In a vote that separated Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe from his party, the General Assembly on Wednesday passed his proposal for a secret drug protocol for lethal injections.
The vote highlighted a one-day session in which lawmakers considered vetoes and amendments McAuliffe made to legislation passed during the regular session this year.
The vote in the House of Delegates was 59-40, and the measure later passed 22-16 in the state Senate.
No Democrat in the House voted for the proposal. Six Republicans joined Democrats in opposition, but they lacked the numbers to stop the measure in the House, where the GOP holds a 66-34 advantage.
Proponents, led by Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, said the proposal wasn’t perfect but was the only way to continue the death penalty in Virginia. Seven men are on death row in the state.
The House first voted to reject McAuliffe’s proposal, 51-47.
Miller said on the floor that several members were confused and several didn’t realize the consequences – that a vote against McAuliffe’s proposal would essentially end the death penalty in Virginia. Thirteen Republicans switched their vote from “no” or “not voting” to “yes.”
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, argued that rejecting the measure didn’t mean the Department of Corrections couldn’t continue to carry out executions, “they just can’t do it in secret.”
McAuliffe tried unsuccessfully for a similar proposal in 2015, but the House stopped it.
This year, he made his case by giving lawmakers a choice: Adopt his plan or the death penalty would come to an end in Virginia.
At issue, state officials say, is that the Department of Corrections is out or almost out of the drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection. Companies that manufacture the drugs do not want to be publicly associated with executions.
Miller introduced HB815 this year, which would mandate that if the Department of Corrections cannot find the necessary drugs for an injection, the electric chair must be used. Currently, inmates on death row choose between injection or the chair. The House and Senate passed the bill and sent it to McAuliffe.
McAuliffe amended Miller’s bill and outlined his plan April 11, saying he was opposed to a moratorium on the death penalty. McAuliffe said his plan is better than a requirement that the electric chair be used and allows Virginia to keep its death penalty policy in place.
Republicans largely agreed.
“As long as we’re going to have capital punishment in Virginia, I believe strongly that we ought to carry it out in the most humane method,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County.
Opponents questioned the process, saying it was rushed. The bill says the identities of pharmacies and facilities that contract with the state for compounding drugs in lethal injections must be confidential. Same goes for any entity the pharmacies use to obtain equipment or substances.
“There hasn’t been a single public call from anyone for us to vote for this bill,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County.
Religious leaders urged lawmakers to reject the death penalty; Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion Tuesday night – at the request of lawmakers – saying McAuliffe’s proposal was legally sound, clearing a path for approval.
Simon said McAuliffe told Democrats they were free to vote as they saw fit.
Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford County, was among the Republicans who changed votes. Howell voted against the secrecy provision last year.
But after hearing Miller’s argument, “when he had another minute to think about it, he thought it was important to preserve the death penalty,” spokesman Matt Moran said.
McAuliffe will still need to sign Miller’s amended bill.
In another hotly contested piece of legislation, the House of Delegates voted to override McAuliffe’s veto of a coal tax credit extension. State auditors have found the credit, provided to coal companies, didn’t achieve its goals; lawmakers from southwest Virginia, however, have said it’s essential to the region’s struggling economy as it tries to transition away from coal.
The Senate voted 24-15 to override the veto on the tax credit, but it was shy of the two-thirds needed, so the veto stands.
The death penalty debate overshadowed a message Democrats hope to carry into the 2017 governor’s race: that a Democratic governor’s vetoes of GOP bills on social issues helps the state avoid controversial laws that upset private industry.
None of McAuliffe’s 32 vetoes this year were overridden.
“The vetoes I submitted to the legislature for their consideration today honored the promise I made in the State of the Commonwealth to reject legislation that divides Virginians, makes them less safe, or sends a negative message about the climate we offer to families or businesses that may want to locate here,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “The controversies we are watching in other states underscore the need to reject legislation that divides or distracts us from the work Virginians elected us to do.”
Lawmakers also finalized a new, $35.5 million grant program called GO Virginia. The money will be used for yet-to-be named projects designed to enhance regional cooperation. McAuliffe and GOP lawmakers had disagreed in recent weeks over the makeup of a board that would have control over the money, but reached a compromise that requires the General Assembly to reauthorize the funds in the second year of the new two-year budget.
This story originally appeared at PilotOnline.com.