- Associated Press - Friday, February 24, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginians may be less likely to lose their driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and minor drug offenses under legislation headed to the governor.

The General Assembly passed legislation Friday that would allow those convicted of a first-time marijuana offense to avoid an automatic driver’s license suspension of six months.

The legislature also passed a bill intended to make it easier for people with unpaid court debts to enter into a deferred or installment payment plan to avoid having their licenses suspended. The bill also sets a $100 down payment limit for payment plans. The legislation is similar to new rules enacted by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Both bills passed with broad bipartisan support and now head to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who advocated earlier this year for making driver’s license suspension laws less strict.

Advocates have long pushed for reforms on driver’s license suspensions, saying Virginia’s current rules disproportionately hurt the poor. The Legal Aid Justice Center is currently suing the state, saying its automatic suspension policy for unpaid debts is unconstitutional.

The center said more than 900,000 Virginians - about one in six of the state’s drivers - had their licenses suspended because of unpaid court costs or fines in 2015.

Republican Del. Manoli Loupassi said the payment plan set out in the legislation was intended to reduce the number of people driving with suspended licenses.

“We don’t want to have laws in place that people readily ignore,” Loupassi said.

Friday was the second-to-last day of the 2017 legislative session, as lawmakers are set to pass a budget and adjourn Saturday.

Lawmakers also passed ethics legislation Friday clarifying that tickets to watch sporting events in luxury boxes are not exempt from the state’s $100 gift gap.

An earlier version of the bill would have allowed lobbyists who are friends with lawmakers to give gifts worth more than $100 on birthdays and other special occasions. That provision was removed from the final bill.

Virginia legislators have been grappling with ethics rules for four straight years, prompted by a high profile gift scandal during former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s final year in office.

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