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)
In 2019, voters handed Democrats unified control of Virginia government for the first time in 21 years, guaranteeing the party at least two years of unfettered lawmaking before the next election.
This year’s House of Delegates elections and race for governor will be a debate largely over whether Democrats delivered what most Virginia voters wanted or changed too much too fast.
Here’s a look at the consensus agenda that emerged as lawmakers worked to squeeze a generation’s worth of pent-up legislative desire into a few short legislative sessions.
Elections and voting
Making it easier to vote was a top priority when Democrats took control, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of change to Virginia’s once-strict election laws.
Democrats passed bills to open absentee voting to anyone who wants to cast a ballot early or vote by mail, not just those who have an acceptable excuse. That change came just as the virus arrived, bringing with it a massive spike in absentee voting (almost 60 percent of voters cast absentee ballots last year) that have transformed how Virginia elections work. Legislators also approved ballot drop-off boxes, prepaid postage for ballot return envelopes, and a formalized process allowing voters to correct errors with absentee paperwork.
The new majorities have taken significant steps on voter access, repealing Virginia’s mandatory photo ID rule, making registration near-automatic through the DMV, and passing a state-level voting rights law that creates a stricter review process for any local election changes that might discriminate against racial or linguistic minorities. Legislators also teed up more sweeping reform in the future by giving initial approval to a constitutional amendment that, if passed again next year and approved by voters, would automatically restore felons’ voting rights upon release from prison.
More election reforms originally passed in 2020 will be coming online in the future. A bill allowing ranked-choice voting in local races takes effect this year, and legislation allowing same-day voter registration is scheduled to begin for the 2022 general election.
Republicans have repeatedly said the election-law overhaul has sown confusion and opportunities for fraud. Democrats have dismissed those claims, saying they perpetuate baseless theories that the voting system is susceptible to widespread manipulation.
Before Democrats regained power, the state had passed no significant laws aimed at addressing climate change. In short order, policies began bubbling up just as surely as tidal floods in a Hampton Roads storm sewer.
In 2020, they passed the landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act, which sketches out a roadmap for the state’s two largest electric utilities to go carbon-free by 2050 and sets binding annual targets for renewables adoption and energy efficiency. And in conjunction with the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, it commits Virginia to participation in a carbon market known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
In 2021, efforts shifted to transportation, which is responsible for roughly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions. Lawmakers committed to more stringent transportation emissions standards set by California and shared by 14 other states, as well as a requirement for a certain percentage of vehicles sold in Virginia to be electric. Other laws that have passed begin studying and building out electric vehicle infrastructure, although legislators failed to provide any funding for a rebate program. And a little-noticed bill will create a task force to examine the potential of carbon sequestration.
Some members of the more progressive wing of the Democratic caucus in the House unsuccessfully pushed their colleagues to go further, criticizing the Clean Economy Act for not moving fast enough and faulting the chamber’s leadership for blocking consideration of a Virginia version of the Green New Deal in favor of an approach they view as overly deferential to electric utilities.
When Democrats took control of the General Assembly, they pledged to increase funding for education — touting it as a priority for the 2020 session.
A year later, investments have increased while falling short of the nearly $1 billion that the state’s Board of Education says is necessary to fully fund public schools. This year’s compromise budget includes close to $50 million for school divisions to hire additional support staff such as counselors, nurses and social workers. It improves the ratio of support positions to students, but falls short of fully meeting the board’s recommended Standards of Quality — the minimum guidelines for staffing, instruction and other areas of accreditation.
After deferring teacher raises at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators capped this year’s session with a 5 percent pay increase for educators. But analysts at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a nonprofit Richmond think tank focused on how policy affects low- and moderate-income people, says the language gives local school divisions the flexibility to reduce their share down to 2 percent, which would then decrease the state’s match.
“In practice, it means that not every teacher is going to see a 5 percent raise next school year,” said Chad Stewart, TCI’s manager of education policy and development. Overall, per-pupil funding increased under the state’s Democratic majority — especially unusual given an anticipated budget shortfall, according to Stewart.
“But the issue at hand is the level of investment still doesn’t come close to the level of funding our state experts say is necessary,” he said.
In higher education, Democrats delivered on one of their biggest priorities — free community college for low- to middle-income students. This year, the General Assembly nearly unanimously backed a bill to fund tuition for students in high-demand fields. It was a campaign promise for Gov. Ralph Northam.
Virginia expanded Medicaid before Democrats took control of the General Assembly, allowing hundreds of thousands of previously ineligible Virginians to gain coverage. But in the two years since, they’ve made significant changes to the state health care exchange in an effort to stabilize enrollment and lower the prices on premiums.
