Gov amends bills banning drones, motorist texting

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Bob McDonnell is carving out a few exemptions to legislation that would have imposed an outright ban on unmanned surveillance drone aircraft in Virginia, and he is moderating fines for a measure that would ban texting while driving.

The amendments, announced by the Republican governor's office Monday, are among scores of amendments he's offering to legislation the General Assembly passed in its 2013 session. McDonnell faced a midnight deadline to sign or amend legislation, the last such opportunity he will have in the single, four-year term that Virginia uniquely allows its governors.

Larger issues still remained unfinished Monday evening — less than four hours before the deadline. They included actions that McDonnell is considering on his transportation funding reform bill and stark conditions written into the state budget for allowing Medicaid to expand in Virginia.

Both measures were thrown into limbo Friday when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican who is unchallenged for the GOP nomination to succeed McDonnell, ruled that major features of the transportation bill and Medicaid expansion provisions violate Virginia's Constitution.

The delicate bipartisan transportation compromise represents the first successful effort in decades to boost the state's ebbing revenues for building new roads and repairing and maintaining existing ones.

McDonnell's amendments on the drone moratorium bill retain a broad ban on the use of spy drones but with specific exceptions when lives are in danger. His amendment would allow for law-enforcement uses such as search-and-rescue operations for people who are missing or other cases involving those known to be in imminent danger.

The governor also ensured that the legislation would not stop the use of unmanned aircraft by institutions of higher education and other research endeavors. He also would put the Department of Criminal Justice Services in charge of developing guidelines for appropriate future drone use by police.

On texting while driving, McDonnell would not change the primary aim of the legislation — making the use of smart phones such as iPhones or BlackBerry devices a primary offense that allows police to stop any driver they catch texting, sending or reading e-mail, surfing the Web or using other applications. Texting while driving is a secondary offense now, meaning an officer must witness another offense to stop a texting motorist.

It does, however, make fines for texting while driving more commensurate with those commonly imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.

As passed, the bill specifies a minimum fine of $250 for a first offense and $500 for a second and subsequent offense. It also prescribes a $500 minimum fine for a conviction for reckless driving while texting.

McDonnell's amendments would reduce each of those fines by half.

The legislature reconvenes for a single day on April 3 to consider gubernatorial amendments and vetoes. Amendments may be rejected by a simple majority vote of at least 51 of the 100 House members and 21 of the 40 senators against the amendment. Overriding a veto requires two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate.

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