Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Mid-Session Update: What’s Still Alive and What’s Dead (Or on the Way There)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2023 session is a work in progress. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers aren’t agreeing on much these days, but 93 of 100 members of the House of Delegates could at least find common ground on which Virginia pony is the best pony.

“It is time the Commonwealth pony up, and give Chincoteague heritage the recognition it deserves,” Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, said last week. He got most of his colleagues on board with declaring the famous Eastern Shore pony herd Virginia’s official pony, despite some opposition from lawmakers loyal to the wild mountain ponies of Southwest Virginia’s Grayson Highlands.

But halfway through an election-year session with a politically split General Assembly, opportunities for bipartisan accord have been few and far between.

Hundreds of bills have died in the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate. Many more that passed one chamber have no shot in the other.

The main piece of unfinished business is the state budget, which won’t be completed until late in the session as the two parties have another round of negotiations on funding priorities and the tax cuts sought by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Here’s where things stand on some of the session’s major issues as of Tuesday’s crossover deadline, when each chamber had to finish work on its own bills.

Abortion

It’s been a busy year for abortion-related speeches, marches and press releases, but no major legislation dealing with abortion access is expected to pass.

Senate Democrats stuck to their promise to block all efforts to tighten Virginia’s abortion laws, which allow largely unrestricted access in the first and second trimesters and prohibit abortion in the third trimester unless there’s a clear threat to the mother’s health.

After seeing the Senate reject Youngkin’s proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks, Republican leaders in the House of Delegates chose not to press forward with their own version of the bill. That decision protects members running for election in swing districts from taking a potentially difficult but pointless vote that could be used against them in campaigns later this year. 

Participants in the 2023 March for Life in Richmond, Va. (Graham Moomaw / Virginia Mercury)

House Republicans passed less sweeping abortion bills to require health care providers to try to save infants who survive an abortion attempt and enact new rules on information required to be given to pregnant women prior to an abortion. Opponents have characterized those bills as misleading attempts to stigmatize abortion.

Democrats in the Senate gave initial approval to a constitutional amendment establishing abortion as a fundamental right in Virginia, a proposal that would need General Assembly approval two years in a row followed by a final OK from voters in 2024. But it’s likely to be defeated in the Republican-led House, where GOP leaders have criticized the amendment as an overreach that could erode the state’s existing restrictions on abortion.

Paid family and medical leave

A proposal to set up a universal paid family medical leave program funded similar to the state’s unemployment program passed the Senate, but the strictly party-line vote in that chamber signals there may be little hope for the bill in the House.

The legislation from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, would have employers and employees each pay a small deductible each month to fund a statewide program that would let full-time Virginia workers be paid up to 80% of their income if they had to take time off for a pregnancy or a major medical issue or to provide care for a family member undergoing a medical crisis.

Federal law requires that employers with 50 or more employees provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to care for a child or family member or deal with a serious medical issue. Smaller employers aren’t subject to the requirement. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have passed state programs for paid leave as of June 2022.

Boysko said Virginia estimates found that for a worker being paid $60,000 annually, the weekly payment by employer and employee would be $2.89, or roughly $150 annually. A startup loan would be required to set up the initial program, which would be overseen by the Virginia Employment Commission.

“In other states where this has been passed, it has been paid back within two years,” said Boysko.

Republicans in committee voiced concerns, with Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, saying he thought it “would be very injurious especially to small businesses” and questioning whether the 80% repayment of wages during leave was too high.

Boysko has argued the universal program would benefit small businesses by allowing them greater flexibility in offering employees leave rather than having to continue paying their wages during an absence or bear the costs of replacing them.

“We know that there are families that are going through this,” she said. “Whether we pass a bill like this or not is not going to stop the problem.”

Stemming teacher shortages 

Lawmakers in both chambers debated multiple bills aimed at addressing teacher shortages and low job satisfaction among educators. Still, only a few made it through the gauntlet of committees.

Legislation that would expand eligibility for a state grant program that rewards teachers for getting nationally certified as well as increase the size of those awards passed the Senate, but a companion bill died in the House.

Erin Rettig, a counselor for Henrico County Public Schools, said the legislation would help retain school employees and keep veteran teachers around to help support new educators.

