Big changes advance in Virginia ahead of crossover deadline

Major pent-up Democratic priorities that could mean significant changes across Virginia are moving forward after Tuesday night’s crossover deadline that marks the procedural midpoint of the annual General Assembly session.

Minimum wage hikes, a limited “assault weapons” ban, allowing localities to move Confederate monuments and help for immigrants living in the U.S. without permission to get driving privileges were among bills approved Tuesday by the state’s House, Senate or both.

The bills approved by one chamber are now considered by the other side over the next three weeks. The two sides then negotiate over any differences, and if agreements are reached, final versions of the bills are approved and sent to the governor.

The General Assembly also must pass a two-year budget.

The session ends March 7.

‘Moving Virginia forward’

Just over halfway through her first session as Virginia’s first female House speaker, Fairfax County Del. Eileen Filler-Corn said finally seeing Democratic priorities pass after years of effort is very exciting.

“On Election Day we heard a resounding move in this direction, and we are doing exactly that,” Filler-Corn said.

Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s mansion for the first time in decades.

A wide range of anti-discrimination, education, transportation and gun violence-related bills have been approved by at least one chamber, so far.

“We’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do, and we’re making progress moving Virginia forward, and for that, we’re really excited. And, I think you can see from Virginians that this is what they wanted and they spoke loud and clear on Election Day,” Filler-Corn said.

Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican from Franklin County, said the steps Democrats are taking are radical departures from Virginia’s past.

“It’s like a jewelry store smash and grab, and they’re going to grab everything they possibly can while they can get it before the lights go on and the siren goes off,” Stanley said.

The House and Senate have handled thousands of bills since the session started Jan. 8, with only a fraction still alive for consideration.

“We campaigned on these issues. We heard from Virginians that these issues were important, they wanted change, they wanted action, and we are doing exactly that,” Filler-Corn said.

Crossover day votes

The minimum wage would rise from $7.25 toward $15 over several years under bills passed Tuesday by the House and Senate, but the two chambers have very different ideas of how to do it.

The House version would raise the minimum wage to $10 this summer, $11.25 next summer, $12 in July 2022, $13 in July 2023, $14 in July 2024, $15 in July 2025 and adjust it for inflation after that.

In the Senate version, approved 21-19, the minimum wage would rise more slowly. It would rise to $9.50 Jan. 1, 2021, then $10.50 Jul. 1, 2022 and $11.50 Jul. 1, 2023. After that, the minimum wage in Northern Virginia would rise incrementally $1 per year until it reaches $15 when it would then be adjusted for inflation. In other parts of the state, the annual increases in 2024 and beyond would be less based on cost of living.

Del. Roz Tyler described the bill as “a long time coming.” Republican opponents of the bill are concerned about the cost to businesses, which they worry could have an impact on jobs.

The Senate also voted 23-17 to require five days of paid sick leave per year for workers, and voted to allow local governments to permit collective bargaining by public workers, such as teachers.

In a separate action, the Senate also voted to set prevailing wage rules for public contracts worth more than $250,000 and voted to repeal bans on project labor agreements.

Under another bill, agents planning to represent Virginia college athletes, who can now be paid for the use of their likeness, will have to register with the state and agree to disclose any contracts to the schools and disclose the risk of losing amateur status to the athletes.

The House of Delegates also supported giving counties the same taxation authority as cities have, which would allow local governments to raise money in ways other than primarily through property taxes.

Casinos

Lawmakers appear set to authorize up to five full-service casinos in Virginia on top of already authorized slotlike parlors linked to Colonial Downs.

Under the agreement approved by wide margins in the House and Senate, the proposed historical horse racing parlor in Dumfries would have up to 1,800 machines rather than the 150 that were expected when voters approved it in November.

The Town Council is currently working through a permitting process, after rejecting the initial permit application last week.

The General Assembly is also set to ban slotlike “skill games” that have popped up in a gray area in the law at a number of businesses across the state but that have not been taxed.

Guns

After most Democratic gun-safety priorities passed earlier this session, a narrowed version of the last remaining bill on the high-priority list passed the House 51-48 Tuesday.

The “assault weapons” ban as it passed the House would make it a misdemeanor to have a large-capacity magazine that holds more than 12 rounds, and would place restrictions on the sale or transfer of guns defined as “assault weapons.”

