Big changes ahead as Virginia General Assembly session starts

On Wednesday in Richmond, a landmark General Assembly session gavels in that could reshape Virginia, given the first complete Democratic control of the state’s government in decades.

Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker-designee Eileen Filler-Corn, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said Tuesday that priorities will include: anti-discrimination measures; the Equal Rights Amendment; gun laws; abortion rights; affordable housing; a minimum-wage increase; easing voting restrictions; criminal justice reforms; environmental protections; and education funding and access.

“It’s going to be monumental,” said Reston Del. Ken Plum, the longest-serving member of the House.

He expects the session to be unlike anything he has seen in his four decades in office.

“Issues that have been put on the back burner for decades are suddenly going to be on the docket. … Gun violence is a concern in our community. We’re going to deal with that. The whole issues that relate to discrimination and so on — we’re going to deal with those issues,” Plum said.

Saslaw and Filler-Corn each represent Fairfax County. Filler-Corn will be the first female and first Jewish speaker of the house of delegates. Alexandria Del. Charniele Herring will be the first woman and the first person of color to serve as House majority leader.

Several statewide polls have found support for many of the Democrats’ key priorities. According to a Virginia Commonwealth University poll released Tuesday, more than eight in 10 Virginians surveyed support expanded gun sale background checks and red flag laws to temporarily remove guns from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Pro-gun groups have been sharply critical of proposed gun law changes.

Lawmakers will also need to sort out rules for redistricting, which could include approval of a bipartisan panel passed as a compromise last year. The creation of the panel would need to be approved by voters in November.

Gambling will also be a major issue this session, with plans that could allow casinos in multiple areas outside Northern Virginia. The General Assembly could also discuss sports betting and the removal of restrictions on how many bingo games can be played at charitable organizations.

Lawmakers are also set to consider allowing Confederate monuments to be moved by local governments and replacing Virginia’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol.

New transportation-related bills proposed in the last few days include a proposal from Del. Dave LaRock to require tolls in both directions at rush hour on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway; a proposal from Delegate-elect Suhas Subramanyam to scrutinize Dulles Greenway tolls; and a law that would allow at least some electric bikes on paved trails.

The General Assembly will also consider implementing Northern Virginia tax hikes on real estate transactions and hotel stays to add money for transportation, and allowing speed cameras in the state.

Another proposal would require that drivers always have their headlights turned on.

See WTOP’s breakdown of some of the biggest proposals introduced in other areas ahead of the Virginia General Assembly session here:

Offbeat bills

While the General Assembly always has a lot of major issues on its plate, there are also annual debates over some things that are less significant to some residents’ daily lives.

Proposals this year to change official state emblems, for example, include making The Virginia Opry the official opry; making the pawpaw the state fruit; making the Springfield Model 1855 rifle musket the official state firearm; and making “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” the state folk song.

Several lawmakers are also taking another run at banning the use of state or local tax dollars or loans to the Washington Redskins for a new stadium, but that would only apply if Maryland and D.C. leaders agreed to also make the NFL team pay for its own stadium.

More barbershops or salons could get alcohol licenses; local governments could use goats for grazing without violating pasture rules; and milk could be defined as “the lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hoofed mammal” to prevent things like almond milk from being advertised as milk.

The General Assembly could also urge Major League Baseball not to cut back on the number of minor league teams in the state.

After years when female leaders of boards of supervisors like Fairfax County’s Sharon Bulova or Loudoun County’s Phyllis Randall had to be called “chairman” under state law, the state could allow them to be called “chairwoman,” “chair” or “chair-at-large.”

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