January 07, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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General Assembly Preview 

As Democrats take the reins of power, a look at the wide range of legislation already underway for this year’s General Assembly session.

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The General Assembly opens on Wednesday, Jan. 8, but legislators new and old have been filing bills since Nov. 18. It’s a big year for Democrats, who control all three branches of state government following two years of overturning long-held Republican districts.

So far, party leadership seems committed to moderate or bipartisan legislation. Firearms-related legislation offered by moderates like state Sen. Dick Saslaw is focused on broadly popular issues like mandating background checks for all gun sales, supported by 86% of Virginians and a majority of Republicans according to a poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Another broadly popular initiative, health care access, is a focus for other moderate Democrats, building on Medicaid expansion that brought coverage to 300,000 residents. The measure was endorsed by 71% of respondents in a poll conducted by the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, and several Republicans endorsed it for the first time last year after constituents filled town halls to demand it in 2017 and 2018.

Also in the list of bills from the Democratic mainstream: electoral reform, food stamp program overhauls and criminal justice reforms. Republicans have already signed on to support some major bills offered by Democrats, such as marijuana decriminalization, but the scope of the pre-filed legislation from the minority party is more regional. Pilot programs to study opioid addiction treatment in south-central Virginia and tax exemptions for relief payments to victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting are among those bills.

Some of the most sweeping bills come from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which gained seats in 2019. Mostly centered in Northern Virginia, the group has expanded its geographic reach with freshman legislator Delegate Joshua Cole of Fredericksburg, who defeated Republican Paul Milde on a promise to vote against the work requirement Republicans added to Medicare expansion. One of the most visible delegates, self-described Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, has pre-filed 16 items covering worker’s compensation, wages, worker strikes and sweeping overhauls of the criminal justice system.

Although he’s proposing to abolish the death penalty and cash bail, legalize marijuana and permit localities to purchase and rent real estate below market rates to address housing instability, it’s one of his smaller bills that’s drawing the most negative attention: Carter proposed permitting strikes by public workers last session, but Republicans rejected the bill, citing fears that police strikes would result in lawlessness.

As a compromise, he has reintroduced the bill with an exception for police, which has prompted assassination threats over Twitter and email.

“It’s a compromise bill. I wanted to let any public-sector worker strike,” he says, explaining his frustration. “This was specifically because people on the right didn’t want to let police go on strike. Now I’m getting death threats from people on the right. You can’t win.”

Although he’s fighting the right on this bill, he’s also preparing for a major conflict with centrists in his own party. He’s proposed eliminating the so-called right-to-work laws that effectively killed unionization in 1947. With eight co-patrons, Carter thinks he has the votes in the House of Delegates but isn’t sure about the Senate.

“We’re going to be telling Democrats, you had 73 years to be neutral on this,” he says. “That time has passed. Working people need you to pick a side. Are you on our side or are you on the side of the corporations?”

Other small bills are drawing mixed national attention, such as a bill by Delegate Barry Knight, a farmer and Republican who represents Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, to define milk as the “lacteal secretion” of “healthy hooved animals.” Knight seems surprised by the media interest and says he “doesn’t see what the fuss is,” about his bill, which he describes as common sense. “Some of these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk,” he says. “If someone asks you for a glass of milk, they assume it’s going to be cow’s milk.”

Perhaps most importantly, he says he hopes to protect an important part of our economy. “Agriculture is our top industry, and we’re losing a dairy farm every other week in Virginia,” he says. “I hope to stem the tide of farms’ going out of business.”

 

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Gun safety

The former Senate majority leader, Thomas Norment Jr., would mandate firearms training in public schools, a shift from his proposed bill banning firearms in municipal buildings in July. That bill, which went further than Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal to let localities decide on such bans, brought Norment into conflict with his own party, and it seems unlikely that he or his party will support similar bills this session.

Even as suburban and rural Republicans held Second Amendment protests, Democratic party leadership pre-filed more than a dozen bills around firearm access and safety. Saslaw, who returns as majority leader for the first time since 1998, has five bills including expanding background checks, outright bans on weapons that meet a legal definition of assault firearms and firearm transfers without background checks, co-patroned with fellow Democrat Michael Mullin. The house bill complements a Senate measure patroned by Saslaw and Democratic Delegate Kaye Kory of Fairfax County. The legislation would close the gun-show loophole and increase criminal penalties for people who sell or transfer guns without obtaining a background check.

In the House, Richmond Delegate Jeff Bourne proposes a penalty for anyone who fails to report a lost or stolen firearm, similar to Democratic State Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s proposal, which also would limit the civil penalty for failure to report such firearms to $250.

 

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Criminal justice reform and marijuana

McClellan is tackling the school-to-prison pipeline with a bill that would eliminate the misdemeanor charge for disorderly conduct during school functions. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, these charges caused 11 million missing school days for students, particularly black and Native American students, and students with disabilities. In Virginia, the Center for Public Integrity found that thousands of students entered the criminal justice system after disorderly conduct that wouldn’t be considered criminal outside of a school. Newport News’ Mullins introduced similar legislation in the House.

Cole and fellow freshman Democrat, Delegate Ibraheem S. Samirah, are also addressing the school-to-prison pipeline by limiting suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent conduct. Cole’s other reform would raise the age at which a minor can be tried as an adult from 14 to 16.

