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Taxes, gambling among top issues as Va. General Assembly convenes

FILE — A group of lobbyists watch a debate on a bill relating to mass transit funding during the House session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, March 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WASHINGTON — Taxes and spending, gambling and the environment are among some of the issues expected to dominate Virginia’s General Assembly session that begins Wednesday afternoon.

While sessions typically take a few days to get rolling, everything moves extremely quickly after that in odd-numbered years when lawmakers only meet for about six weeks in January into February.

The big tax issue is whether Virginia should follow its usual practice of conforming to the federal tax code. Any action on that would have to happen quickly since taxpayers are preparing to file, but it has become controversial since the federal GOP tax bill that took effect in 2018 would lead to some higher state taxes for people taking a standard deduction.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has proposed using some of that money to provide tax breaks to low-income Virginians and use additional funding to pay for a variety of priorities, including additional raises for teachers.

House Republicans have instead proposed an approximately $440 million tax cut for wealthier Virginians. Republican proposals also include additional ability to itemize deductions on state returns.

Other tax-related bills include authority for Virginia to require online retailers to collect sales taxes following a Supreme Court decision last year. Those bills would remove previously set triggers to change other taxes when online sales taxes were approved.

County governments could also get additional taxation authority that only cities have today, and local governments could be permitted to add local sales taxes if the money is designated for school construction and the tax is approved in a voter referendum.

Energy, environment and pollution

There are also again several proposals to allow or require a 5-cent fee for plastic bags at stores. Similar to the programs in D.C. and parts of Maryland, retailers would keep 1 cent of the fee and the remainder would go toward pollution cleanup.

Other environmental bills include proposals to finally close coal ash ponds in the state, but allow Dominion to charge customers for the costs.

There are also a number of efforts to ban or restrict new gas or coal-fired power plants, transfer terminals and pipelines, add new renewable energy incentives, and to overhaul the state’s boards regulating air, water and waste after recent pipeline protests.

Gambling

The big gambling bills are focused on allowing casinos in specific locations for now — outside of Northern Virginia — and on allowing sports gambling now that it is permitted under federal law.

Additional proposals would allow Texas Hold’em poker for charitable gaming events and would ban or restrict the release of the names of Virginia Lottery winners.

Separate horse racing and “historical” slot machines are already set to expand in Virginia soon.

Other eye-catching bills

Transportation and tolls, education and redistricting are among other major issues expected to be taken up this session, but there are some other individual bills already filed that jump out.

There are proposals to repeal Virginia’s unconstitutional ban on same-sex marriage and to replace the terms husband and wife throughout state law with gender-neutral terms. That latter bill would also remove gender references from laws about concubinage, prostitution, leaving a wife in a bawdy place and defaming the chaste character of a woman. It would also repeal Virginia’s law banning adultery and would change a requirement a person on probation is required to support his wife to a requirement that person support his or her spouse.

Other bills would require net neutrality for broadband, limit what costs Virginia can recover from contractors for mistakes and restrict the sale of caskets outside of funeral homes.

There are also proposals to make the Wednesday before Thanksgiving an official state holiday called “Indigenous Peoples Day,” to swear off any public spending on a new stadium for the Washington Redskins and to make Northern Neck Ginger Ale the official state soft drink.

A bill from Del. Mark Cole would ban the employment of people 18, 19 or 20 years old at strip clubs.

A number of alcohol-related bills would allow ABC stores to open earlier, at 10 a.m. Sundays, allow the expungement of certain underage alcohol or fake ID offenses, allow some wineries and breweries to sell each other’s products, and increase the amount of free samples people can get at tastings.

There is also a proposal to repeal Virginia’s habitual drunkard and interdicted person law, which can lead to a person being prosecuted for simply possessing alcohol if a court has labeled them as a drunkard. The law has frequently led to charges against people who are homeless.

Another bill would no longer require local treasurers to “provide and keep a well-bound book” to track finances, but instead would allow them to maintain a record in any modern format they choose, such as a digital file.

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