From casinos and transportation to voting and anti-discrimination measures, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has signed hundreds of bills and suggested amendments to dozens of others ahead of next week’s reconvened session of the General Assembly.
Northam’s deadline to act over the weekend also revealed the major coronavirus-related budget changes he is suggesting as placeholders until the true economic impact of COVID-19 becomes clear.
He also signed groundbreaking protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ community and pregnant women, bills repealing Jim Crow-era laws and the Lee-Jackson Day honoring Confederate Generals, and a bill giving localities control over Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions.
Northam plans to sign a bill decriminalizing simple marijuana possession after the legislature considers amendments.
A new cap on insulin copays of $50 a month will also become law Jan. 1, and undocumented immigrants who live in Virginia will now be able to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
Northam has proposed delaying a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 to take effect in May of next year rather than January, and is proposing a delay until May 2021 for a bill that allows school boards or local governments to opt-in to collective bargaining for their workers.
Other bills set to become law include environmental measures, criminal justice changes like raising the felony larceny threshold, raising the age that some crimes are automatically charged in adult court, significantly limiting civil asset forfeiture if people ask for their stuff back after they are cleared by a court, and permanently ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines or fees.
Northam also signed bills in recent days repealing Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound law and other abortion restrictions and adding new gun regulations requiring universal background checks for all sales, establishing a red flag law, restoring Virginia’s one handgun per month purchase law and requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns to police.
Northam is proposing speeding up some new payday loan regulations to implement them sooner than lawmakers had proposed, and wants to make a parole expansion effective immediately to cover people sentenced when juries did not know parole had been ended.
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For the current budget year ending Jun. 30, Northam is proposing 37 amendments, an unusually high number.
“COVID-19 makes this year different,” Northam said in a message to lawmakers.
The changes include an additional $55.5 million for the Department of Emergency Management, $2.5 million for Housing and Community Development, and $50 million to be made available for other responses including to match federal funds.
Northam also wants to keep $601 million available for the two-year budget starting July 1 rather than the original plan of putting that extra cash into the state’s rainy day fund on top of already required contributions.
Other proposals include more spending flexibility and fewer restrictions on donations, grants and service changes for public colleges and state agencies.
Lawmakers could also approve the use of federal funds for child care, higher pay for nursing homes, waiving interest on state income tax payments that are submitted after May 1, and the expansion of virtual public meetings for government bodies.
In the two-year budget starting July 1, Northam has been forced to propose 144 changes to a budget that he largely liked when it passed in March.
“New circumstances now require us to revisit those decisions,” Northam said in a message transmitted with his proposed amendments.
Rather than cutting programs completely now, though, Northam has 83 amendments to “unallot,” or freeze, new spending until the state can develop new long-term revenue projections “once the economic fog has lifted.”
The amendments would freeze $874.6 million in the first year and $1.4 billion in the second year of the budget for now.
Northam also proposes using bonds to cover certain capital projects to free up $65 million, and would again delay funding to hire more school counselors which would save both state and localities money.
“While these proposals present difficult decisions today, we may face tougher choices tomorrow. The right course is to be prepared,” Northam said.
Gas tax and other fee changes to fund transportation remain largely unchanged under amendments offered by the governor, except for a change that would lower the diesel tax from 21.2 cents per gallon to 20.2 cents from this July to July 1, 2021.
Northam is proposing delaying certain Northern Virginia tax increases in the transportation funding bill to May 1, 2021 for hotel taxes and real estate transfer fee changes.
Other amendments would also speed a reduction in recordation tax payouts to cities and counties outside of Northern Virginia.
Under other transportation bills, Gov. Northam had already signed a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving, which will take effect Jan. 1.
He is proposing a minor technical amendment to the bill allowing regular speed cameras in Virginia for the first time, so that bill allowing both state and local law enforcement to place the speed cameras in school zones and highway work zones is likely to become law.
