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Virginia Democrats Pass Slew of New Laws As Session Ends

Building facade
The Virginia State Capitol at night. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

*Ben Paviour and Roberto Roldan reported this story.

The General Assembly wrapped up its 2021 session on Saturday after lawmakers passed major legislation on marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, and COVID-19.

For a second year, Virginia Democrats used majorities in the House and Senate to push their top priorities. They advanced “first-in-the-South” legislation that would ban the death penalty, create a Virginia Voting Rights Act, and declare racism a public health crisis. Lawmakers moved to allow people to expunge criminal records and expand access to absentee voting

Lawmaker
Virginia State Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), left, delivers the morning prayer as Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) looks on during the Senate session at the Science Museum in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

But the party also hedged on other ambitious proposals. Lawmakers delayed the legalization of marijuana until 2024 over the objections of some progressives; they’ll have to re-approve much of the legislation next year. The state Senate narrowed plans to mandate paid sick leave and killed new oversight over powerful utility monopolies. Lawmakers kicked proposals to overhaul campaign finance -- including personal use of campaign money  -- to future study.  

Strong state revenues allowed Democrats to restore and even expand funding that they had suspended last March, when the pandemic shut down Virginia. Lawmakers agreed to a 5% pay raise for public school teachers and state employees as well as a 7% pay raise for state police officers. Lawmakers sent an extra $433 million toward public schools hit by enrollment drops, restoring 95% of new funding they approved in March 2020 and suspended the following month. 

“Our House Democratic Majority has kept its promise to protect families, keep Virginia healthy and rebuild our economy stronger,” Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement.

Republicans scored a victory in a push to mandate public schools reopen, although it won’t go into effect in July. They called for stronger oversight of the parole board, fought efforts to expand voting, and found some Democratic support for allowing tax forgiveness for businesses that received federal PPP loans.  

Moran
FILE - In this Friday Jan. 3, 2020, file photo is Virginia Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, during a press conference in Richmond, Va. Virginia lawmakers demanded answers from Moran and the rest of Gov. Ralph Northam's administration following a report that raised new questions about the state parole board. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The General Assembly finished its work over the weekend and is expected to formally end the session on Monday.

Topics from the session are likely to surface again soon. All 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for election this year. Voters will also choose a new governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. 

Marijuana

Some of the weekend’s most fraught negotiations centered on the details of marijuana legalization.

Under current rules, people found carrying less than an ounce of marijuana face a $25 civil fine. The updated proposal removes that penalty, but not until retail sales begin on Jan. 1, 2024. It also requires the General Assembly revisit regulatory framework and criminal penalties next year. 

That timeline disappointed a coalition of criminal justice advocates, who said the state continued to criminalize people for using a drug they intended to legalize. A handful of House Democrats sat out the vote, and others who cast votes in favor did so with the understanding that it was not a finished product.

“I’m confident that the governor will send down amendments and we can make this bill better,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

For more on legalization, see VPM’s full story: Virginia Lawmakers Move to Legalize Marijuana….In 2024.

marijuana plant
A flowering marijuana plant at the gLeaf facility in Richmond. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Criminal Justice Reform 

Last summer’s racial justice protests prompted lawmakers to pass a package of reforms last year. Much of that work spilled into this year’s regular session. 

Three Republicans joined Democrats in a vote to ban the death penalty - a historic moment for a state that, since colonial times, has outpaced the rest of the country on executions. 

Another significant measure creates a path for Virginians to have their criminal records cleared. 

Following inaction on the issue during the special session, lawmakers in the House and Senate finally agreed to establish a process for the automatic sealing of criminal records for certain convictions after seven years. It would also allow people convicted of some felonies to petition to have their records sealed. The measure would impact roughly 1.6 million people in the commonwealth.

Attorney General Mark Herring said Virginia will go from being one of seven states that do not allow sealing or expungement of any criminal convictions to a national leader. 

“Ultimately we’re going to have one of the most forgiving systems in the sense that people have done their time and we will acknowledge that people have turned their lives around and that’s a good thing,” Herring said. 

Lawmakers also advanced an amendment to the state constitution that would automatically restore the voting rights of people convicted of a felony upon their release. That will need to be approved again next year in order to appear before Virginia voters on the ballot.

Lawmakers failed to come to an agreement on proposals to strip mandatory minimum sentences from state code. The two chambers disagreed about which crimes should be included.

Responding to COVID-19 

State lawmakers found themselves at the center of a school re-opening debate that had previously played out in local school districts. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) introduced a two-sentence bill requiring schools to begin offering an in-person instruction option. Much of the debate was over whether the bill should have an emergency clause, meaning it would go into effect immediately. 

Dunnavant argued the negative impact of virtual learning on students and parents outweighed the public health benefits.

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Virginia State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) takes a photo of the vote on a bill requiring in person learning at state schools during the Senate session at the Science Museum in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“We have safety issues, food insecurity, broadband and IT inadequacy,” Dunnavant said on the Senate floor this month.

Some Democrats argued that local school boards are best equipped to make decisions for their students. Even Democrats that supported getting kids back in schools soon had concerns about COVID-19 spread and getting teachers and staff vaccinated before kids are back in classrooms.

The compromise bill headed to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk won’t take effect until July 1. That means it’s unlikely to have much of an impact until the upcoming fall semester. The bill requires school districts that move to in-person learning to offer a vaccine to teachers and staff. Schools must follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health guidance to the “maximum extent practicable.” It gives them the option of going back to full virtual in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The General Assembly also looked to help vulnerable homeowners and renters stay in their homes during the pandemic.

Last year, lawmakers acted to limit evictions during the pandemic with temporary measures. Those included requiring some landlords to offer a payment plan before evicting a tenant. Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) successfully extended those measures for another year.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William) also pushed through a bill that gives homeowners more notice of an impending foreclosure sale by the banks, and directs them to legal and financial aid resources to avoid the foreclosure. 

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An electric car charging station outside the Science Museum where Virginia State Senators met for their 2021 legislative session in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

New environmental rules 

Virginia is set to adopt California’s electric vehicle standards. Bill sponsors say they are addressing different aspects of the market: adopting a legislative framework and bringing EVs to auto dealers; building demand by offering a cash incentive to buyers; and building out Virginia’s electric driving infrastructure.

Localities will soon have more flexibility in planning and funding environmentally-minded projects. One measure heading to the governor’s desk allows for cities and towns to mandate developers plant more trees in certain developments, such as those in formerly redlined areas. Another allows localities to establish “green banks,”  funds dedicated to promoting and financing local clean energy projects.

Chesapeake Bay protections were updated too, with phase III of the Watershed Implementation Plan adopting new pollution benchmarks - and advocates say new restrictions on polystyrene and balloon pollution will also help the bay.

VPM’s Whittney Evans and Patrick Larsen contributed to this report.