Highlights From a Historic General Assembly Session
To wrap up a particularly busy General Assembly session, VPM reporters covering education, legal issues, and politics sat down to summarize a long weekend at the Capitol - and explain the upcoming budget vote, scheduled for Thursday.
PAULY: From the State Capitol in Richmond, I’m Megan Pauly. It’s been a historic year for the Virginia General Assembly. Lawmakers finalized legislation all weekend, and will be back Thursday to pass a budget.
Newly empowered Democrats pushed through proposals to restrict guns, expand abortion access and increase the minimum wage among other measures.
Here to talk through some of the highlights: our politics reporter Ben Paviour and legal reporter Whittney Evans. Hey, guys.
PAULY: So Ben, would you say Democrats did everything they said they were going to do this session?
PAVIOUR: Well, even this weekend that there were lots of differences among Democrats on a lot of big issues. But a few lawmakers I talked to yesterday said they’d made good on the promises they made on the campaign trail...like increasing access to voting and passing new gun laws.
I caught up with Democratic Delegate...and Henrico County civics teacher Schuyler VanValkenburg on his way out.
VANVALKENBURG: “You know, we’re tired, it’s been a long 60 days, but it’s a good tired, but it’s a sense of optimism because we’ve really been able to do some good things.”
It’s been over decades since Democrats ran the show at the General Assembly. There’s just so much they wanted to get done, and there’s no doubt they passed a lot of bills on their priorities.
PAULY: And Democrats clearly had a lot of wins this session, but what’s it been like for Republicans who are now in the minority?
BEN: Some Republicans seemed caught off-guard by the pace of change. Republican Senator Bill Stanley represents parts of Southside Virginia, and he said Northern Virginia Democrats really were able to force their policy on rural parts of the state where it didn’t make sense.
STANLEY: “That one-size-fits all strategy is a bad strategy. I think we need to understand that each region is unique to itself and has its own needs.”
Republicans said that was especially true on issues like increasing the minimum wage. They argued it would hurt rural businesses.
PAULY: A lot of Democrats wanted to raise the minimum wage to $15 but they got $12 because there weren’t enough votes in the Senate. And even that’s not going to happen all at once, right?
PAVIOUR: Yes. Under the plan that passed, the minimum wage will go up to $9.50 starting at the beginning of next year. It’ll go up to $11 in 2022, and then $12 by 2023. At that point, things would pause, and lawmakers would study whether it should keep going up to $15 an hour...and whether that should happen everywhere or in just some parts of the state.
PAULY: Now, a lot of people are disappointed that lawmakers didn’t legalize marijuana this year. But they did reduce the penalty. People who are caught with less than an ounce will no longer face jail time. And the fine has been reduced to $25. But a lot of the details took a while to work out, right Whittney?
Yeah, one of the big sticking points was what to do about peoples’ past criminal records related to marijuana possession. Those records will be sealed, but not expunged. That means they’ll still be there, but they won’t show up in background checks. And kids will be treated as delinquents when they’re caught with marijuana. That means they could still lose their driver’s license or be put on probation. That bothered a lot of advocates.
PAULY: And Whittney, an emotional day for folks in the undocumented community Saturday, when legislation passed allowing them to drive legally. But they’re not getting a standard driver’s license like you and I have?
EVANS: Yes, they’ll be able to apply to get a driver privilege card, which will look almost identical to a driver’s license. Just without the little star that real IDs have.
The look of the card was a big concern for advocates. They didn’t want drivers who are undocumented to be targeted by law enforcement.
PAULY: Also, the governor had a package of gun control bills he wanted passed this year. He got seven out of eight of those bills passed. Can you remind us what some of those were?
EVANS: The General Assembly approved a “red flag” law which let’s law enforcement temporarily take someone’s guns if they think they’ll hurt themselves or someone else. They moved to reinstate the one-handgun-a-month law and they said local governments could ban guns in places they don’t want them. They also increased the penalty for letting kids get a hold of loaded guns.
The bill that didn’t pass was a ban on assault-style weapons.
PAULY: A lot of gun control advocates were disappointed in the bill that passed, requiring universal background checks. Why is that?
EVANS: Yes, it turns out the bill isn’t so “universal.” It requires anyone purchasing a firearm to go through a criminal background check. But it leaves out firearms transfers. So if someone gives you a firearm as a gift you don’t have to get a background check. Gun control advocates say that’s a big loophole.
PAULY: Another hot-button topic this session: confederate monuments. Lawmakers are giving cities the ability to take them down or move them. Ben, what process do they have to follow?
BEN: There has to be one community meeting, and then a simple majority of the local city council. That’s all it takes. There were some plans to require a supermajority vote and a study but that’s not what got passed.
PAULY: While lawmakers voted to outlaw what are called “games of skill,” instead of regulating them, they passed legislation expanding gaming this year. They voted to allow casinos and sports betting, right Whittney?
EVANS: Yes, casinos are legal in the state after decades of resistance from Republicans. And people will now be able to place bets on sports teams….but there’s a big caveat with that. It’ll still be illegal to place bets on sports teams at colleges and universities within the state of Virginia.
PAVIOUR: Megan, you’ve been following the debate about collective bargaining, which passed Sunday. What will that mean for Virginia teachers?
So for example, if the majority of Richmond Public School teachers decided they wanted to collectively bargain, the Richmond school board would be required to take a vote to consider it. But the legislation doesn’t mandate that localities bargain with employees who organize unions.
And while the legislation allows localities and school boards to bargain with their employees, state employees will not be allowed to do the same.
PAVIOUR: Got it, thanks Megan.
PAULY: Thank you, and thanks Whittney.
EVANS: You’ve got it.
PAULY: And a reminder: while all of the legislation has been finalized, lawmakers still haven’t voted on a biennium budget. That should be online today (Monday), and lawmakers will be back in Richmond on Thursday to take a vote on it. You can follow all of our coverage on our website, VPM(dot)com(slash)general assembly. You’re listening to VPM News.