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The 2017 Virginia General Assembly Preview 

With elections looming and a governor leaving, state lawmakers debate pot, porn, pensions and police.

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With a tidal wave of legislation approaching, Richmond sits on low ground. The General Assembly convened for a 45-day session Jan. 11 and big-picture themes are emerging. Members will consider bills that take aim at such institutions as the tax code, law enforcement and higher education.

“This is a reset year,” says Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian, co-founder of the Virginia Transparency Caucus. Legislators are likely to be influenced by the presidential inauguration Jan. 20 and the final year of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term.

Besides the Republican-controlled Senate and House, McAuliffe faces recent criticism of the performance of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Created 21 years ago, critics refer to the partnership as a failed corporate welfare project.

But Republicans aren’t off the hook.

“Because it’s a campaign year for governor, Republican legislators don’t want to put themselves into too weird of a position.” says Don Mark, former deputy chief of staff for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones.

Yes, the cylinders of gubernatorial campaigns have begun firing. But legislators on both sides of the aisle in the House of Delegates also have campaigns ahead. All 100 seats in the lower house will be up for grabs in November.

Here are some of the most contested areas to watch:

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Pot and Pills

Some patients suffering from chronic diseases are touting the benefits of alternative medicine, saying they have less brutal side effects than painkillers. One of the new therapies gaining mainstream acceptance is prescribed medical marijuana.

“We need to move with the times,” says Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington.

A Favola bill would provide legal defense for people in possession of medical pot by expanding the list of treatable conditions. Under Virginia law, only people who suffer from intractable epilepsy are protected.

Favola isn’t advocating full-blown legalization, but she notes that patients must go out of state to buy their buds.

“If we accept marijuana as a reasonable pain-management approach, then we should have a distribution option,” Favola says. “We’re seeing real movement in the Senate on this issue.”

As for decriminalization, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, discussed the idea with The Virginian-Pilot in November.

“I think it’s absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana,” he said.

Norment voted against a decriminalization bill last year, but he’ll have a chance to vote in favor this year. The bill set forth by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would provide defense for people possessing a “personal use” stash of a half ounce or less.

On another front, opioid addiction, especially in the form of prescription pills, continues to rise in Virginia. McAuliffe declared it a public health emergency in November. A host of bills would authorize people to administer naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

Others would address opioid prescription guidelines and increase awareness of the epidemic through public education, says Delegate John Bell, D-Loudoun, who has a personal connection to the crisis.

“My son suffers from addiction,” he says, “and spearheading the effort along with my colleagues in the General Assembly is a top priority for me this legislative session.”

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Higher Education

College campuses have changed a lot since the 1960s — they’re more expensive, for one thing — but protest remains an enduring feature. During last year’s tumultuous presidential campaign, universities became ground zero for demonstrations across the political spectrum.

Preserving open dialogue is the inspiration behind a proposed bill by Delegate Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.

Landes says there’s a growing hostility on college campuses toward contrasting views. He cites guest lecturers who are subject to interruption by rowdy protestors. The bill would expand college codes that protect speech for faculty and students. He also wants universities to develop policies that would protect the speech of staff, guest lecturers and invited speakers.

“Free speech is the hallmark of our higher education system,” says Landes, an alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University. “There are certain groups on both the left and right that try to impede or hinder that free speech. As long as that discussion doesn’t incite violence, or make a call to harm other people, then everybody should have equal opportunity and access.”

A decision on this bill could be triggered by other efforts in the House. Delegate Chris Head, R-Roanoke, wants nonprofit private colleges to guarantee in writing that “freedom of speech and expression” is protected for enrolled students. As incentive, those colleges would have access to a tuition assistance program.

Another bill proposes that public colleges require students to enroll in Western civilization and U.S. history courses.

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Law Enforcement

Widely distributed videos of police officers firing on suspects were dark images during 2016. That’s why Sen. Favola wants “de-escalation training” to be mandatory for becoming part of Virginia’s police forces.

“Part of my de-escalation training would teach police that not everyone they pick up is trying to run afoul of them,” she says. “We have to build up our communities, where police aren’t trigger-happy but also not worried about their own lives. It could be win-win.”

Favola also favors legislation that would train jail officers to recognize mental health conditions in inmates. She’s finding support on the other side of the aisle, from such Republicans as Gordon Helsel of Poquoson.