Last year, lawmakers voted to establish a state-run marketplace that would reserve more funding for outreach and enrollment efforts. The goal of the exchange, scheduled to debut in 2023, is to bring on new consumers who would diffuse the cost of premiums.
This year, the General Assembly also approved a reinsurance program funded through federal waivers, state revenue and a small assessment on insurance companies. Recommended by the same workgroup that suggested a state-run exchange, the program aims to offset claims from high-risk patients, lowering the costs for other consumers.
“Reinsurance is really targeted at that demographic that’s struggling,” said Sara Cariano, a policy specialist for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, in an interview last month. “Right now, it’s really expensive to get insurance when you don’t get any help.”
Even as Democrats have bolstered the exchange, they’ve avoided more drastic changes to the state’s insurance landscape. A bill filed this year by Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, directed the state’s Joint Commission on Health Care to contract a study on the cost of universal insurance. But the legislation died in a Senate committee with bipartisan opposition.
Abortion is one area where Democrats have made sweeping changes. In 2020, lawmakers repealed the state’s mandatory ultrasound and 24-hour waiting period. This year, they voted to repeal a ban on abortion coverage for plans offered through state exchange.
Democrats voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next three years — the first increase the state has seen since 2009, when the federal minimum went up to $7.25 an hour.
The agreement represents a substantial increase — with the first bump to $9.50 an hour scheduled to go into effect in May — but it falls short of the $15-an-hour minimum many Democrats campaigned on.
Democrats in the House and Senate found themselves at odds over the proposal, with the House pushing for $15 and the Senate worrying the figure was too high for businesses, particularly in rural areas, to pay.
They’ve agreed to revisit the issue in 2024.
The two chambers have also disagreed over which categories of workers should be included, with the House pushing to include agricultural workers and the Senate twice refusing.
They were similarly divided over other labor issues, with the Senate scaling back a bill that will allow public sector unions for the first time, but only at the local level and only if approved by local elected officials.
The impasse led to one of the more dramatic moments in the House of Delegates this year when Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, unsuccessfully attempted to use a procedural maneuver to force a vote on the House floor.
Before winning their majorities, Democrats made it clear they wanted to pass tighter laws to prevent potentially dangerous people from having access to guns and allow firearm bans in more public places. They mostly delivered on that front, but they’ve stopped short of outlawing specific types of weaponry.
They made background checks mandatory for all gun sales in 2020. Legislators built on that step this year by lengthening the amount of time the Virginia State Police can take to complete a background check from three business days to five business days, leaving more time for vetting without purchases going through by default due to paperwork delays. The legislature also sought to limit access to firearms by passing a red flag law, which allows authorities to temporarily seize guns from people deemed a threat, and reinstating the one-handgun-a-month rule.
Democrats have also pushed for gun bans at places like government buildings, parks and at events like political rallies and protests. A law passed last year gave local governments more leeway to ban guns at public events, and legislation approved this year codified gun bans for Capitol Square, state buildings and polling places.
A proposed ban on assault weapons, which drew an intense backlash from gun-rights supporters in late 2019 and early 2020, failed to win enough support to pass the more moderate Senate. A proposal to ban so-called ghost guns, untraceable firearms assembled at home from kits or 3D printers, met a similar fate in the Senate this year.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the bill’s sponsor, said he got the impression some of his colleagues believed they had already done enough on gun policy.
“There was just a feeling that they didn’t want to have that fight again,” Simon said.
Many of the policies were the product of a special legislative session last year that followed nationwide protests against police brutality, including laws that went into effect this month banning no-knock police searches, limiting the use of chokeholds and authorizing the attorney general to investigate local police departments. They also passed an obscure-but-far-reaching bill that eliminates what defense attorneys have come to call the “jury penalty.”
This year, lawmakers agreed to more reforms, including legislation that will for the first time allow people to have some past convictions on their records sealed — a step Democrats hope will make it easier for them to rebuild their lives after prison.
But the reforms rarely went as far as advocates hoped and were often mired in bitter disputes between leaders in the House and Senate. Legislation to legalize marijuana nearly failed in the final hours of this year’s session and the compromise that ultimately passed won’t go into effect until 2024. A bill that originally intended to ban police departments from obtaining military weapons was rewritten to only apply to obscure equipment such as bayonets.
And many proposed reforms failed entirely, including legislation aimed at making it easier to sue police officers for misconduct and a bill that would have repealed most mandatory minimum sentences from state code — something leaders in both the House and Senate called a priority but were nonetheless unable to reach an agreement on.
Democrats have also demonstrated reluctance to use their majorities to address prison conditions, voting down bills that would have abolished private prisons and jails, reestablished independent oversight of the Department of Corrections and imposed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement.