Another Senate bill headed to the House for consideration would have an advisory board craft policy recommendations to help school divisions recruit and retain licensed teachers.

Legislation to establish a reward program for educators who obtain an endorsement in English as a second language passed the House, but multiple other bills dealing with shortages died there, including legislation that would have directed temporary funding to schools to bolster recruitment and retention bonuses for school divisions with staff shortages and to underperforming schools to hire instructional assistants.

Legislation aimed at increasing the number of teachers by permitting community colleges to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees in education and creating a program to grow the number of educators through college partnerships also failed. So did bills that would have required teachers to be compensated at a competitive rate or at a rate at or above the national average.

California vehicle emission standards

On the climate front, the biggest debate this session has been over whether Virginia should continue its linkage with California vehicle emissions standards that will ban sales of new gas-powered cars beginning in 2035.

Senate Democrats voted down several Republican-backed bills that would decouple Virginia from the standards. House Republicans did pass a similar measure along party lines, but it faces almost certain defeat in the Senate.

The legislation would repeal a law passed by Democrats in 2021 that ties Virginia to California tailpipe emission regulations. Under the Clean Air Act, Virginia has two options of how to regulate vehicle emissions: either follow the standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency or follow those set by California, which was granted an exception in the law by Congress to address smog issues.

Republicans have argued the California standards are impractical and expensive because of limited ownership of electric vehicles, steep targets — the need for 35% of new vehicle sales to be zero emission by 2026 — and increased strain on the electric grid.

Democrats have emphasized the environmental benefits of reducing tailpipe emissions, a leading source of greenhouse gases, as well as the need to position Virginia at the front of the line to receive electric vehicles from manufacturers, which have begun switching to fully electric model lines.

Senate Democrats also voted to kill a legislative attempt to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which didn’t have a House companion. The attempt to pass the bill came as Youngkin is seeking to leave the program through regulatory action.

Parole Board reforms

Both chambers are backing legislation that would increase transparency surrounding the Virginia Parole Board in response to an investigation that found former board chair Adrianne Bennett broke numerous state laws in early 2020, including failing to properly notify victims and prosecutors in the release of 83 offenders and falsifying records.

But while there’s bipartisan support for reforms, key differences exist between the two measures, which are being carried by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick. 

Attorney General Jason Miyares, flanked by special counsel Theo Stamos (right) and Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slemp (left) speaks to the media about the release of his investigative report on the Virginia Parole Board. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Both bills would require more rigorous reporting of not only who the Parole Board votes to release but the basis for the decision and the vote of each individual member. Morrissey’s legislation calls for monthly and annual reports, while Williams’ requires only annual ones.

Morrissey’s bill also removes the Parole Board from the list of bodies exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and would require that final votes on parole decisions be held publicly. While testimony on Williams’ bill suggested his legislation would also mandate public meetings, Office of the Attorney General spokesperson Victoria LaCivita confirmed his proposal does not include such a provision but instead requires all board members to be in the same room when deciding to grant parole to an incarcerated person.

“The point of the Williams bill is to require the board to actually meet and discuss cases in the same room, which didn’t happen under the Bennett board,” LaCivita said in an email.

The Office of the Attorney General and the Youngkin administration are both backing the Williams bill. Chad Dotson, the current chair of the Parole Board who has called for “over-the-top transparency,” said the Youngkin administration has no position on Morrissey’s bill.

Morrissey’s bill picked up bipartisan support in the Senate, clearing that chamber on a 27-12 vote, while Williams’ was opposed by all Democrats in the House.

Cannabis

Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree Virginia has ended up with an odd approach to legalized marijuana, efforts to set up a market for recreational sales appear to be going nowhere.

Republican leaders, including Youngkin, remain cold to the idea of retail dispensaries. But they don’t have the power to go backward and undo Democratic legislation that decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot and allowed Virginians to grow marijuana at home. Similarly, Democrats and a handful of pro-legalization Republicans don’t appear to have the votes to move forward on creating a legal way to buy marijuana for nonmedical use.

That’s left the General Assembly stuck on the retail sales issue. But there could be faint hope for a breakthrough due to Youngkin’s support for a hemp regulation measure meant to get tougher on intoxicating THC products like delta-8, which has become widely available at smoke shops throughout the state because it’s derived from hemp.