As part of amendments to the marijuana decriminalization bill, Northam is asking the legislature to make the new civil penalty for pot possession reportable to the Department of Motor Vehicles if it happens while someone is driving, even though the summons would not be a part of a person’s criminal record.
Northam is also proposing amendments to the bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to get driver privilege cards (and car insurance), that would make the cards look similar to other limited duration licenses.
He has proposed amendments to somewhat broaden a vulnerable road user protection bill that would cover passengers, not just operators, of covered devices ranging from bikes to horses and buggies. The changes would also explicitly cover any person riding an animal.
On sidewalks, Northam is proposing that personal delivery robots be allowed to “not unreasonably interfere with pedestrians,” rather than being required to yield.
New statewide rules for peer-to-peer vehicle rentals could also be delayed until October.
Virginia remains on track to get its first full-fledged casinos and sports betting, but Northam offered several amendments to the bills that will pave the way.
While most of the amendments appear to be technical fixes, Northam is offering a significant change that would designate the state’s share of tax revenue toward “public school construction, renovations, or upgrades” rather than toward the state’s general fund.
Northam also would further spell out a voluntary exclusion program by specifying that people can put themselves on the list for two years, five years or permanently with only limited ways to get off the list during that time period.
On sports betting, Northam’s changes would adjust the application fee structure, clarify the priority for NASCAR facilities, and allow betting on youth or college sports or tournaments where no Virginia team is participating.
Northam is also proposing allowing “skill games” for one year. The machines that are essentially slot machines have operated in a gray area of the law, and the General Assembly had voted to ban them. Northam believes allowing and taxing all machines in place today in bars and truck stops could help keep those businesses afloat and provide around $150 million for a state COVID relief fund.
Under Northam’s amendment, the skill games would become illegal July 1, 2021 without further action by the General Assembly.
Northam has also signed a bill to let charitable organizations run Texas Hold ‘Em poker events.
Northam has signed bills allowing early voting without a reason needed, establishing automatic voter registration (opt out rather than opt in) at the Department of Motor Vehicles, repealing Virginia’s voter ID law, and allowing absentee ballots that arrive in the days after polls close to be counted.
He also signed bills making Election Day a holiday and eliminating Lee-Jackson Day on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, paving the way for same-day voter registration in future years, and allowing voters to sign up to permanently have absentee ballots sent to their home for every election they are eligible for.
He is asking the General Assembly to move the May 5 town elections, which are already underway, back to November due to the coronavirus.
If the elections are moved, the November elections would be a fresh slate with the potential for additional candidates. All ballots already cast for May’s election would be thrown out.
Northam is also offering an amendment that would block the state from moving its June primary in future years. While Northam has moved this year’s Congressional primary back two weeks due to the virus, his amendment would effectively kill a bill that aims to permanently move the June primaries from the second Tuesday in June to the third Tuesday in June.
Supporters of the bill say that would avoid conflicts with students and staff in elementary, middle and high schools that are used as polling places.
With redistricting coming up next year, Northam is recommending a clarification to the bill laying out the criteria to be used for the maps.
The amendment would specifically give the Board of Corrections the authority to require local and regional jails to provide information needed so that Virginians being held behind bars can be counted at their home addresses rather than at the prison as has been done in the past.
Animal bills, and Northam’s lone veto
The only bill Northam vetoed this year, of more than 1,200 that passed, was about milk.
The bill would have prevented something like almond milk or soy milk from being marketed as milk as long as a number of other states approved the same law by 2029.
It would have defined milk as something coming from a hoofed mammal including cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats, yaks, deer, reindeer, moose, horses and donkeys.
Northam did sign several other animal-related bills including tweaks to the state’s animal tethering law setting out longer tether requirements in some cases, unless approved by local animal control officers, and another bill banning the transport of bait fish like river herring, alewife, threadfin shad, or gizzard shad collected from the inland waters for sale out of state.