- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

RICHMOND — A bill that would have allowed for statewide wagering on a computerized game that replays previously run horse races suffered a lopsided legislative loss yesterday that likely dooms it.

On a vote of 25-72, the House rejected Senate amendments to the legislation that supporters claimed could have generated up to $350 million a year for maintaining Virginia’s roads.

Opponents argued the untested estimated revenues might be counted as a source of money in the closing hours of fragile negotiations toward a new transportation proposal.

That prospect, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., could make a transportation compromise unpalatable to the House.

“You’re going to throw a monkey wrench into very fragile negotiations that are taking place as we speak where all of a sudden there is this perhaps large source of new revenue coming in that we don’t know what it’s going to be, how much it’s going to be,” said Mr. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican.

“The net result is that the negotiations will fail,” Mr. Callahan warned his House colleagues.

Six delegates and five senators have been racing since Monday against a Saturday adjournment deadline to agree to a new package for funding roads, rails and transit. It’s the paramount issue in the last General Assembly session before November’s elections for all 140 legislative seats.

Negotiators say they are still trying to resolve differences over a statewide transportation package and whether to include millions of dollars from the state general fund, which pays for such core services as schools, public safety and care for the aged, indigent and disabled.

A conference report is not expected until today at the earliest, and a final vote is unlikely until tomorrow.

Smoking signs

Virginia restaurants that allow smoking would be required to post signs that say so at their entrances if legislation sent yesterday to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine becomes law.

However, restaurants displaying “Smoking Permitted” signs would no longer be required to offer a nonsmoking section — a provision that public health advocates consider a blow to efforts to protect diners and restaurant workers from the hazards of secondhand smoke.

The Senate voted 23-17 to pass the bill, which already had cleared the House of Delegates.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, has until March 26 to sign, veto or amend it.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, offered the legislation as an alternative to a sweeping ban on public smoking proposed by Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, Roanoke Republican. Mr. Griffith said he thinks his bill will nudge most restaurants to go smoke-free within a couple of years.

Mr. Bell, whose bill died in a House committee, urged his Senate colleagues to pass Mr. Griffith’s bill and let the governor decide whether to amend it to make it stronger.

Utility re-regulation

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s desk is the next stop for legislation backed by Virginia’s dominant power company to end utility deregulation by establishing a hybrid form of regulation.

The Senate voted 35-3, with one abstention, yesterday to give final approval to the measure. An identical bill won House passage by a 77-13 vote.

Dominion Resources had pressed for approval of the bill, which critics say gives the State Corporation Commission considerably less discretion over rates than it had before the electric utility industry was deregulated in 1999.

Deregulation was a flop because the expected competition failed to develop, prompting the return to regulation — but under a new scheme that supporters say will help Dominion attract the capital it needs to build new power plants while protecting the interests of consumers.

Chief Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims presided over negotiations that produced the final bill. Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Dominion stockholder and sponsor of the bill, emphasized that the attorney general’s office is statutorily tasked with looking out for Virginia consumers.

Opponents insisted, however, that consumers will pay more than they would if Virginia merely returned to the regulatory scheme that existed before deregulation.

Payday lending

A day after voting to send a package of payday lending industry reforms to the governor, senators fearful he would make dramatic changes decided yesterday to instead let legislators work out differences.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, had threatened to make significant changes to the bill. Instead of trusting it to Mr. Kaine, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw said he would effectively kill his bill if differences couldn’t be worked out before the legislature adjourns on Saturday.

Mr. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, wouldn’t be able to pull the bill after Mr. Kaine acted on it.

The governor has 30 days to either sign into law, veto or amend bills sent to him. A majority is required in each chamber to override the governor’s changes.

Mr. Kaine has expressed a desire to cap the annual interest rate payday lenders could charge. Industry supporters repeatedly have rejected interest-rate caps, saying they would put the lenders out of business and take away an option for cash-strapped Virginians who need a couple of hundred dollars until their next payday.

“Rather than have this thing go back and forth over the next six weeks with intense lobbying by everybody who’s involved in this bill on the outside to all 140 members, what I’ve decided to do is to try to get this thing straightened out before we leave here on Saturday,” said Mr. Saslaw.

The Senate reconsidered the vote it made on Wednesday in which it agreed to changes made to the bill in the House. In disagreeing with the amendments, it sends the bill into negotiations between House and Senate “conferees.”

Any agreement still must go to Mr. Kaine for consideration.

Eminent domain

Bills that make it tougher for governments to take private property to be used for private development projects cleared the House and Senate yesterday.

Delegate Rob B. Bell III’s House-passed measure passed on a 33-3 vote, but amendments to the bill send it back to the House of Delegates and an uncertain fate.

It was amended to preserve the right of governments to condemn blighted property.

Sen. Patricia Smith Ticer, Alexandria Democrat, said she had heard homeowners in her district express alarm about an inability of a city to clean up such areas.

“I walked and talked to people; their foremost concern was the run-down property in their neighborhood that was reducing their property values,” Mrs. Ticer said.

In the House, bills by Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, and Kenneth Thomas Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican, were passed overwhelmingly by similar margins. Mr. Norment’s bill passed on a vote of 85-10, and Mr. Cuccinelli’s passed by a vote of 87-9.

The measures arose to blunt a June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case from New London, Conn., that the city could take several private homes through eminent domain to make way for a hotel and convention center.

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