In five weeks, Virginia Democrats reshape decades of state policy

By: - February 12, 2020 12:15 am

Gov. Ralph Northam, flanked by incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, outlines Democrats’ priorities for the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia General Assembly passed bills to raise the minimum wage, let local governments remove Confederate statues, transform the energy landscape in response to climate change and grant legal driving privileges to undocumented immigrants.

And that was just Tuesday.

At the halfway point of a hectic, 60-day legislative session, Virginia’s new Democratic majorities are dismantling decades of Republican-approved policy and advancing a broad progressive agenda.

A legislature that once made national headlines for requiring transvaginal probes before abortions is now rolling back abortion restrictions like mandatory ultrasounds and the 24-hour waiting period. Past Republican efforts to create legal protections for traditional religious viewpoints have given way to a far-reaching LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill, the first of its kind to advance in the South. The photo ID election rule Republicans enacted as an anti-fraud measure is on the verge of being scrapped and replaced by a more lenient system that would allow excuse-free early voting and automatic voter registration.

In a state where many areas see gun rights as sacrosanct, bills to impose new restrictions on firearm access — including universal background checks and a red flag law — are well on their way to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said the Democrats’ agenda should come as no surprise, because Virginia voters chose a “resounding move in this direction” when they gave Democrats control in last year’s elections.

“They wanted change. They wanted action,” Filler-Corn said. “And we are doing exactly that.”

Tuesday was the legislature’s crossover deadline, the final day for the House to act on the 1,734 bills its members filed and the last day for the Senate to finish work on its 1,095 bills. As of Tuesday evening, the two chambers had passed more than 1,400 bills combined. Starting Wednesday, House bills will go the Senate and vice versa as lawmakers try to work out any differences before the final votes to send legislation to the governor.

Among the bills moving forward are proposals to decriminalize marijuana, legalize casinos and sports betting, boost the number of school counselors in public schools, tighten regulations on short-term payday lenders and education loan servicers, create a state-run health insurance exchange and overhaul transportation policy by raising the gas tax to increase road funding, enhancing rail infrastructure and imposing several safety measures like a ban on holding a phone while driving. There’s also the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping move to eliminate electric power sector carbon emissions and promote distributed renewable energy and energy efficiency, among other provisions.

The deluge of big-ticket bills is largely the result of built-up demand for Democratic priorities that were out of reach as long as Republicans controlled one or both legislative chambers.

“This is my 25th year,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. “I’d say it’s our most accomplished session since I’ve been here.”

One of the first orders of business for the Democratic-led legislature was ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, delivering a victory for gender equality advocates that has triggered a legal push to have the amendment added to the U.S. Constitution.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most historically significant legislative sessions that has ever happened,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who championed the ERA resolution.

Republicans have argued Democrats are wrecking the state in ways that may not be fully understood until the new laws take effect. In floor speeches, GOP lawmakers have accused the majority of neglecting election security for the sake of openness, trampling the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners and inviting economic upheaval and higher unemployment under the plan to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“What we’re really seeing is like a jewelry store smash and grab,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. “They’re going to grab everything they possibly can while they can get it before the lights go on and the siren goes off. And I think when Virginia wakes up and sees what they’ve just done, potentially in one session, I think you may see a sea change occur in this body two years from now.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Democratic energy and economic policies will “have the cumulative effect of making living here and working here a lot more expensive.” Democrats contend their signature energy bill, the Clean Economy Act, will create thousands of new jobs.

“People who may have voted for Democrats because they’re angry at Donald Trump for whatever reason are going to have a rude awakening about just how far and how fast this Democrat agenda is proceeding,” Gilbert said.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, said it’s been interesting to see the different reactions to the bills Democrats are passing.

“There’s excitement about making things more equitable,” Price said. “But then there’s a population that feels punished with equity. And that can really speak to the underlying privilege that has been in the code for so long.”

There have been some limits to the new majorities’ agenda.

Proposals that would repeal or scale back the state’s right-to-work law preventing workers from having to pay union dues as a condition of employment failed to move forward, but they may be given further study for the 2021 session. Some advocates have also expressed disappointment at the pace of marijuana reform, arguing the state should move to full-scale legalization rather than making simple marijuana possession punishable only by a civil fine.

With lengthy bill dockets in both chambers, Tuesday was the busiest day of voting until the budget comes up later in the session.

In a key piece of unfinished business, the House voted 51-48 to pass a bill blocking future sales of assault weapons and banning magazines capable of holding more than 12 rounds of ammunition. Three Democrats voted against the bill, not enough defections to sink it.

Stopping the bill, the only gun-control proposal that would put new limits on what type of firearms and equipment Virginians can legally buy and own, has been a top priority for the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups. The idea that certain guns people already own would’ve become illegal to possess — a provision that’s no longer in the bill — helped fuel the massive pro-gun rally at the Capitol on Jan. 20.

Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, said on the floor it could potentially impact “millions” of Virginia gun owners.

“If you ever said to one of your constituents, ‘I’m not for taking your gun,’ this bill will do that,” Rush said.

“This will will affect millions of Virginians, that’s true,” replied Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax. “It’s going to make sure millions of Virginians in schools and their streets are safe from the threat of mass murder.”

The assault weapon bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where no Democratic legislator was willing to sponsor it even though Northam identified the proposal as a priority for his administration.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn March 7.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.