An excellent summary by State Sen. Janet Howell (D):
Very late Friday night the Senate completed work on all Senate bills. So now the bills are “crossing over” to the House. And, the House bills are “crossing over” to the Senate. The already frenetic pace of legislating will speed up.
As chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, my focus has been on the budget. We will release our amendments to the Governor’s budget later this week and then intense negotiations with the House will begin. This year’s budget process has been particularly complex because of Covid-19, federal assistance, and fluctuating revenues. Our Virginia constitution requires we have a balanced budget so such extreme uncertainty complicates our task.
The Richmond-Times Dispatch on Tuesday had an impressive summary of major legislation we have dealt with. This is the most consequential session in my 29 year tenure. I hope you will review the list below, which is a verbatim summary prepared by the Richmond-Times Dispatch newspaper, and let me know your views.
Abortion: The House and Senate backed legislation to remove the ban on abortion coverage on the state’s health care exchange.
Budget: The House and Senate have not acted on revisions to the $141 billion two-year budget that Gov. Ralph Northam introduced in December. The assembly money committees have delayed the release of their budgets because of the transition between the regular session and the special session that starts Wednesday. They also won’t know until early next week how much additional revenue Northam expects the state to collect from income, sales and other taxes to support the $47 billion general fund for core government services such as education, public safety and health care.
Censure: The Senate censured Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a GOP candidate for governor, for “conduct unbecoming” of a member of the Senate. Chase has filed suit against the Senate and Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar, seeking to overturn the rebuke and restore her seniority in the chamber.
COVID-19: The House and Senate backed similar emergency legislation that aims to speed up vaccine distribution efforts by widening the pool of who’s eligible to be a vaccinator and adding vaccination sites. Northam has championed the House bill, which would also mandate race and ethnicity data collection.
Death Penalty: The House and Senate passed measures that would make Virginia the first state in the South to abandon capital punishment. Since 1608, Virginia has executed almost 1,400 people.
Dominion Energy: Delegates approved a package of bills to strengthen oversight of the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy. The bills would give more power to the utility’s regulatory agency, which could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in customer refunds and in the future lead to lower electric bills.
Elections: The House and Senate approved a measure called the Virginia Voting Rights Act that would protect voters from suppression, intimidation and discrimination based on their race, ethnicity or first language. The bill would set up new requirements for localities. Lawmakers are also working on legislation to lessen confusion on Election Day by requiring localities to reform the way they count absentee ballots. Lawmakers rejected efforts to heighten scrutiny of elections, such as a bid to require live video recording of casting and counting absentee ballots.
Evictions: The House passed a bill that would require a landlord to wait 14 days, instead of five, before issuing an eviction notice to a renter. Another bill the House passed would expand a tenant’s so-called right-of-redemption to settle a delinquent balance and keep their home. Both chambers passed bills aimed at cracking down on landlords who illegally evict tenants, and that would require courts to intervene in such cases sooner when tenants file emergency petitions.
Expungement: House Democrats passed a bill designed to automatically expunge certain felony and misdemeanor convictions, without fees or filing a petition in court, in order to give people who have served their punishment a clean slate. House Democrats are in a standoff over the issue with Senate Democrats, who prefer requiring a petition in court for a charge to be expunged.
Guns: House Democrats passed legislation to ban the possession or sale of guns without serial numbers designed to avoid detection devices. House and Senate Democrats passed legislation that would ban possession of guns on the state Capitol grounds, and write into law bans on guns in the Capitol and state buildings. The House passed a bill prohibiting guns inside polling places. A Senate bill that would have required background checks on people renting guns at shooting ranges failed on the floor.
Higher Education: The House voted to require five universities that were built or maintained by enslaved workers to offer scholarships or other community programs to descendants of the enslaved. The House also voted to set a higher requirement for the transparency of college governing boards.