The party has taken both concrete and symbolic steps on matters of freedom and equality. After his yearbook blackface scandal, Northam led an effort to repeal nearly 100 outdated, discriminatory laws still on the books. This year Democrats extended that symbolic step to LGBTQ rights, voting to repeal a ban on gay marriage still in the state Constitution, which was invalidated by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling.
Democrats also put in place a range of new civil rights protections, making it easier to raise discrimination claims of all types in state court with the Virginia Values Act and for the first time explicitly banned discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations.
On immigrants’ rights, lawmakers passed bills that extended driver privilege cards, in state tuition and financial assistance to undocumented immigrants living in Virginia.
And legislation that allowed local governments to take down Confederate statues preceded the removal of 71 monuments and memorials this year, according to statistics tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There have been moments of disharmony and unease with the pace of reform. Democrats in the Senate were unwilling to repeal language in the state code that explicitly authorizes faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to serve LGBTQ families and people of other religions — a policy the GOP put in place in 2012 over strenuous objections from Democrats. The measure passed the House but was withdrawn after lawmakers in the Senate amended it to cut state funding but allow the agencies to continue to operate, a compromise the House deemed unworkable.
“The whole idea of having this balkanized, state-sanctioned discrimination is something I couldn’t live with,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.
Democrats have remained deeply divided on electric utility reform over the past two years, with many House members joining with a cadre of Republicans in that chamber to push for a set of changes to state code that would restore much of the authority of Virginia’s public utility regulators, the State Corporation Commission, to regulate rates and earnings. Powerful members of the Senate however, with longstanding ties to the utilities, and particularly Dominion Energy, have been reluctant to relinquish legislative control, even amid regular reports of excessive profits by the monopolies.
One high-profile effort, the Fair Energy Bills Act of 2020, garnered solid bipartisan support in the House but was struck down in the Senate. This year, a slate of proposals that sought to correct what their sponsors described as an imbalance in regulatory power ahead of Dominion’s first earnings review in six years were also scrapped by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
Still, the array of proposals put forward by House Democrats and a surprise success by reformers in 2020 on a bill that returned to the SCC its traditional power to set the period of time over which the costs of early power plant retirements can be recovered indicate ongoing shifts in how the legislature views its relationship with utilities. And although this year’s reform bills all failed, pressure in the Senate has led to a request for the reconvening of the dormant Commission on Electric Utility Regulation to take a more comprehensive look at the existing regulatory system.
In his 2007 autobiography, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, said his father taught him “money in politics was neither evil nor good.”
“Money in politics was like gas in the tank, it was what you needed to get where you were going,” wrote McAuliffe, now seeking a second term as governor.
If the last two sessions are any indication, Democrats like their trajectory.
Several attempts to rein in Virginia’s wide-open campaign finance system by capping contribution amounts or limiting corporate donations have gone nowhere in the Democratic-led legislature, despite reform being a popular issue among progressives.
A less-sweeping proposal to ban politicians from converting campaign funds to their personal use, a rule that exists at the federal level and almost every other state, passed the House of Delegates this year but died in the state Senate. Gov. Ralph Northam called for campaign finance reform while running in a Democratic primary in 2017, though he hasn’t been able to convince fellow Democrats, who now wield legislative power and the fundraising advantages that come with it.
Campaign finance reformers argue it’s a good-government step to reduce the influence of wealthy donors over state affairs and boost confidence that policy is being written with the general public’s interests in mind. Skeptics in the legislature have warned a clampdown might have unintended consequences by encouraging the creation of dark-money groups operating outside existing transparency rules.
The General Assembly approved a resolution this year to study the prospects for comprehensive campaign finance reform in the future.
The report isn’t due until Nov. 1, meaning candidates running in this year’s statewide elections and House of Delegates contests, which will determine whether Democrats keep power, will have few legal limitations on the amounts they raise and spend on their campaigns.
Though the Democratic majorities have rewritten swathes of state policy to make Virginia more culturally progressive, they’ve shown less appetite for addressing economic disparities by changing the tax code.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, the chairwoman of the House Finance Committee is hoping to get that conversation started through a comprehensive study on how the state can boost the “progressivity” of the individual income taxes, which make up almost 70 percent of the state’s general fund revenues.
“And yet every year, insidiously, the burden of the individual income tax falls harder and harder on those having the least ability to pay,” Watts said as she presented her proposal to the House of Delegates.
Under the existing system, the top bracket starts at $17,000 in taxable income, a number that hasn’t changed since 1990.
The legislature approved Watts’ resolution calling for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the issue and make recommendations in time for the 2023 session.
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