Update on Constitutional Amendments

February 23, 2021

After reviewing proposals on topics ranging from the expansion of real property tax exemptions to authorizing a two-term Governor, the General Assembly has selected two Constitutional amendments to advance to the next step of the process.  Members of the subcommittee of House Privileges and Elections that reviewed Constitutional amendments before crossover aimed to limit the number of amendments approved this session to two, with a potential for approving a third, so as to avoid a lengthy ballot in 2022, when the amendments would be placed before voters (assuming they pass in identical form in the 2022 session).

HJ 582 (Sickles)/SJ 270 (Ebbin) would remove current language limiting marriage to one man and one woman and provide that marriage is a fundamental right.  Both measures have passed both chambers.  HJ 555 (Herring), as passed by the House, provides for automatic restoration of political rights, including the right to vote, for an individual convicted of a felony upon completion of his/her sentence of imprisonment.  SJ 272 (Locke), as passed by the Senate, would provide that a person who meets the Constitutional requirements for voters (being a citizen of the United States, being 18 years of age, and meeting the residency and registration requirements) has a fundamental right to vote, with the exception of a person convicted of a felony during his/her term of incarceration, and a person who has been adjudicated as lacking the capacity to understand voting, unless capacity has been re-established.  HJ 555 and SJ 272 are in the process of being placed in conference to reconcile differences between the two approaches.

Below is a selection of unsuccessful Constitutional amendments of interest to local governments.

HJ 548 (Hurst) would have provided that it is the responsibility of the Commonwealth (not the General Assembly) to provide for a system of free public K-12 education, and required the Commonwealth to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and maintained (current language provides that the legislature “shall seek to ensure” such a program).  HJ 548 failed to emerge from the House Privileges and Elections Committee’s Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee.  A similar measure, SJ 275 (Stanley), would have required the General Assembly to provide for a system of free public K-12 education that affords equitable educational opportunities for all children, and to ensure that all children of school age are provided with equitable educational opportunities in funding an educational program meeting the standards of quality.  SJ 275 passed the Senate but was tabled in House Privileges and Elections.

HJ 614 (Mundon King), which was also left in the Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee, would have expanded the current mandatory real property tax exemption for the surviving spouses of servicemembers who are killed in action to include the surviving spouses of servicemembers who die while serving in the armed forces or who die from a service-connected injury or illness.  VACo opposed the expansion of this exemption, recommending that the legislature instead look to the income tax as a more equitable way to aid veterans’ families, including surviving spouses who do not own property.  SJ 297 (Bell), which was passed by indefinitely in Senate Finance and Appropriations, would have authorized the General Assembly to exempt or partially exempt from taxation the property owned by a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to provide services to veterans or servicemembers.  VACo opposed this measure as unnecessary, given the approval of a Constitutional amendment in 2002 authorizing local governing bodies to provide property tax exemptions for certain nonprofit organizations by ordinance, at local option.  VACo believes the current process allows appropriate consideration of community interests and needs and supports retaining this authority to make decisions about local revenues locally.

HJ 616 (Bourne) would have allowed the General Assembly to authorize a local governing body to provide for a full or partial real property tax exemption for real estate on which affordable housing is constructed.  This measure was also left in the Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee.

HJ 551 (Rasoul) would have allowed 16 year olds to register to vote and to vote in local elections.  This measure was also left in the Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee.

SJ 310 (Saslaw) would have provided that a regular session of the General Assembly in an odd-numbered year would last for 46 days and could be extended for a period not exceeding 14 days.  Current Constitutional language provides for a 30-day regular session in an odd-numbered year, with an option to extend the session for a period not to exceed 30 days.  The extension requires a super-majority vote; this year, Republicans in the General Assembly objected to the extension, resulting in a 30-day regular session and the Governor calling a special session for the balance of the 46 days.  SJ 310 was tabled in House Privileges and Elections.

VACo Contact:  Katie Boyle

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