Friday, January 29, 2010

Sen. Mark Obenshain ... "The budget, voter ID, clotheslines ..."

Gone With the Wind: The Budget, Voter ID, and Yes, Clotheslines, in the Senate of Virginia

By Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg)
Virginia State Senate

Another week of session is behind us, and although actual budget negotiations still lie ahead, producing a balanced budget remains the matter on everyone's mind.

The budget will be balanced, of course; the law requires it. The real question is how we'll go about it, and that's where the members of the General Assembly go their separate ways. One of my colleagues across the aisle, Senator Edd Houck, made it clear where the other side stands, calling for tax increases and speaking of the importance of preserving government jobs. Houck's most likely target is the car tax - cutting the $950 million reimbursement to local governments, which will result in re-imposition of the full car tax and an additional bill, likely to average between $450 and $600, for virtually every household in Virginia.

No one wants layoffs, and certainly, one hopes that any necessary staff reductions will come through eliminating vacant posts, but my colleague's comments underscore a fundamental difference of opinion on the government's role and function. Governments employ people, and many of those employees are fine civil servants, but governments do not exist for the purpose of employing people; they exist to provide essential services. If we can deliver those services more efficiently, we must do so.

Governor McDonnell has made it clear that he will not sign any budget that includes tax hikes. I firmly believe that we can meet our budget challenges without raising taxes, but to do that, we all need to be on the same page -- and soon. The House of Delegates recently voted 97-0 to reject Tim Kaine's income tax surcharge proposal, and I strongly believe that the Senate should follow suit, allowing us to all work from the knowledge that tax hikes are not on the table.

Yesterday, fourteen other members of the General Assembly and I unveiled the legislative priorities of the Conservative Caucus, a group I co-chair with Delegate Ben Cline which exists to provide a forum for conservative members of both chambers to discuss and work with each other to advance a commonsense conservative agenda. You can read the full agenda, which includes several of my bills, here.

Another one of my bills died on a party line vote in committee this week. The bill, which would have required voters to provide some form of identification, is a simple, commonsense approach that has met with bipartisan support in other states. People disagree on the extent and impact of voter fraud, but we should all agree on simple, unobtrusive measures to combat it.

I understand the fears that new requirements will create additional burdens for eligible voters, but my bill takes pains to avoid this, permitting utility bills, government checks, pay stubs, and other forms of identification to be used in lieu of photo ID. Similarly, those who cannot produce any form of identification when they come to vote would be given the opportunity to cast a provisional ballot, which will be counted if they can later demonstrate their eligibility. It s a fair solution, I think, and it s one that courts have routinely upheld and that the bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission, headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker, have strongly endorsed.

It's also an idea that went down to defeat the other day, as SB 134 was passed by indefinitely on a 6-5 party line vote in committee. Given the evidence that a problem exists -- a Johns Hopkins University Study identified 1,500 deceased Marylanders who had "voted" in recent elections, one county in New Mexico found 75 registrants at a single address, and right here in Virginia, campaign headquarters, vacant lots, and non-existent addresses have all been listed on many registration forms -- it's disappointing to see such a bill rejected.

Elsewhere, you may have read about the pending transfer of convicted murderer Jens Soering to Germany, a request approved by Tim Kaine during his final days in office. If you're not familiar with the case, Soering was convicted of the brutal murder of his girlfriend's parents in 1985 and is currently serving two life sentences, with his girlfriend sentenced to ninety years as an accessory.

In one of his final acts as governor, Kaine filed the requisite paperwork to transfer Soering to Germany -- without consulting with or even notifying the victims' families before the decision had been made -- where he is expected to be released after two years (and in no event held more than ten). The other day, I signed an open letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder penned by my colleague, Senator Steve Newman, urging him to deny the transfer.

Also, have you heard about the latest in green technology, the alternative energy clothes dryer that harnesses solar and wind power? Some of us grew up calling it a clothes line, but here in the General Assembly it's a "natural drying device," and it's creating quite a stir.

No surprise, really. The newspapers get to trot out every possible groan-inducing pun, with one article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch alone saying the legislation "stretch[ed] out the Senate" and speculating that it would "get blown away" in the House, where "the prevailing winds were against it," despite the fact that it "breezed through the Senate."

So let's shine some sunlight on this thing, shall we? (Yes, I'm doing it, too.) Clotheslines have been around forever, and they're a fine and cost-effective way to accomplish a routine household chore. At issue, though, was whether they should be permitted in communities with restrictive covenants despite ordinances to the contrary -- whether, in other words, someone who bought property with the understanding that certain restrictions were in place should have no say in a change in the terms of his agreement with the homeowners' association because of a mandate handed down from Richmond.

I say no. There are few legitimate reasons for government to override private contracts or interfere with contractual property rights, and this is certainly not one of them. And it's just one of the odd trifles that keep cropping up this session, even as we prepare to take on a far more pressing challenges.

Finally, this week afforded me an opportunity to meet with some friends and neighbors from the district, which is always one of the highlights of my weeks here in Richmond. Members of my local Chambers of Commerce, credit union employees, members of police and sheriffs offices across the district, and representatives of various local businesses, including from the hospitality and tourism industry, all stopped by, along with many other constituents. As always, I enjoy hearing from my constituents, so if you're in Richmond, feel free to stop by, and even if you can't do that, you can always pick up the phone and call my office at (804) 698-7526 or email me at I look forward to hearing from you!

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