- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — A legislative committee yesterday endorsed a bill requiring Virginia public schools to close on the Martin Luther King holiday.

However, the House Education Committee amended Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones’s bill to allow schools to open that day if they need to make up instructional time that was lost because of bad weather or other reasons.

Mr. Jones, Richmond Democrat, said the amendment guts his bill and he will try to have it stricken on the House floor.

The bill was prompted by last year’s decision by Chesterfield County school officials to use the King holiday for a makeup day. Civil rights activists were outraged by the decision.

Representatives of the Newport News and Fairfax County public schools spoke against Mr. Jones’ bill. They said school boards should retain authority over school calendars.

The vote was 10-to-9 to send the bill to the House floor.

A House committee yesterday approved legislation requiring public schools to instruct students that emergency contraceptives can be used to prevent pregnancy after a rape.

The Education Committee voted 13-to-7 to send Delegate James H. Dillard II’s bill to the House floor.

The measure would add the use of the so-called “morning-after” pill in response to sexual assault to the state’s Family Life Education guidelines.

However, the panel referred two other bills dealing with emergency contraceptives to the Courts of Justice Committee. Those bills would prohibit public colleges from dispensing the pills.

Mr. Dillard, Fairfax County Republican and committee chairman, said House Speaker William J. Howell, Fredericksburg Republican, asked that the bills be sent to the courts committee.

Planned Parenthood lobbyist Ben Greenberg called the move “an insult to the legislative process.” He said the bills have nothing to do with the criminal and civil law issues ordinarily handled by the courts committee.

The House Finance Committee yesterday killed several tax increase proposals, including bills to increase the sales and cigarette taxes.

The committee’s rejection of about two dozen tax increase measures did not appear to bode well for Gov. Mark Warner’s sweeping tax reform proposal, which the panel had yet to consider by late afternoon.

Mr. Warner’s proposal was one of more than 40 tax bills on the committee’s docket. The Democratic governor wants to cut some taxes and raise others, including the sales and cigarette taxes, to raise about $1 billion in additional revenue.

Tax increases are shaping up as a major point of contention between the House, dominated by conservative Republicans, and the more moderate GOP-controlled Senate.

Anticipating a hostile reception for Mr. Warner’s proposal in the House committee, House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat, issued a statement declaring that Virginia is “caught in the crossfire of bitter ideological warfare inside the Republican majority in this General Assembly.”

He predicted that House Republican leaders will try to artificially inflate revenue estimates to avoid raising taxes.

“Already some in the partisan militia are talking about a billion dollars that is going to appear like magic from some great economic miracle in the sky,” he said.

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, has introduced a tax package that would raise slightly more money than Mr. Warner’s. His plan includes a gasoline tax increase as well as sales and cigarette tax increases. The measure is pending in committee.

Lawmakers would determine which of their meetings at the General Assembly are open to the press and public under a bill that passed a House committee yesterday.

Delegate H. Morgan Griffith, Roanoke County Republican, introduced the legislation to clear up what he calls a gray area in the current Freedom of Information Act. His bill gives the Joint Rules Committee the purview to decide which meetings should be open.

He said the issue arose after Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, issued an opinion in January that said partisan gatherings of legislators have to be open if members are discussing plans to vote on pending legislation.

Democrats in the House and Senate have made their caucus meetings open to the press, but Republicans have not.

Mr. Griffith said, however, the gray area extends to include private meetings of more than two legislators, which are technically against the law.

“Reasonable people are reading the same law and coming up with different conclusions,” he said.

The resolution, which passed the House Rules Committee 13-3, was opposed by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) and various press groups.

Forrest M. Landon, executive director of VCOG, said the measure “reverses 35 years of public policy.”

A Senate committee has given preliminary approval to legislation that would create a state authority responsible for improving rail transportation, including the Virginia Railway Express.

The bill from Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke County Democrat, and Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania County Democrat, would create the Rail Transportation Development Authority — similar to the Virginia Port Authority.

The bill made it through the Senate Local Government Committee yesterday and now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

Mr. Edwards says railroad companies cannot afford necessary infrastructure improvements on things like bridges, signals and tracks.

The Rail Authority would choose rail projects and float bonds to pay for them.

Mr. Edwards pointed to the TransDominion Express project that would carry passengers from Bristol to Richmond. He says better rail service would reduce pressure on interstate highways, especially the Interstate 81 corridor.

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