Del. Dan Helmer described it as a bill aiming to protect Virginians from mass murder, while Republican opponents of the bill complained it would make it illegal to have some magazines that people have today.

The Senate did not advance a version of that bill this session, so it is unclear whether the Senate will approve this revised measure.

The Senate did pass a bill 26-14 that would require background checks for gun sales at Virginia gun shows since Virginia State Police are present to run the checks.

The House also voted 54-46 to require concealed carry permit applicants to take training courses in person rather than allowing online classes.

Undocumented immigrant driving privileges, tuition

Both the House and Senate support driver’s privilege cards for immigrants living in the country without permission who pay Virginia taxes.

The state would allow the federal government to request information about specific people, but would not permit a mass download of the data by federal officials.

The House also voted 51-48 to grant in-state tuition to refugees and people with asylum living in Virginia, and both chambers support in-state tuition for immigrants living in the country without permission who were brought to the U.S. as children and who graduate from Virginia high schools.

Election, redistricting changes

A series of significant additional election law changes also advanced Tuesday.

The House voted to repeal Virginia’s voter ID law due to concerns that it discriminates against underprivileged groups. In cases where voter identification is required, the House would allow out-of-state college IDs for the first time.

The House and Senate also backed automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles, changing the process from an opt-in to opt-out for eligible voters.

Under a House plan, Virginia voters could also get an extra hour at the polls in the evenings with elections closing at 8 p.m. rather than 7 p.m., but it is unclear whether the proposal will advance in the Senate without funding attached.

The House also supported clarifications to recount rules and a new rule that would require a special election in the event of a tie for most offices rather than the random drawing of a name from a bowl used just before the 2018 General Assembly session.

Other changes approved by the House would ease emergency absentee voting, and would have Virginia join the National Popular Vote Compact. The agreement aims to change the presidential election into a popular vote contest by collecting states representing a majority of electoral votes and having all of their electors promise to vote for the winner of the popular vote rather than the winner of the state’s vote. More states beyond Virginia would be needed for the pact to take effect.

The House and Senate also passed bills outlining the process for redistricting next year. Changes include counting prisoners in Virginia jails at their home addresses if they lived in Virginia before being incarcerated, and a list of rules that a redistricting commission or other body must follow.

It is not clear whether a state constitutional amendment for a bipartisan redistricting commission, which was changed to accommodate demands of the Republican majority last year, will be approved for a second time this session to go on the ballot for a referendum this fall, or whether the bills describing a commission will govern this redistricting round and a different nonpartisan redistricting amendment could be offered sometime in the next decade.

The Senate did unanimously pass a bill that would allow for the amendment to be placed on the ballot in November.

Confederate statues

Confederate statues could be on the move in Virginia and at the U.S. Capitol.

Both the House and Senate support letting local governments move or contextualize Confederate monuments.

The chambers also support a commission to identify a replacement for Confederate General Robert E. Lee as one of Virginia’s two representatives in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Del. Sally Hudson, of Charlottesville, said the goal is not to erase history, but to finally tell it.

The Ku Klux Klan’s “spirit still haunts our city,” she said.

Transportation

The Senate approved a major transportation bill Tuesday, setting up further negotiations over coming weeks.

The latest version of the bill would raise the gas tax 8 cents over the next two years then index it to inflation and make a number of other changes.

Among other bills, Virginia is closer than ever to eliminating the risk of jail time for drivers going 81 mph in a 70 mph zone now that the House has approved the change.

The House also voted to ban drivers from passing other cars stopped at crosswalks for pedestrians, and to require drivers come to a complete stop for people walking across the street in a crosswalk until the person has fully cleared that driver’s lane.

The Senate rejected a proposed expansion of protections for tow-truck drivers that would have toughened penalties for a failure to move over to the next lane for service vehicles stopped on the side of the road to match the penalty for failing to move over for law enforcement, firefighters or EMS.

The Senate did approve a $4 increase in car registration fees to help fund State Police salary compression fixes.

The Senate also approved changes to personal delivery robot rules to allow nonelectric devices and to require a 10 mph speed limit on sidewalks.

The House also voted 58-39 to extend a current ban on smoking in a car with a child under 8 to cover smoking in the car with anyone under 18.

