two years ago, was fined $10,000 for injuring a soccer official. Mr. Reid also gave as an example a Floyd County-Giles County football game last year in which a family member of a player, upset at the way the clock was run, hit one of the referees after the game.

Several lawmakers told of their experiences refereeing and of the poor behavior of parents.

"I learned obscenities coaching and refereeing basketball games I can't even begin to tell you," said Delegate Harry R. Purkey, Virginia Beach Republican.

The vote was 68-30.

Delegates approved a bill by Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican, that would require public schools to install software to block obscene material on computers hooked up to the Internet.

About 80 percent of schools already block obscenity through software or through their Internet service provider. The state will pay for the other 20 percent to do so.

The bill passed 58-39. It, too, now heads to the Senate.

Legislators will have another $115 million to help them patch any holes in their two-year, $48.1 billion state budget.

New revenue estimates now forecast an additional $174.4 million pouring into state coffers for the current fiscal year and the upcoming two-year budget cycle. The state constitution requires that $59.7 million go into a Rainy Day Fund. The remainder $114.7 million can be appropriated by the General Assembly. That represents about 0.2 percent of the overall proposed budget.

A bill that would give the state authority to lease land on its highway rights-of-way for construction of cellular phone towers has cleared the Senate by one vote.

The legislation would restore to the Virginia Department of Transportation much of the authority it lost in November when the state Supreme Court ruled that cellular phone companies can't circumvent local zoning boards by leasing VDOT land.

The vote was 19-18.

The House yesterday passed legislation to increase benefits for jobless workers in high-unemployment areas.

Delegate Ward Armstrong's bill was intended to help textile workers in the Martinsville area who have lost jobs due to factory closings. He amended the original bill to cover other areas.

As it now stands, the bill would increase unemployment compensation for people in localities where unemployment is at least double the statewide rate. The most recent statewide rate was 2.6 percent. Mr. Armstrong said the bill would cover about 30 localities.

Mr. Gilmore said it's unfair to increase benefits for some unemployed Virginians and not others. Republicans took their cue from Mr. Gilmore and killed the bill in committee. But Mr. Armstrong revived it on the House floor as an amendment to another bill.

Mr. Armstrong's amendment passed by only one vote 49-48. The House then voted 53-45 to pass the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

The amount counties and cities can tax phone users would be capped, and a state board would assume the job of overseeing development of emergency 911 systems under a bill advanced yesterday by the state Senate.

The measure, passed and sent to the House of Delegates on a 22-17 vote, would rein in localities that collect far more money from the tax than they spend on emergency communications centers, said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Mr. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, and Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, submitted the legislation after the State Crime Commission last month said that many localities are imposing a 911 tax that far exceeds the cost of processing emergency calls.

The Senate-approved bill limits the tax to no more than $3 on monthly local telephone service bills. Mr. Stolle said he would try to have the amount reduced as it makes its way through the House.

It also requires local telephone carriers and mobile telephone providers to collect a fee of 75 cents per customer each month to be paid into state funds setting up wireline and wireless 911 funds, and it sets up a board to oversee setting up enhanced 911 coverage statewide.

Geographically, about 23 percent of the state lacks 911 service that can automatically provide emergency dispatchers with such information as the location of callers, Mr. Stolle said.

Opponents of the bill said it would gut the authority of localities.

The Senate voted 24-15 in favor of a bill barring the use of state money to help poor people file lawsuits. The bill restricts state-supported legal-aid attorneys from representing indigent clients in such matters as redistricting litigation and lobbying, defending drug dealers who are being evicted from their apartments, abortion-related litigation, welfare-reform challenges, legal assistance to prisoners and class-action lawsuits.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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