The hemp bills, which some in the industry have warned could hurt farmers and small business owners, are still being worked out. The overarching goal, according to supporters, is to establish a registration and permit system for businesses that sell hemp products in the hopes of getting a better handle on what’s being sold and creating a mechanism for punishing stores selling to minors or offering illegal products.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, the patron of the Senate hemp bill, removed a $1,000 registration fee from the measure, saying the cost would hurt small businesses more than bigger players.

A separate, Republican-sponsored bill that would have banned delta-8 altogether failed to pass the House.

School construction

Lawmakers dedicated millions in capital funding to Virginia’s public schools last year and this year are considered more funding options.

A tour of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to cost about $80 million. (2021 photo Henrico County Public Schools)

Roof repairs and replacements are some of the common issues faced by Virginia’s schools, half of which are older than 50 years.

This year, legislation that would allow all localities to impose an additional 1% sales tax to support capital projects in Virginia’s public schools picked up bipartisan support in the Senate but failed in the House.

The bill was part of a list of recommendations by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization to address Virginia’s school construction and maintenance needs.

Under current law, only Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania counties and the city of Danville are authorized to impose such a tax.

Two other school construction bills that cleared the Senate are aimed at establishing standards for the construction, renovation and maintenance of public school buildings and requiring school boards to adopt maintenance spending targets to avoid major replacement costs. Similar proposals failed in the House.

Guns

High-profile shootings that took place on a student bus at the University of Virginia, at a Chesapeake Walmart and in an elementary school classroom in Newport News elevated gun policy as a priority for Democrats heading into the session. But apart from a minor proposal allowing tax credits for purchases of gun safes and trigger locks, nothing appears to be breaking through the partisan stalemate.

Democrats have accused Republicans of showing a lack of interest in reducing gun deaths. Republicans have pointed out that the new gun control push comes on the heels of a major package of new gun restrictions Democrats passed in 2020 that didn’t include many of the proposals now being pitched as common-sense necessities.

The 2020 legislation, approved when Democrats had full control, notably excluded tougher laws on assault-style weaponry, which failed due to a lack of support from some Senate Democrats. The upper chamber has changed its stance this year, approving a bill prohibiting new sales of assault weapons without criminalizing weapons Virginians already own.

The assault weapon bill passed the Senate 23-16 with GOP support from Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, but it’s expected to fail in the Republican-led House.

Similarly, Republican proposals to roll back many of the new gun laws passed in 2020 are expected to fail in the Senate after winning approval in the House. Republican efforts to toughen mandatory minimum penalties for felonies committed with guns, which Youngkin has backed as a way to reduce shootings, are also expected to fail due to Democratic opposition.

Electric utility regulation

Negotiations continue on legislation addressing how Virginia’s investor-owned utilities should be regulated and whether legislation passed by the General Assembly or regulators should have more influence over company profits.

A Senate proposal from Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is being backed by Dominion and would affect that utility and Appalachian Power Company. Among several other provisions, the bill would change the way Dominion’s return on equity — or allowed profit margin — is calculated, increasing it above current levels.

The company has said the higher ROE will allow them to raise more capital to comply with their legislative mandates, but environmental groups say it will cause rates to go up by allowing Dominion to recover more of their costs from ratepayers to reach that higher profit level. A State Corporation Commission estimate found that other changes in the legislation would decrease monthly bills.

Following outcry from environmental groups and ratepayer advocates, the House passed a version of the legislation carried by Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and backed by the Youngkin administration. That bill doesn’t include the profit increase but does alter plant retirement dates laid out in the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, legislation that aims to decarbonize the electric grid by midcentury.

“There are going to be dramatically different bills coming from the house and coming from the Senate,” Norment said. “Ultimately we are constructing two vehicles that will go into the conference and that will be worked out.”

Simultaneously, two other bills are moving forward that seek to restore the SCC’s authority to lower electricity rates going forward if it finds the companies overearned, a power that has been limited by other legislative changes throughout the years.

Other bills to reinvigorate the state’s Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, which is intended to give legislators time outside of the limited session to craft and review legislation but has been inactive since 2017, advanced out of the House unanimously but faced some pushback in the Senate.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, said she preferred to maintain the status quo rather than “create an additional body that will potentially convolute what is already complicated.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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