Facing increased national scrutiny, state GOP downplays radical bills
By Brad Fulton
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Facing mounting criticism and increased national attention for a spate of legislative initiatives of a social nature, House Republicans say they’re still focused on jobs, education, government reform and public safety – and dispute Democratic charges that they’re pushing a “social issues” agenda – even though by their own count less than half their bills this session deal with economic, public safety, public education and governmental reform.
Members of the House Republican Caucus discussed their priorities after “crossover day,” the mid-February, mid-session deadline for each legislative chamber to act on its own bills.
“Of 603 bills passed in the House, over 42 percent have dealt with issues of jobs, education, government reform and safety,” said House Speaker William Howell of Fredericksburg. “These are the four main points of the Republican Party.”
Democrats have accused Republicans of being obsessed with social issues such as restricting abortion and gay rights and expanding gun rights. They point to measures such as House Bill 1, which would grant “personhood” rights to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Some critics say HB 1 could outlaw abortion and even some contraceptive methods, but the bill’s proponents disagree.
At a press conference Wednesday, House Republicans acknowledged that bills involving social issues have received a lot of press coverage and commentary. But they said those bills are a small – albeit far reaching for individual freedoms – part of the GOP agenda.
“I think the proof in the pudding is in the fact that less than 2.5 percent of bills introduced by Republicans have been social issues,” Howell said.
GOP leaders displayed a pie chart showing that only 2.2 percent of the bills approved by the House concerned social issues. In contrast:
42.3 percent concerned education, government reform, public safety and jobs.
12.3 percent involved judicial issues.
10.8 percent address local matters.
And the rest concerned transportation, energy, the environment, health care, veterans and other issues.
One of the education-related bills would end the tenure-like system for public school teachers. Under House Bill 576, new teachers and principals would receive three-year contracts instead of continuing contracts – making it easier to fire poor performers.
“It’s going to be a good thing for good teachers, and bad teachers may find that the profession is not for them,” said Delegate Richard Bell, R-Staunton, who sponsored HB 576.
In the Senate, Republicans also touted their record this session.
Of the 684 Senate bills, 403 were approved by the upper chamber by crossover, the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus said.
“Our members should be proud of what we have accomplished so far this session,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment of Williamsburg.
“We have approved important measures that will spur economic growth, streamline our government, and improve the quality of education in Virginia. And we have accomplished this by administering the legislative process fairly and transparently, allowing bills to be presented and discussed by the senators in full committee.”
The Senate approved several components of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s agenda, including his call to reduce and streamline the state’s boards and commissions. It also passed measures aimed at spurring economic development and creating jobs.
“The wide range of bills that were considered and approved is particularly impressive,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle of Mechanicsville, who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus.
“Bills on jobs and economic development, education, public safety, government reform, health care, and veterans’ affairs have all been approved by the Senate and are headed to the House. We are on track to have one of the most productive sessions in recent memory.”
Each house now will take up legislation passed by the other chamber. Moreover, the General Assembly must turn its attention to crafting a state budget for the 2012-14 biennium.
The session is scheduled to end March 10.