8 big things that passed in the final hours of a historic General Assembly session in Virginia

By: - March 9, 2020 12:01 am

The Virginia Senate. (2020 file photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As the overtime Virginia General Assembly session dragged on Sunday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax told senators that math was not working in their favor.

Given all the legislation left to vote on and the hours left before a 6 p.m. deadline, Fairfax said, the chamber could spend about seven minutes on each bill. At the pace things were going, he said, “a lot of stuff is going to die.”

Some stuff did. A bill mandating paid sick days wasn’t brought to a vote before the legislature adjourned, a move that came as the state deals with its first two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

But lawmakers are preparing to officially close the books on a historic, action-packed legislative session as Democrats used their hard-won majorities to overhaul decades’ worth of state policy enacted under Republican control.

The legislature passed most of the gun-control bills Gov. Ralph Northam called for after last year’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach, ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and lifted restrictions on abortion access, made Virginia the first Southern state to adopt sweeping anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and took steps to elevate workers’ rights in a state known for being friendly to big business.

The legislature still has to approve the two-year state budget. Lawmakers finished up the bulk of their work on Sunday around 5 p.m. and announced they’ll return Thursday to finish the budget and appoint judges.

Relegated to minority status, Republican leaders have warned the ambitious Democratic agenda will have unintended consequences, potentially jeopardizing the state’s economy and reputation for moderate politics.

But with unified Democratic control, many policy debates came down to a choice between incremental progress or bolder change.

On several big-ticket issues, those discussions came down to the final two days of the session as legislators negotiated details and took final votes to pass legislation and send it to the governor.

Here’s what lawmakers worked out in the hectic, two-day finale to the 2020 session.

Minimum wage

Lawmakers struck a deal late Saturday night to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 over the next three years, with a built-in process for potentially going higher to the $15 wage many Democrats campaigned on.

The compromise bill increases the wage to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023.

It also calls for a study of a regional minimum wage – an approach proposed by lawmakers in the Senate. After that study is complete, lawmakers would vote in 2024 whether to continue increasing the wage to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026.

“This legislation is for people who clean our hotel rooms, our offices, long after we have gone home to be with our families,” said Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who carried the legislation in the House of Delegates.


Marijuana decriminalization

Just a few years after marijuana arrests in the state hit a 20-year high, lawmakers voted to decriminalize simple possession.

That means an offense currently punishable by jail time and a $500 penalty could soon be reduced to a $25 civil fine similar to a traffic ticket.

“This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the Senate.


Driver cards for immigrants

Virginia lawmakers voted Saturday to grant driver privilege cards – but not full-fledged licenses – to undocumented immigrants.

“I cannot tell you all how important this is for about 300,000 people living in Virginia,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Alexandria. “This bill is going to change people’s lives.”

Currently undocumented immigrants are not able to get licenses, leading many to simply drive without one. Lawmakers framed the proposal as a way to allow immigrants living here to take care of their basic needs while also improving public safety by ensuring everyone on the road has passed a driving test and is insured.


Virginia Clean Economy Act

Lawmakers wrapped up negotiations Friday on a landmark bill designed to make Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2045 while also incorporating stronger protections for electric utility ratepayers.

Advocates described the final version — the result of a session-long push by clean energy and environmental groups to reach a compromise acceptable to the state’s powerful electric utilities, which continue to have allies in both parties in the Senate — as the most progressive climate legislation to come out of the South.

The central pillars of the bill include a goal of making the electric grid carbon-free by midcentury, ambitious targets for solar and wind development, binding standards for utilities’ renewable energy portfolios and energy efficiency, and loosened restrictions on distributed generation like rooftop solar.



Two unresolved pieces of Northam’s gun policy agenda cleared the General Assembly Saturday. With their passage, Northam now has an opportunity to sign seven of the eight bills backed heading into the session.

The final two bills would require criminal background checks on all gun sales and restore the state’s former one-handgun-a-month rule.

On both bills, the House agreed to more moderate approaches favored by the Senate.

The background checks bill — a top priority Democrats and gun-control advocates have championed for years — would close the so-called gun show loophole that allows private gun sales with no criminal history check on the buyer.


Casinos/Sports betting

Virginia lawmakers on Sunday gave final approvals to a pair of bills legalizing casinos and sports betting after a last-minute fight over whether the state should allow bets on college games involving Virginia teams.

In the end, lawmakers chose to exclude Virginia colleges and universities from the new sports betting market, bowing to concerns raised by higher education leaders who said they wanted to shield student athletics from gambling’s influence.

Together, the two bills represent a major expansion of gambling after decades of resistance in the legislature. The promise of additional tax revenue and keeping gambling dollars in Virginia secured bipartisan support for the bills.


Confederate statues

Cities and counties around Virginia will be allowed to remove the Confederate monuments they own and maintain under legislation the General Assembly sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday.

The vote comes two and a half years after a fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which the city was blocked from taking down under a state law protecting war memorials.

“It’s a huge step, but it’s just one more step in a long process,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. “In the short term what it means is this decision making will go back to Charlottesville where it belongs.”


Collective bargaining

Local governments will be allowed to engage in collective bargaining with their employees under legislation that passed Sunday.

The bill falls far short of a proposal pushed by labor unions that the House approved last month, which would have mandated both the state and local governments to bargain with employees who organized unions. Virginia is one of three states where collective bargaining with public employees is outlawed.

A compromise negotiated between the two chambers included language that would allow public workers to force their local governing boards to take an up-or-down vote on the issue.


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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.