Legislative notebook: No-wake bill, fantasy sports, workers comp and sex offenders

For a little while Wednesday, legislation to outlaw driving too fast down flooded streets had passed the General Assembly, ticking off one of Hampton's priorities this legislative session.

Then it had failed.

Then it was set aside for at least a day to give legislators more time to haggle over a key phrase in the bill: "willful and wanton."

Senate Bill 163 would let localities pass ordinances that make it a misdemeanor to splash floodwaters into people's homes or vehicles. It's been an issue in Hampton, where people drive too fast down flooded streets, causing damage.

The issue at hand now: Should people be ticketed only if they're "willful and wanton" about their driving, or should police have more leeway to write citations? It's a difference over intent, and recklessness, and possibly jet skis.

State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, sponsored this bill in the Senate and Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, carried a version in the House. Locke agreed Wednesday to go along with the House's preferred language – sans "willful and wanton" – and initially squeaked the bill through a final vote, 21-19.

This was nearly party line vote, with two Republicans crossing the aisle to back Locke's bill, which fellow Democrats supported.. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Carrico, R-Galax, wanted to stick with the "willful and wanton" language.

Shortly after the vote, state Sen. Jill Vogel, one of the Republicans who sided with Locke, asked for reconsideration – a redo on the vote. This time the bill failed, 19-21.

A short time later, Vogel asked again for reconsideration again and got it. Then the chamber set this bill aside for the day, keeping it alive and the discussion going.

Among the disagreements: How jet skis would be treated. Locke said they wouldn't be covered under the language Carrico prefers because they're not covered by Virginia's reckless driving law.

Carrico, a former state trooper, said Virginia has a reckless boating statute that would cover jet skis.

He wanted to avoid, he said, good Samaritans being charged for damaging property if they're on their jet skis helping neighbors, but wash a wake into someone's house.

DraftKings, FanDuel bill passes

A pre-emptive push to legalize one-day fantasy sports websites won final approval Wednesday, and the bill heads now to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Internet sites DraftKings and FanDuel, which let fans assemble rosters from sports teams and bet money on whose roster scores the most points, have exploded in popularity over the last year or so. With some question as to whether the sites count as gambling, the industry asked for regulation in Virginia.

A spokesman for the sites said Virginia is the first state to pass such regulations. Among other things, Senate Bill 646 requires an initial $50,000 licensing fee and it sets out operating rules.

Structured settlements bill passes

Legislation to put more protections into Virginia's structured settlement process won final passage Wednesday and is headed for Gov. Terry McAuliffe's desk.

The final vote on Senate Bill 621 came in the Senate, and it was 40-0. The bill would require people selling the monthly cash payments from legal settlements, often to large companies for a lump sum that's fraction of the total amount due over the years, to appear in court in person to finalize the deal.

The deals would also have to be filed in the seller's area. In part, this is to help judges determine how well the seller understands the agreement they're signing.

The bill follows a Washington Post investigation that focused primarily on a burn victim who sold off $11 million in future payments for roughly $1.4 million and eventually became homeless. That deal, and thousands of others, was filed in the Portsmouth Circuit Courthouse, which the newspaper referred to as "much like an assembly line for the secretive industry of structured-settlement purchasing."

The investigation also brought attention to freshman Del. Stephen E. Heretick, D-Portsmouth, an attorney for purchasers who handled the most of the deals filed in Portsmouth, The Post reported.

The changes approved this session had industry backing. Heretick voted for them in the House.

Worker's comp fee schedule passes

Major changes to Virginia's worker's compensation system won final passage Wednesday with little fanfare and a unanimous Senate vote.

Senate Bill 631 directs the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission to set a fee schedule, laying out what doctors and hospitals charge to treat worker's compensation injuries. If Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs the legislation, which also passed the House unanimously, the fee scheduled would be in place by 2018.

It would be based on payments made in 2014, then adjusted for inflation. The insurance industry, and businesses, have been pushing for Virginia to adopt a fee schedule for years. Other states already use them.

A schedule would put an end to the more than 2,000 fee dispute cases pending before the commission at any point in time, insurance company officials have said. That would give the commission more time to focus on whether an accident ought to be covered.

Virginia sets tough standards for awarding workers comp. Unlike many states, injured workers in Virginia can be required to prove a cause and effect between the work they did and the injury they suffered.

Sex offender bill nearly passes

The state's online sex offender registry would include work addresses and current college enrollments, if applicable, for offenders under legislation teetering on final passage.

Senate Bill 628 initially cleared its last legislative hurdle Wednesday on a 21-19 vote in the state Senate vote. State Sen. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, was a key vote as the only Democrat to vote for the bill. One Republican, state Sen. Bill DeSteph, voted against.

The vote was reconsidered, though, then the bill was set aside for the day, meaning a final vote could come as soon as Thursday.

By law the registry currently includes offenders' names, any aliases, the date and locality of their offense, their age, home address and photograph. The bill would add work addresses and what college they attend, if any.

Supporters have said they want to protect high school students taking advanced classes at community colleges. Critics have said the bill goes too far in stigmatizing people who've served their time, and would make it hard for them to get jobs.

Police warrant bill moves

Legislation that would make it harder for people to accuse law enforcement officers of misdemeanors is nearing final passage in Richmond.

House Bill 70 would require a commonwealth's attorney to sign off before a magistrate can issue a misdemeanor warrant against an officer. Current law allows magistrates to issue these warrants, against anyone, based solely on the word of an accuser.

Felony warrants require investigation under current law, and that process wouldn't change under this bill.

Senators supporting the bill said Wednesday they want to protect police from false charges, but they offered no examples of people abusing the current system. John Jones, who heads the Virginia Sheriff's Association, said he's gotten calls from some sheriffs indicating problems.

The bill had some bipartisan support in the Senate, but Democrats primarily opposed it, with several saying they don't want the law to treat people differently. They also argued that commonwealth's attorneys are likely to side with police because they work closely together.

The bill passed 24-16, but with a different wording than what has already passed the House, so the House must vote again on final passage.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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