On Monday, the Virginia House of Delegates’ Committee on Rules voted unanimously by voice vote to assign three pro-LGBTQ bills to the Committee on General Laws, while striking a fourth from the docket.
A fair housing bill patroned by Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield), a public employment nondiscrimination bill patroned by Del. John Bell (D-Sterling), and an “LGBTQ omnibus” bill patroned by Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) were all assigned to the General Laws committee without incident.
A fourth bill, patroned by Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach), was struck at the patron’s request, largely because it contained similar provisions to the ones in Robinson’s bill.
Unlike what sometimes occurs in other legislatures, Virginia lawmakers on the Rules Committee chose not to hamper or hinder the remaining bills from continuing through the regular committee process.
Now, all three pro-LGBTQ bills will be assigned by the General Laws Committee to a particular subcommittee (controlled 5-3 by Republicans, with Committee Chairman Chris Peace allowed to cast a ninth vote as an ex officio member). If it manages to emerge safely from subcommittee — an uncertain to unlikely prospect, given the past voting records of those who comprise the General Laws subcommittees — it must then pass the full 22-member committee, which Republicans control by a 12-10 margin, before earning a vote of the full 100-member house.
That means that, assuming all Democrats are A) present at the time a vote is called and B) vote in favor of the bills, equality advocates must convince two Republicans on the subcommittee and two Republicans on the larger committee to green-light the bills and send them to the next step in the legislative process. Typically, this is where most bills dealing with LGBTQ issues are tabled and effectively killed for the remainder of the session.
Equality advocates face two primary obstacles: 1) the makeup of the General Laws Committee overall — and thus, the makeup of subcommittees that draw from that limited pool of legislators; and 2) the unwillingness, historically, of Republicans to buck the wishes of House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), an opponent of LGBTQ rights who has not given his blessing to allowing a vote on LGBTQ-related bills.
Further complicating the political landscape is that 2019 is an election year, which may make Republican lawmakers — even those who were redrawn into more Democratic-friendly districts by a court-ordered redistricting — reticent to vote on anything considered a “social issue” that could anger a segment of their constituents.
The full Committee on General Laws is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, Jan. 29. At some point, the committee will assign all three bills to particular subcommittees. Of note will be whether Robinson’s fair housing bill ends up before Subcommittee #2, where a number of bills dealing with housing, renters, and landlords have already been assigned.
Subcommittee #2 is also home to moderate Republican and LGBTQ ally Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), and Del. Gordon Helsel (R-Poquoson), a suburban Republican whose district will be taking in additional portions of the city of Hampton, thus making it a more Democratic-leaning district. Thus, if Robinson’s bill is not included with other housing-related bills, it may be an early signal that Republicans on the General Laws Committee are trying to kill yet another pro-LGBTQ piece of legislation by sending it to a more hostile subcommittee. (The employment nondiscrimination and “LGBTQ omnibus” bills are all but certain to be assigned to other subcommittees.)
Meanwhile, staffers and volunteers from various LGBTQ groups, including Equality Virginia and the Human Rights Campaign, are in the midst of holding daily demonstrations calling on lawmakers to allow the bills to move forward and receive an up-or-down vote of the full House of Delegates.
“It’s essential for the future of Virginia that pro-equality legislators in the House to act on this commonsense proposal and ensure that long-overdue protections are passed,” Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s state legislative director and senior counsel, said at a press conference last week. “To our friends in the House of Delegates: do not delay, Virginians want their friends and neighbors to be protected from discrimination, and they’ve waited long enough.”