Helsel says there’s another important factor in this equation: the trauma felt by law enforcement. He proposes a mental health program for law enforcement, to be coordinated between local social services and police departments.

Additionally, Helsel wants to see increased compensation for spouses of officers killed in the line of duty. The current compensation is $100,000. Legislation would add $25,000 to that figure.

“I would be happy to package all of these bills together,” Helsel says. “God knows, mental health in this state needs work.”

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Small Business

Richmonders need look no further than some of the local unhappiness about deals with Stone Brewing or the Washington Redskins to understand some of the recent criticism of McAuliffe.

Under his guidance, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership has “exposed the state to avoidable risk of fraud and financial loss,” auditors said in a report by the Joint Audit and Review Commission.

The trend is to lure outside businesses with taxpayer-funded state grant dollars, say such political observers as Norman Leahy. In a blog post on the Washington Post website, Leahy says local and state governments play the “economic development casino.”

One suggestion is to go for not-so-sexy, more permanent changes, such as amending the tax code. A host of small-business bills aims to do just that.

“We don’t need the government doling out money, picking winners and losers,” Chase says. “We need to level the playing field.”

Under one of Chase’s bills, small businesses would receive an income tax deduction. She also proposes a bill to reduce Virginia’s corporate tax rate from 6 percent to 2.5 percent — the rate in nearby North Carolina.

Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Midlothian, aims to supplement these with a bill to waive tax penalties for small businesses during their first two years of operation.

The goal is to send a message to McAuliffe, Chase says. The governor has taken notice of the general direction of business bills and issued a detailed response. He wants this session to pass legislation that would restructure the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Proposals would add executive oversight to its board and require executive staff “to develop long-term operational plans to align the organization’s work with the needs of the Virginia economy,” the governor said in a December announcement.

Sturtevant has written a proposal to begin administrative restructuring and to hold McAuliffe accountable. Chase co-sponsored the bill, and says this session will signal a trend reversal, with more protections for the little guy on the way.

“We need to reduce the amount of burdens for mom-and-pop businesses who are barely making a profit,” she says.

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Amazon

The opposite of small business, Amazon maintains three fulfillment centers in Virginia: one in Petersburg and two in Chester. When it makes a sale on an item warehoused at one of those centers, it isn’t subject to sales tax under state law — meaning Virginia sees no revenue from the sale.

Nineteen states have passed laws establishing a sales tax nexus that would make such online purchases from in-state fulfillment centers subject to sales tax, and McAuliffe hopes to see Virginia among their ranks. He estimates that such a change could add $250 million to $300 million to state coffers.

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Airbnb

Yes, yes, y’all, it’s the notorious Airbnb in the house — quite literally.

Legislators will try to decide whether Virginians can turn their homes into short-term rental properties. Last year, Airbnb-friendly legislation advanced out of the House of Delegates, but was spiked after opposition rallied behind Norment in the Senate. An amended bill was delayed until this session.

Major amendments focus on stricter tax collection and land-use control. The dividing issue in the debate is whether the state or localities should possess authority in these areas.

“We want predictability and uniformity across the state on this,” says Delegate Chris Peace, R-Hanover. “When you authorize the state to collect taxes, then those dollars can be disbursed to the city, for use in any way. There are also benefits to freeing the city from enforcing regulations.”

Richmond City Council opposes that view. Lobbyists who spoke on background said that the state can’t possibly control land use and zoning in a way that benefits residents of Richmond.

If a person has a complaint about a neighboring property, for example, they say the best form of protection is that person’s local government. Complaints could be as varied as excessive noise or a sudden shortage of street parking.

“When a short-term rental is in an owner-occupied dwelling, the city must have authority to regulate it like any other home occupation,” Richmond City Council says in its 2017 Virginia General Assembly pamphlet.

In other words, if people want to turn their homes into boarding houses, they must jump through hoops with the city. An Airbnb host can sidestep those regulations.

There’s also the issue of a transient occupancy tax, which is tailored by localities and applied to hotel customers. Airbnb is currently exempt from paying those taxes. With so many prominent hotels in Richmond, lobbyists say, City Council is invested in leveling the playing field for the hospitality industry.

Lobbyists behind City Council also express concern that the original bill prevented Airbnb from being held responsible. There was no process for localities to request that Airbnb de-register a habitually offending host. The company was unwilling to turn over information about hosts, they say.

The Virginia Housing Commission was expected to issue a report on the legislation, but decided to take no action last month. A solution will have to be worked out on the floor.

