Va. House panel rejects felons' rights bill

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Bob McDonnell's fellow Republicans dealt him a quick and decisive setback on a high-profile issue Monday, rejecting his plea for legislation to make it easier for some felons to regain their voting rights.

Less than a week after McDonnell's surprise endorsement of a proposal historically championed by Democrats, a GOP-dominated House of Delegates subcommittee killed the proposed constitutional amendment on an unrecorded but overwhelming voice vote. The measure, if ratified by the voters, would have established a procedure for automatic restoration of nonviolent felons' civil rights after they complete their sentences.

McDonnell and Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who testified in favor of the bill at the subcommittee meeting, said they were disappointed by the panel's action.

"I believe strongly, as a matter of conscience, in protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens," McDonnell said. "And I believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming majority of states in eliminating our bureaucratic restoration process and creating a clear, predictable constitutional and statutory process."

Cuccinelli, this year's all-but-certain GOP nominee for governor, vowed to "continue to keep up the fight on this important issue."

Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently strip felons of those rights. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor. Several lawmakers from both parties submitted legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore nonviolent felons' rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury.

Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and one of the sponsors of the legislation, said in an interview after the subcommittee's vote that she also was disappointed in the outcome.

"This has clearly become a nonpartisan issue with the governor's support, and I think the majority of Virginians support it," Herring said.

McDonnell has made good on a pledge to accelerate the process, setting a nonbinding 60-day deadline for administration officials to make recommendations on petitions. When he endorsed making the process automatic in his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night, McDonnell also said his administration has restored the rights of more than 4,400 felons, beating the record set by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine.

But according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform and alternatives to prison, about 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences - including any probation and payment of any fines - still are barred from voting. That's second only to Florida's 1.3 million.

Legislators from both parties have lauded McDonnell's efforts to expedite the procedure, but many Republicans have said they preferred to maintain the current requirement of a case-by-case review.

"Some think we should restore felons' rights, but they should have to ask for it, which is essentially what we have now," said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem and another sponsor of the legislation.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said most first-time, nonviolent felons "pay no debt to society at all" because they are just put on probation.

"These are folks who haven't exhibited much personal responsibility in their lives at all," Gilbert said in a speech on the House floor. He said requiring those citizens to petition for restoration of their rights is not too much to ask.

Legislators have repeatedly rejected automatic restoration over the past several years, and Habeeb said "institutional inertia" also played a role in Monday's vote. He said he was not surprised by the outcome, but is optimistic that the tide is turning.

"Every time we have this conversation it advances the ball a little bit," Habeeb said.

However, nobody will know how many Republicans in the GOP-controlled House would have supported the proposal because internal rules allow subcommittees to kill legislation. By rejecting the measure, the subcommittee spared the full House a recorded floor vote on the issue in a year when all 100 delegate seats are up for election.

"At the very least, the House Republican leadership should have afforded a governor of their own party the courtesy of a full hearing on the House floor on this very important issue, which has implications for large numbers of Virginia residents," House Democratic leader David Toscano of Charlottesville said in a written statement.

Similar legislation is pending in the evenly divided, 40-member Senate. But even if it passes there, as expected, Monday's lopsided vote in the House subcommittee means the measure is likely dead for this session.

Constitutional amendments must be passed twice by the General Assembly, with a House election in between, before being presented to the voters. If the Legislature does not pass the measure this year, the earliest it could appear on the ballot is November 2016.