Other bills approved by one chamber or the other include a partial replacement for Northern Virginia transportation funding lost under the Metro dedicated funding bill and approval for Metro Office of Inspector General special agents to be considered law enforcement officers.

The Senate also approved a measure that would legalize services like “Getaround” that provide for peer-to-peer carsharing by letting someone not using their car temporarily rent it out to someone else through the app.

Energy and pollution

A number of energy and environment bills are still alive after the crossover deadline.

Those include bills setting broad pollution reduction goals over the next 30 years and giving the State Corporation Commission back more power to do a detailed review of Dominion Energy rates and profits.

The Senate passed an overarching bill that would aim to eliminate carbon pollution from the power industry by 2050. Sen. Jennifer McClellan disputed high cost estimates for the plans, citing alternative analyses that showed potential savings for average Virginians when the plan is fully considered.

Earlier in the day (ahead of the votes), Dominion announced it would aim to be “net zero” carbon pollution at power plants by 2050.

The chambers also approved Dominion’s electric school bus project.

Among other antipollution bills, the House voted 52-46 in favor of a statewide 5 cent plastic bag tax. Like the taxes in D.C. and parts of Maryland, most of the money for the bags at grocery and convenience stores would go toward fighting pollution.

The Senate passed a version of the bag fee bill shortly before midnight that would impose the five cent tax in Northern Virginia but allow localities elsewhere in the state to decide for themselves whether to have the fee. Stores would keep two cents of the tax in the initial years, then it would transition to one cent like the taxes in neighboring jurisdictions.

The House also voted to ban foam takeout containers starting in a few years.

Marijuana, criminal justice reforms

The Senate voted 27-13 to decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana.

Under the Senate bill, that would carry a $50 civil fine. The House version of the bill has different numbers, so the two sides will need to work out an agreement over the next few weeks.

Gov. Ralph Northam supports decriminalization. Lawmakers plan to study legalization or a medical marijuana program over the next year.

The Senate separately voted to ban flavored vaping products, and 40-0 to decriminalize THC oil possession with proper medical documentation (Currently, it’s an affirmative defense).

The House voted 83-16 to allow hemp products intended for smoking.

The Senate also voted to ease expungement of marijuana and underage alcohol charges.

Among other criminal justice reforms, the Senate voted to raise the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000, and voted 23-17 to end mandatory jury sentencing recommendations.

Virginia is one of a handful of states that has juries set sentences. Under the Senate bill, defendants could choose jury sentencing, but the default would be that a judge decides on a sentence for anyone convicted by a jury.

If the jury sentencing is not abolished, the Senate voted 22-18 for a bill that would allow a jury to recommend that part of a sentence be suspended.

A separate bill approved would expand judges’ authority to defer, dismiss or reduce charges as part of plea deals. The Senate also voted to expand behavioral health deferral dockets statewide.

The Senate also voted to allow an opportunity for parole for defendants sentenced in the period after parole was abolished but before juries were informed that parole was no longer allowed, and voted to limit the automatic trial of some 14- and 15-year-olds as adults. That bill mirrors a bill passed by the House.

The Senate voted 23-17 to remove a “three strikes” law that makes a third petty larceny charge a class 6 felony carrying the threat of years in prison. Instead, the penalty for a third offense would be the same as any other: 30 days to a year in jail.

Other changes aim to address SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation — and expand safe-reporting laws for opioid overdoses.

The Senate also voted to allow principals to determine whether to report misdemeanors to police or to handle an incident with school discipline, and voted to require recordings of all custodial interviews done in police stations or jails.

The House voted 85-12 to add revenge porn convictions as a reason to be added to the sex offender registry.

Under another House bill that passed 62-38, the state will record and report policing data, including on racial and other disparities in stops and arrests.

Discrimination

The Senate voted Tuesday to ban workplace discrimination against pregnant women.

The House also voted to require training for prison officials on the treatment of pregnant prisoners and to require that prison policies lay out how children can visit their parents behind bars.

The Senate voted 38-2 to ban local land-use decisions that discriminate based on race, gender or inclusion of affordable housing in a development. The House has backed a similar bill.

The House also voted to add sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to hate crimes laws, and to institute a state survey of large companies to examine racial and gender-based salary gaps.

The Senate also voted to ban discrimination in the provision of donated organs based on disability.

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