Virginia Still Holds Guns and Tobacco Dear


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Senate Keeps Gun Show Loophole Open; Committee Deadlocks on Cigarette Tax

The Virginia Senate showed Tuesday that tobacco and guns are still valued and protected, both culturally and politically, by many of the state's residents.

The Democrat-controlled chamber dealt significant blows Tuesday to two major proposals championed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), setbacks for a governor who has struggled to score legislative victories during his tenure.

The Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on Kaine's proposal to double the tax on cigarettes, a move aimed at raising money to close a $3 billion budget shortfall. Hours later, the full Senate rejected a bill that would have required merchants who sell weapons at gun shows to first conduct background checks on the buyers. The measure's sponsor used a procedural maneuver to keep the legislation alive, at least for one more day.

The Senate also voted to repeal a law that prohibited anyone from carrying concealed weapons into a club or restaurant where alcohol is served.

Republicans joined with conservative Democrats from rural areas to defeat the bills in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 21 to 19 majority.

"It's still a middle-of-the-road state, and that means you still need to get the rural areas, not just the urban areas," said Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), who voted against closing the gun show loophole.

The votes come after a series of Democratic electoral victories -- powered by heavy support in Northern Virginia for the party's candidates for the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, governor and president -- that some took as signs of seismic political change in Virginia. Rural lawmakers said proposals about tobacco and guns offered them a chance to reassert themselves.

Virginia, considered by many to be a conservative Southern state, is home to the National Rifle Association, and gun ownership is widespread. Tobacco was once the foundation of Virginia's economy, and the state is home to thousands of tobacco farms and Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA.

"Virginia still seems to be ruled by the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby," said Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax). "I think there are many members who are unwilling to oppose them for fear of retribution at the polls. And there also is a sort of traditional Virginia 'past' that is supportive of tobacco and guns."

The tobacco industry did not end a busy day in Richmond unscathed. The Senate approved four bills that would outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants and public places. The measures now head to the Republican-run House, where they face an uncertain future. The ban is one of Kaine's top priorities.

The future also is unclear for Kaine's tobacco tax, which was intended to raise $148 million to help pay for Medicaid. The Senate Finance Committee's vote of 8 to 8 effectively stalls efforts to raise the tax from 30 cents to 60 cents per pack. But the legislature's budget negotiators could try to revive the tax as part of the two-year, $77 billion budget.

In his fourth and final year in office, Kaine had supported the gun show bill and pushed the tobacco tax.

Monday afternoon, Kaine called two Republican senators who have voted for past tax increases to try to persuade them to vote for the cigarette levy. Administration officials, headed by his lobbyists and health and human resources secretary, had been speaking to senators from both parties.

But neither Kaine nor his aides tried to hash out a compromise, senators and lobbyists said. Unlike his popular predecessor, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D), Kaine has spent little time brokering deals on legislation, although he did engage in last year's negotiations on transportation.

"He has a different style,'' said Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who voted against the tobacco tax.

Norment, who sits on the Finance Committee, said all seven GOP members of the committee decided weeks ago to oppose the tax increase. The Republicans expected to be joined by Sen. William Roscoe Reynolds (D-Franklin), who represents a rural district in southern Virginia where tobacco remains an important cash crop.

Kaine knew that if he had the support of the eight remaining Democrats on the committee, the measure could pass, because Republican Sen. Walter A. Stosch sits on the board of a tobacco company and has abstained from voting on tobacco issues in the past. But Stosch didn't abstain.

Stosch said he decided to vote because Altria is based in his Richmond area district, and he felt compelled to protect those jobs.

"This is not Tim Kaine's fault," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

If legislators reject the idea of raising the state's tax on cigarettes, they will have to find another way to come up with $148 million at a time when the state faces a shortfall of at least $2.9 billion. The federal government matches the state's Medicaid funding, so Virginia stands to lose almost $300 million if an alternative revenue source can't be found.

The Senate's vote on the gun show bill was less surprising, because it has never passed the full chamber. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Henry L. Marsh (D-Richmond), argued that the loophole made it possible for convicted felons and the mentally ill to easily buy firearms without a background check.

The initiative has been championed by victims and relatives of those killed at Virginia Tech in 2007. Last year, Lily Habtu of Woodbridge, who was shot in the wrist and jaw, broke down in tears as she told lawmakers that her parents would have never imagined that the first member of their family to go to college would become a victim of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

All but two Senate Republicans voted against the gun show bill. Sen. Frank W. Wagner, a moderate from Virginia Beach, said he feared the bill was the first step toward greater limits on firearms use.

"If this line was crossed this year, I can guarantee they would be back next year with three or four more bills," Wagner said. "At some point, you draw a line in the sand, and this is where I chose to draw a line in the sand."

sounds good to me. Now if that governor will sign the law for the carry in restaraunts we would be golden
sounds good to me. Now if that governor will sign the law for the carry in restaraunts we would be golden

maybe now that Kaine is gone, we can get that law through. It passed vote, but was vetoed. I don't see a problem with restaurant carry, as long as you are not drinking. Funny, it is ok to carry openly in these same places!

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