Immigration: The Senate passed legislation to repeal the requirement that mental health facilities report documented and undocumented immigrants to ICE upon screening, and a bill that would allow a parent expecting deportation to provide a standby guardian for their child if under 18 years old. The House backed legislation to tighten privacy protections for undocumented immigrants signing up for driver privilege cards, which would limit the power of ICE in accessing state databases. It also voted to remove the exclusion of farm workers from Virginia’s minimum wage laws. Another bill that cleared the House would ensure access to COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination for undocumented residents. Both chambers pushed forth bills to let undocumented state residents apply for college financial aid, a year after Virginia expanded access for undocumented students to receive in-state tuition.
Insurance: A proposal to create a separate “reinsurance” pool for the most expensive health insurance customers has broad support except on the issue of who pays the state’s share of the bill. The legislation would direct the state to seek a federal Medicaid waiver to create the program as a way to reduce health insurance premiums for everyone else. The federal government would pay almost all of the bill, using savings from lower premium subsidies, but the proposal the House adopted would impose a 1% fee on all policies to pay for the state’s share of the cost. Insurers want the state to pay for it out of the budget. The proposal now goes to the Senate.
K-12 Education: The Senate passed legislation calling for schools to offer in-person instruction, effective July 1. Northam has since told school superintendents to offer such instruction by March 15. Both chambers passed bills to require teachers, principals and superintendents to have cultural competency as part of their yearly evaluations. As yet, lawmakers have not funded statewide efforts to fix crumbling schools.
LGBT: The House and Senate endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal Virginia’s 2006 amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. A proposed constitutional amendment would have to pass the legislature in consecutive years and then succeed in a statewide voter referendum. The House passed a bill to repeal the “conscience clause” that lets child placement agencies refuse to take part in child placements that violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.
Marijuana: The House and Senate signaled support for the legalization of marijuana, but striking differences in approach between the chambers leave uncertainty about the legislation’s fate. The Senate supports legalizing simple possession this summer, which the House does not. Neither chamber has yet fully grappled with the creation of a market for legal sales.
Mandatory Minimums: The House and Senate passed legislation that would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences. Supporters say such sentences are discriminatory and result in lengthy sentences.
Redistricting: Delegates approved measures that would allow for the removal of members of the state’s newly created redistricting commission due to improper conduct, and that would require more public input in the map drawing process. A bill intended to boost transparency would require the commission to allow public comment on the legislative and congressional district maps after they are drawn — instead of just before — and would require that all meetings be livestreamed.
Rights Restoration: The House and Senate approved proposed constitutional amendments to allow people convicted of felonies to vote. The House resolution would restore rights automatically after a voter completes their sentence. The Senate resolution would allow people convicted of felonies to vote, except while incarcerated.
Right-to-work Law: The House rejected an effort to bring to the floor a proposed repeal of the right-to-work law under which union membership may not be a condition of employment.
Sick Leave: The House pushed through a bill that would require businesses with more than 25 employees to provide five days of paid sick leave to essential workers who work at least 20 hours per week. Health officials have supported the bill in hopes of limiting COVID-19 spread, but similar legislation has been killed twice in past sessions.
Solitary Confinement: The Senate passed legislation that would end most uses of solitary confinement in state prisons, but the Department of Corrections says it would be expensive to stop using it.
Statues: The House and Senate backed legislation to erect a statue of teenage civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns in the United States Capitol. The House also endorsed measures to place a statue of educator and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington in the Virginia Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber and to remove a statue of segregationist Gov. and U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square.
Taxes: The assembly is divided over how to respond to a new federal law to help businesses survive the pandemic by giving them what the state considers a “double tax benefit” on federal emergency loans. The forgivable loans convert into tax-exempt grants if businesses did not lay off employees during government-enforced restrictions on their operations. The federal government allows those businesses to deduct their expenses from income tax, but the assembly is debating narrower relief from state income tax to protect revenue for the budget. The Senate wants to let all businesses that received the loans deduct up to $100,000 in expenses from state income taxes due this year, while the House would allow only unincorporated businesses to deduct up to $25,000.