Amendments to state constitution on ballot in Virginia

When the polls open on Nov. 6, voters won’t just be asked to indicate their choices for elected officials. Two amendments to the Virginia State Constitution will be on the ballot this year. Both amendments passed through the Virginia General Assembly twice and have been signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. Now, it’s left to Virginia voters to decide whether to amend the nation’s oldest state constitution. Here’s a primer on each of the amendments:

Eminent Domain

How it will appear on the ballot :
“Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use?”

What it means:
Currently, the Virginia Constitution does not allow the taking or damaging of private property for public use without justly compensating the owner of the property. If an owner of private property and an entity can’t agree on a price for the property, the entity can take the property only if the entity pays a fair price based on certain criteria dealing with the cost of the property and lost profits, among other things and the use by the entity would entail a public use.

This amendment is in response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the right of the government to take private property via eminent domain and give it to a private business for purposes of economic development. The case also upheld the right of states to restrict the use of eminent domain. Virginia has already passed measures limiting the power of eminent domain, which are largely duplicated here.

The amendment includes that the right to private property is fundamental, that taking or damaging property must be for “public use” and that no more property may be taken or damaged than is necessary for the stated public use. Public service companies, corporations and railroads can exercise eminent domain when doing so would be for the purpose of utility, common carrier or railroad services.  Elimination of a public nuisance, which would be something like a condemned building beyond repair and unfit for human habitation, is a public use. Anything where the primary use is to increase jobs, tax revenue, economic development or to benefit a private entity is not considered a public use.

The amendment also notes that just compensation for property acquired via eminent domain includes no less than the value of the property taken, lost profits and lost access, and damages caused by the taking.

Why it is being proposed:
The rationale given for the amendment is that it would be more difficult for future legislators to remove the limits on eminent domain set forth by the legislature. The measures described in the amendment are almost entirely in place already in the Code of Virginia (§ 1-219.1). However, a law can be altered or repealed by a future legislature, but a constitutional amendment must pass the legislature twice, as well as be approved directly by Virginia voters.

Voting yes means:
Voting yes to this amendment would further specify and limit the reasons for which property may be taken by eminent domain. It also expands the “just compensation” paid to the owner of the property taken to include lost profits, lost access and damages in addition to the value of the property taken. It would make it harder for future legislatures to alter the recently passed restrictions on eminent domain.

Voting no means:
Voting no to this amendment does not alter the current law. Limits on eminent domain from the 2007 would still exist, but a future legislature could change it without requiring a ballot measure like this one to change the state constitution.

 Legislative Sessions

How it will appear on the ballot:
“Shall Section 6 of Article IV (Legislature) of the Constitution of Virginia concerning legislative sessions be amended to allow the General Assembly to delay by no more than one week the fixed starting date for the reconvened or “veto” session when the General Assembly meets after a session to consider the bills returned to it by the Governor with vetoes or amendments?”

What it means:
When he General Assembly of Virginia ends a session, they send all the bills that passed through both chambers to the governor. The governor then either signs the bills, thereby making them into laws or vetoes them, sending them back to the General Assembly, usually with notes as to why he vetoed each bill.
Then, the General Assembly convenes a special session, called a veto session, to discuss these rejected bills and try to pass them again to override the governor’s veto. Veto sessions often last just one day, and may not last more than ten. The Constitution currently says that the veto session must begin on the sixth Wednesday following the end of each session.
The amendment seeks to change the constitution to allow for the delay of the veto session by up to one week, so if passed, the veto session could start any time between the sixth and seventh Wednesday after the initial session adjourns.

Why it is being proposed:
The rationale given for this change is to allow legislators to avoid scheduling the veto session during religious holidays, most notably Passover.

Voting yes means:
Voting yes to this amendment would let state legislators delay veto sessions by up to one week, to the seventh Wednesday after the conclusion of the initial session.

Voting no means:
Voting no to this amendment would mean state legislators must continue to hold veto sessions starting on the sixth Wednesday after the conclusion of the initial session.

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