Felons' rights bills barely clears Virginia Senate panel

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Local,Virginia,Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Legislation backed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to automatically restore nonviolent felons' voting rights emerged from a Senate subcommittee without a recommendation Tuesday.

A motion to recommend the bill failed on a 3-3 vote, with all of the votes against the measure coming from McDonnell's fellow Republicans. The tie vote was enough to keep the measure alive for the full Privileges and Elections Committee.

The Senate action came a day after a GOP-dominated House of Delegates subcommittee killed that chamber's version of the legislation and less than a week after McDonnell made a surprise pitch for the historically Democratic-backed proposal in his State of the Commonwealth speech.

"It would give me a great deal of pride to be able to get this through this legislative session," said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth and sponsor of the Senate proposal.

Most versions of the legislation, including the one killed in the House, called for a constitutional amendment establishing a procedure for automatic restoration of nonviolent felons' rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury after they served their sentences. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Senate applies only to voting rights.

Virginia is one of only two states that permanently strip all felons of their civil rights. Only the governor can restore those rights, and McDonnell has implemented an accelerated procedure that has allowed him to restore the rights of more than 4,400 felons, more than any other Virginia chief executive.

After hearing testimony from Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, the subcommittee amended the legislation to authorize the General Assembly to specify which nonviolent felonies would be covered. Cuccinelli cited voter fraud as one nonviolent felony that "strikes me as inappropriate as one for restoration."

However, he said the General Assembly has increased so many offenses from misdemeanors to felonies -- a trend known as "felony creep" -- that being a felon today is not necessarily as bad it was a century ago.

"I've never seen us lower a penalty for anything, ever," said Cuccinelli, a former state senator. For example, he noted that the General Assembly for years has rejected attempts to raise the felony threshold for theft.

"Someone steals $200 and permanently loses his voting rights. I think that's just too much," Cuccinelli said.

Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg, who voted against the measure, complained that it includes no mechanism to ensure that felons aren't facing new charges before their voting rights are restored.

McDonnell's policy director, Jeff Palmore, urged the subcommittee to endorse the legislation.

"This is something the governor feels personally very strong about," he said.

The governor still has time to twist arms, although the overwhelming rejection of the proposal by the House subcommittee suggests the odds of success are long.

If the measure does pass, it will have to be approved again by the 2014 General Assembly before going to the voters in a referendum.

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