Weed confusion, a Putin jab and slumlords: recapping the General Assembly’s veto session
The Virginia Capitol at dusk. The General Assembly’s marathon one-day veto session Wednesday featured a secretive Democratic coup, allegations of Putin-esque tactics by the governor to punish a county school board and a break until 4:20 p.m. to resolve massive confusion over marijuana laws. (File photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia General Assembly’s one-day veto session featured a secretive Democratic coup, an accusation Gov. Glenn Youngkin was using Putin-esque tactics to punish a county school board and a break until 4:20 p.m. to resolve massive confusion over marijuana laws.
It was a long day for the state’s divided political leaders as they returned to Richmond to take up nearly 150 amendments and vetoes sent down by Youngkin, a workload Democrats said was made extra difficult due to the inexperience of a governor who just hit 100 days on the job.
But Democrats in the House of Delegates were dealing with turmoil of their own making after a closed-door vote early in the day to remove former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, as leader of their minority caucus, without picking someone new to try to rebuild from the losses Youngkin handed them last year.
With the House in GOP hands and Democrats having only a narrow advantage in the Senate, none of Youngkin’s 26 vetoes were overruled. That left the much bigger batch of amendments as the main points of contention.
Here are a few notable moments from the day:
A big fight over Loudoun School Board elections
It was Youngkin’s controversial proposal to force the entire Loudoun County School Board to stand for election ahead of schedule that led one Democratic lawmaker to draw a comparison to Russia’s authoritarian leader. Through a change to a routine local election bill meant to help the Loudoun board transition to staggered terms, Youngkin had proposed cutting board members’ terms short and holding a special election this fall.
“Vladimir Putin can dissolve the city council and have a new mayor elected,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “But that’s not how we do it in democracy.”
Democrats said the governor’s move sets a dangerous precedent, opening the door to state authority being weaponized against any duly elected local official who runs afoul of the ruling party in the capital. Republicans have said new elections are appropriate for a board battling multiple controversies that made it a frequent target for conservatives upset about how issues of race and gender are handled in public schools as well as a high-profile sexual assault case that sparked outrage.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said that because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, where government power begins with the state and “flows down” to localities, “it’s up to us to set things right.”
“How is holding an election an attack on democracy?” Head said.
Youngkin’s proposal passed the House 51-48. But it failed to pass the Senate, where one Republican joined with Democrats to defeat it 22-18.
“I don’t want us to go down this path,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who clarified he hopes the Loudoun board is voted out in 2023 but couldn’t get behind changing an election schedule based on being upset at the incumbents.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, pressed Republicans on how they’d like to have their legislative terms shortened “every time the mood or the flavor of an electorate changes.”
“It would be chaos,” Morrissey said.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, an attorney who represented the father of a Loudoun girl who was sexually assaulted in a high school bathroom, said the board’s effort to “cover it up” and portray his client as a threat justified the extraordinary step of calling an election.
“I’m the attorney,” Stanley said. “They covered it up… Those are horrible, horrible things.”
The amendment’s failure means the original, uncontroversial bill facilitating the transition to staggered school board terms goes back to Youngkin for a signature or a veto.
A legislative stand on Flood Fund administration
The Senate held firm on its commitment to putting the appointed Soil and Water Conservation Board in control of the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, a pot of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues drawn from the state’s participation in a regional carbon market and earmarked for local and regional flood protection projects.
Currently, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has oversight of the Flood Fund and determines what projects get money. But the agency has faced criticism that its funding guidelines and award decisions disadvantage rural communities, and lawmakers this session voiced concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding its administration.
Youngkin amended the bill to keep oversight in agency hands, but Democrat and Republican senators alike rejected the change, which Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, said “undercuts and does away with the main policy thrust of the original bill.” The vote was the only time Wednesday that the Senate unanimously overrode the governor’s wishes.
The legislature did agree to Youngkin’s request to give DCR rather than the Soil and Water Conservation Board oversight of a new Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund that will allow the state more flexibility in channeling funds to individuals dealing with flooding problems.
“The reason why we had originally selected the [soil and water] board was for transparency purposes,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax. “The governor still prefers the Department of Conservation and Recreation.”
DCR offered a range of pledges to make the loan award process “as transparent as possible,” according to an April 26 letter from Director Matt Wells to Lewis and Bulova.
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The death of a contentious cannabis bill
Legislation designed to crack down on untested and often illegal THC products met its death in the Senate after a confusing procedural debate.
Its unexpected demise left policymakers making vague suggestions something could still be done through the unfinished state budget or through a new bill from Youngkin in the ongoing special session. But there were few details on what those fixes would entail.
Originally drafted to protect children by outlawing cannabis products shaped like humans, animals, vehicles and fruits, SB 591 has become a surprising fount for controversy after extensive amendments by the legislature and the Youngkin administration. By the time the bill passed the General Assembly, it had been expanded to set tighter restrictions on hemp products, banning any that contain more than 0.3 percent or .25 milligrams of THC per serving (or more than one milligram per package).
The goal was to protect consumers from a deluge of unregulated products that have emerged since lawmakers legalized marijuana in Virginia without establishing a retail marketplace. But Youngkin amended the bill to re-establish misdemeanor penalties for possession — criminal charges that carry the potential for fines and jail time.
Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said his colleagues had “a lot of problems with the additional crimes that have been proposed.”
“There are additional issues that need to be worked out,” he added.
In 2020, a state oversight commission did recommend setting civil penalties for public marijuana use or treating infractions as low-level misdemeanors subject to small fines (similar to laws on drinking in public). But advocates said Youngkin’s amendments would recriminalize possession in all circumstances, including marijuana harvested from plants that can legally be grown at home.
“These proposed misdemeanors were more punitive than the law prior to decriminalization taking effect in 2020,” said JM Pedini, development director of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws. The amended bill also limited its ban on synthetic marijuana to a compound known as delta-8, giving retailers the chance to shift to other unregulated products.
The ensuing controversy derailed the bill. After a lengthy procedural debate on Wednesday, the Senate voted to refer it back to committee, essentially killing the legislation. Advocates said the move leaves Virginians vulnerable to potentially risky items.
“The good part is that the governor’s efforts to recriminalize personal possession failed,” Pedini said. “The bad news is consumers still have no idea what they’re purchasing when they buy these unregulated products.”
A reprieve for landlords
One of Youngkin’s most hotly contested vetoes involved a bill that would have empowered local governments to go after landlords who fail to maintain safe living conditions for their tenants.
The bill had passed both chambers with bipartisan support. But Youngkin’s veto message called it “unnecessary and duplicative,” suggesting tenants already had similar protections under existing laws.
In a fiery speech Thursday, Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, accused Youngkin of siding with “slumlords” over low-income Virginians.
“This veto chose their slumlords over them and their families,” Price said. “This veto chose rats, mice, roaches, leaky roofs, mold, mildew, broken doors and dangerous playground equipment over their kids’ ability to be safe in their homes.”
The House voted 52-48 along party lines to support Youngkin, falling well short of the two-thirds vote needed to overrule a veto. The bill had originally passed the House 59-41.
Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, said state law is already “very clear” about the options tenants have to deal with unresponsive landlords, including putting rent in escrow “until these issues are fixed.”
“They have a remedy,” he said. “We don’t need to give localities the power to just close buildings.”
Democrats said tenants who already have few resources shouldn’t have to hire lawyers or study up on the finer points of landlord-tenant law in order to take on their landlord themselves.
“Those of us in this room will probably never have to worry about some of these issues,” Price said. “These tenants just want that same right. They just want to lay down at night in a safe home.”
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