“Virginia could be in the vanguard for capitalizing on new technologies, like Airbnb,” Peace says. “This issue really gets to the heart of [not in my backyard].”

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Mental Health Care

Noticeably absent from McAuliffe’s proposed budget amendments was a renewed push for Medicaid expansion, which could have expanded access to the federally funded health care program intended for low-income people and families.

The reform has been a centerpiece of his last three budgets. But the realities of a state revenue shortfall and a new power structure in Washington have stymied the ambition for a push in the final year of McAuliffe’s administration.

Instead, he’s proposed a significant investment in mental heath care reform that amounts to $31.7 million in new spending. Among the proposed components are initiatives to reduce the number of people in state mental health facilities, provide same-day access services at community services boards and perform a system-wide evaluation of how the state administers mental health care.

The General Assembly has commissioned a number of committees in the past three years to examine mental heath and behavioral health services. One committee, helmed by mental health advocate Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, is expected to pursue legislation that doubles down on McAuliffe’s proposals.

In addition, expect a continued legislative push to better regulate and investigate both physical and mental health care services provided in state correctional facilities.

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State Workers

State employee compensation and benefits have been a focus of the last few General Assembly sessions, but a renewed focus is expected this session.

In part, that’s because the proposed 3 percent state employee pay raise approved by the General Assembly last year was invalidated by the revenue shortfall. The governor’s amendments propose a one-time 1.5 percent bonus for all state workers.

But Republicans have expressed concerns that the figure isn’t enough to improve morale and close a widening gap between salaries in the public and private sectors.

Another factor is that the Department of Human Resources Management, the state’s HR department, continues to paint a picture of a graying state work force to the General Assembly. Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees have been searching for ways to attract a new generation of workers.
Another incentive for change is that House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, won’t seek re-election in 2017. His pursuit of reform for state employee retirement benefits could become a legacy piece for him after more than 30 years in the General Assembly.

“There is an indisputable problem with state pension plans across the nation, including Virginia’s,” he says, “that is arguably approaching crisis levels.”

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Elections

Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states that will elect new governors in 2017. This undoubtedly will be the most high-profile race statewide, but campaigns for lieutenant governor, attorney general and state delegates will be operating concurrently.

A number of bills could fundamentally change how elections are conducted.

The next governor will hold office during the next mandated deliberation over redistricting, which will occur in 2021. The House and Senate currently draw their own district maps, so the party in power in that critical year in each chamber will have a distinct electoral advantage for a decade.

Advocates have sought to upend this system of redistricting, and legislators on both sides of the aisle have sponsored legislation to make the process less partisan. These bills often die quiet deaths in committee, but pressure continues to mount with each year in which 2021 inches closer.

A bill from Delegate Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, proposes a system in which all candidates for an office participate in the same public, open primary, with the top two vote getters advancing to the general election — regardless of party affiliation. This could produce general elections between two Democrats, two Republicans, or some other combination.

“Legislators have little incentive to compromise,” Rasoul says. “Our broken primary system rewards partisanship over the needs of the people.”

For the first time in Virginia history, 100 percent of incumbents in the House of Delegates in 2015 won re-election. Incumbents have reason to feel safe in Virginia’s electoral system and it wouldn’t be a surprise if most of them want to protect that advantage.

The Usual (and Unusual) Suspects

Aside from the big issues, the session is likely to feature debate on the following policies and go for a few good laughs during debate on some:

Minimum Wage: Look for a renewed fight on raising it. Several bills would bring the effective rate from $7.25 per hour to as much as $15 per hour.

Women’s Health: One of the most visible advocacy groups in the halls of the General Assembly building, the bright pink shirts of Planned Parenthood are likely to be out in full force.

Guns: What would a session be without a lively debate on firearms? Bills seeking to allow school resource officers and nonviolent felons to carry weapons are on the table.

Cats and Dogs: Crazy cat ladies (and men), rejoice! A Senate bill would allow pet owners to apply for lifetime dog or cat licenses. Let the Instagram spamming continue!

Freedom to Taste: A House bill increases the amount of money an alcohol manufacturer can spend on materials to conduct a free tasting from $100 to $250. Cheers to that!

Consult Your Doctor If: A House bill seeks to declare pornography a public health hazard in Virginia. The bill calls on the General Assembly to “research” the problem. We’re guessing at least a few hands will go up to volunteer.

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