A broad bipartisan effort to decriminalize marijuana is also underway, with a Senate bill by Democrat Adam Ebbin and Republican Sens. Norment and Siobhan Dunnavant. The legislation is co-sponsored by Kory in the House of Delegates. In the House, Delegate Mark Levine proposes decriminalization, while Carter and Democratic Delegate Steve Heretick propose outright legalization. Carter’s ambitious justice reform system bills include the abolition of cash bill, the death penalty and strip searches for minors and others making noncontact visits with inmates.

Expungement of records is a popular proposal as well, at least on the Democratic side. Several delegates and state senators are proposing different bills, but Norfolk Democratic Delegate Joseph Lindsey seeks to expunge the records of minors who stole food or medicine and completed their sentences after at least 5 years.

Bipartisan support exists to repeal driver license suspension for nonpayment of fines, with similar bills introduced by Republican Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. and Democrat Ebbin. Narrower bills are also being proposed by Republicans and Democrats, such as Republican Sen. Richard Stuart’s proposal legalizing drunken driving on one’s own property. His fellow Republican, Delegate Michael Webert, wants to eliminate the unenforced ban against swearing, and in a similar measure, Democrat Levine is introducing legislation that might make sex a little less fraught for unmarried Virginians. His bill would eliminate the crime of fornication, which is defined in Virginia criminal code as “voluntary sexual intercourse by an unmarried person.”

 

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Housing and wages

Sen. Mamie Locke, a Democrat from Hampton, proposes an increase in the minimum wage to $10 per hour, which would increase each year until reaching $15 per hour in 2022. Kory has introduced a bill to pay contractors and employees of firms the government contracts with the prevailing wage.

McClellan filed two bills to ban housing discrimination, the first on the basis of sexual identity or gender orientation and the second for political jurisdictions and commissions “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, handicap, or because the development is expected to contain affordable housing for families or individuals with income at or below the 80% of the median of the area.”

In the House, Samirah has proposed a statewide upzoning bill, which would make all single-family housing multi-family. The new delegate says he’s surprised by the backlash against his bill.

He stresses that the bill empowers homeowners to decide how best to use their property, and says he’s received letters of support from conservative groups. He attributes the opposition to simple partisanship: “There remains a reactionary right that is looking to divide and conquer. They failed in Virginia and lost control of the Assembly, and they’ve turned to identity politics,” he says, claiming critics are focused on his race, youth and Muslim faith. “If a Republican proposed this, they’d tout it as deregulation, property rights, the free hand of the market.”

If it passes, Virginia will be the first state to permit multi-family housing and accessory dwelling units — known colloquially as mother-in-law apartments — without exception.

And another ambitious housing proposal, from Carter, would permit localities to buy real estate and rent property to residents at below market rates. He says his first-in-the-nation bill could combat rising housing costs by putting a “downward pressure on the cost of housing for everyone,” comparing it to similar measures enacted in Austria at the turn of the 20th century.

Today, Vienna in that country is recognized as a global leader in affordable housing.

 

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Health care, addiction treatment and entitlements

Democrats are seeking to expand access to health care, with a proposal to overturn the controversial work requirements for Medicaid. Implementation in Virginia was paused earlier this year after costly legal challenges in Kentucky and Arkansas suggested the underlying legal arguments the requirement is based on were weak. Mental health training and treatment are also on offer, with several bills focused on school systems and primary health care.

Locke is looking to remove some restrictions on food stamps for people who are charged with drug offenses, and proposes waiving requirements for a fetal transabdominal ultrasound at least 24 hours prior to obtaining an abortion, or at least two hours prior to obtaining an abortion if the pregnant woman lives at least 100 miles from the facility where the abortion is to be performed.

Stanley. proposes a two-year pilot program to study opioid addiction treatment in Planning District 12, composed of Franklin, Henry, Patrick, and Pittsylvania counties.

 

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Electoral Reform

Lindsey would end Lee-Jackson Day and make election day a state holiday. He and Delegate Charniele L. Herring, an Alexandria Democrat, have offered separate bills to permit no-excuse-needed absentee voting, while Locke and others would repeal photo ID voting requirements.

Many of these proposals are already in place in other states, and would have small impacts compared to the biggest open question: Will the Democratic majority end gerrymandering in Virginia? Republicans killed proposals to reform the drafting of voting maps when they controlled the legislature; now, they’re crying foul as some Democratic lawmakers seem to be coming out against legislation the once-minority party supported. Even Democrat and anti-gerrymandering activist Bobby Vassar of One Virginia 2021 says he’s worried about his party, in a column published Dec. 2 in the Virginia Mercury.

Vassar, who served as chief counsel and legislative director to Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, described recent statements by Democratic lawmakers as “disheartening” after years of fighting for fair election maps. He called on his fellow Democrats to pass “the most comprehensive redistricting legislation that has ever passed through a state legislature” and “end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all.”

Pre-filing ends Jan. 8, but legislation can be introduced as late as Jan. 17. While Democrats likely will pass much of their signature legislation on firearms and health care, other proposals remain uncertain. Wildcard members like State Sen. Joe Morrisey, conservative-leaning Democrats who represent battleground districts and the energized left wing of the party will make for an unpredictable session.

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