Virginia 2021 legislative session begins: Coronavirus top of mind

Virginia lawmakers are scheduled to meet Wednesday for the start of their 2021 legislative session, and the coronavirus pandemic will once again take up a significant amount of their time.

A top priority will be ensuring that schools have enough funding, including money for extra counselors, to help teachers deal with the fallout from the coronavirus once students return to the classroom.

In a budget address last month, Gov. Ralph Northam outlined proposals that called for spending hundreds of millions on the pandemic response.

Democrats in the House of Delegates plan to ask for $200 million for the vaccination effort alone.

“We need to figure out a way to get more vaccination sites in place,” said Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell. “I don’t know if $200 million is the right number. It could very well be more. We need to spend whatever it takes to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Surovell said he expects Congress to approve another relief package that would help state and local governments.

“As that develops over the next month, we’re going to have to take that into account in our budgeting plans,” Surovell said.

Liberal lawmakers are set to push for paid sick leave as part of the state’s coronavirus relief efforts.

Similar bills failed to pass last year.

“It’s something I personally support but I’m not sure the votes are there,” Surovell said of paid sick leave, noting that “a lot of small business are still reeling” from losses caused by the pandemic.

To give everyone enough space and prevent a mass gathering, the House of Delegates will conduct business virtually and the Senate will gather in the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.

Northam is pushing to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Virginia, which could be the first Southern state to do so.

It’s unclear if there are enough votes for the measure to pass, but lawmakers in both parties have been more open to marijuana issues, and the state decriminalized the drug last year.

Another priority is addressing a handful of criminal justice reform measures, including getting rid of the death penalty.

“I’m optimistic that Virginia will probably end the death penalty this session,” Surovell said.

Lawmakers will discuss updating the state’s expungement laws. Currently, people in Virginia convicted of a crime are not able to have it expunged, meaning it remains on their record permanently.

“We are way out of step with the rest of the country when it comes to giving people second chances for convictions that are long in their past,” Surovell said.

This will be the second regular legislative session controlled by Democrats since they won control of the General Assembly in 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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