Governor McAuliffe Signs Key Scholarship Bill, Other Bills Waiting His Action

While the General Assembly adjourned, temporarily, last Saturday, legislation remains in the pipeline, awaiting Governor Terry McAuliffe's signature, amendment or veto. There is good news on one important bill, however, while we wait on his action on others. First, the governor did sign SB 269 last week, a bill that makes an important change to the Education Improvement Scholarship Program. Adopted two years ago, the program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship programs that help low-income students attend private schools. The change adopted this week allows those making the donation to take advantage of the tax credit in the year they make the donation. The original law required that people wait a year to get the tax credit, making the program less attractive than other tax credits. According to recent statistics, more than $1.1 million has been donated to qualifying Virginia scholarship organizations and 275 low-income students have enrolled in 30 different schools using the resulting scholarships, which average $2,456.

Senator Bill Stanley (R-20, Moneta) patroned the bill. Delegate Jimmie Massie (R-72, Henrico) also did important work on this issue this session.

More education choice legislation passed in the form HB 157 and its companion bill SB 276. These two bills will increase the availability of charter schools to families by reducing some of the enrollment requirements, such as leaving to a lottery whether siblings can attend the same charter school. This will allow families relief from sending their children to different schools in disparate locations in their county or city, as well as a potential disparity in education among their children.

These bills also remove obstacles for school districts that want to save old or historic schools that no longer suffice for today's larger enrollments and provide them to charter school operators for specialized curriculum schools. Saving these schools allows families to continue to send their children to a neighborhood school rather than one miles away; promotes education choice and creates competition in public education. Delegate Randy Minchew (R-10, Leesburg) and Senator Barbara Favola (D-31, Arlington) patron the respective bills.

The General Assembly also sent the governor two bills that provide clarity in Virginia's tax law regarding church property — SB 175, patroned by Senator Dick Black (R-13, Leesburg) and HB 156 patroned by Delegate Minchew. The legislation makes it a bit easier for churches to gain property tax exemptions on land they own that may not house their sanctuaries but are used primarily for augmenting the practice of worship, such as parking lots.

Senator Black also patroned SB 555, a bill that prohibits censorship by state government officials or agencies of the religious content of sermons made by chaplains of the Virginia National Guard while in Title 32 or state active duty status or of chaplains in the Virginia Defense Force, so long as such content does not urge disobedience of lawful orders. This non-controversial bill stirred some on the Left the wrong way, but passed with large majorities and we hope the governor will sign it.

Also sent to the governor is HB 258, legislation that protects free speech rights on Virginia's public college campuses. In recent years, colleges have implemented so called "free speech zones," which are anything but, in order to limit speech and activity. These zones are small, out of the way areas on campus, designed to isolate rallies, speeches and the like, while restricting speech everywhere else. On one campus (in a different state), a student was prohibited from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day! Based on a federal court ruling, this legislation would help protect student rights while still preserving administrators' authority to prevent campus disruptions.

Finally, HB 197, which Senate Democrats played games with for weeks, passed the Senate overwhelmingly and also is on its way to the governor. It was assumed dead by committee inaction as session came to a close. But a last minute committee vote forced by behind the scenes pressure allowed it to go to the Senate floor. Patroned by Delegate Steve Landes (R-25, Verona), it updates the current statute requiring supplemental materials used to teach the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other founding documents, are historically accurate and contain correct information about the reasons for these documents and what they actually mean and do. Although passed by the House early on and with a large majority, it languished in the Sneate Education and Health Committee and seemed certain to die by committee inaction. Behind the scenes pressure on the committee leadership led to an unscheduled meeting and eventual passage.