Sunday, July 21, 2024

13 Things to Watch in the 2024 Virginia General Assembly Session

The Virginia state Capitol in Richmond. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — There’s a new building. A new tunnel. And lots of new politicians.

The Virginia General Assembly will convene in Richmond today to begin its 2024 legislative session, a 60-day work period that’s supposed to end with a new, two-year state budget.

Breakthroughs on the budget and other big policy items will again require bipartisan cooperation as Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin faces a legislature under full Democratic control for the first time since 2021. Democrats gained power in last year’s legislative elections, positioning the party to go on offense in a way it hasn’t been able to since Youngkin took office two years ago.

That means some legislation could sail through the Capitol only to perish under Youngkin’s veto pen.

Leaders on both sides are sounding the usual notes about seeking areas where they can work together to help regular Virginians, but the session could bring plenty of high-octane politics heading into a presidential election year when Democrats and Republicans will be laying out starkly different priorities and governing visions.

The upcoming session could also force Youngkin to clarify his brand of purple-state conservatism as Democrats use their expanded power to send him a wave of bills on hot-button topics like gun control, marijuana sales, the minimum wage, abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bills are still being filed this week, but here’s a baker’s dozen of issues to watch as the session gets underway.

Budget and taxes

It’s been almost three weeks since Youngkin introduced his “Unleashing Opportunity” budget, the first time he’s crafted a state spending plan that’s not partially inherited from his predecessor, former Gov. Ralph Northam. Democrats, in control of both the legislature’s chambers, have already pushed back against the Republican governor’s calls to slash income taxes, eliminate the car tax and increase the state’s sales and use tax.

The criticism has largely focused on claims the tax changes favor the wealthy and hurt the poor. Youngkin’s administration has said the governor is trying to make Virginia more economically competitive with peer states.

With fewer funds available due to dried-up pandemic aid and a recession predicted later in 2024, the battle of the budget may be one of the most contentious issues lawmakers debate this session.

Virginia operates under a biennial budget system; the spending plan is adopted by the House and Senate in even years and amended in odd years. Gov. Youngkin last September signed amendments to the budget adopted in 2022, after nearly six months of delay fueled by heated debate between the Democratic-controlled Senate and then-Republican-controlled House about how to spend billions in surplus funds.

When Youngkin unveiled his 2024-2026 budget in December, he urged lawmakers not to repeat the dragged-out deliberations they undertook last year, and to instead wrap up their budget work before session adjourns in March. The key components of Youngkin’s plan call for a 12% cut in income taxes for all Virginians, dropping the tax rate from 2% to 1.75% for the lowest bracket of earners and from 5.75% to 5.1% for the highest.

Also included in Youngkin’s budget is a proposed increase in the state’s sales and use tax from 4.3% to 5.2%, and a broadening of the category of goods and services for which the tax is levied. The plan also would allow lower-income residents to claim an enhanced earned income tax credit equal to 25% of the federal credit, a 5% boost from the existing 20% credit.

Youngkin will make another high-profile pitch for his priorities in his annual speech to the General Assembly tonight.

Guns

One of the first proposals Democrats filed for the upcoming session was legislation to ban future sales of assault-style firearms and prohibit Virginians under 21 from possessing them. Democrats have long talked about a potential ban on assault weapons, but they failed to achieve that goal the last time they had full legislative control due to disagreements over how sweeping the restrictions should be.

Youngkin — who notably wasn’t endorsed by the National Rifle Association during his campaign — has presented himself as a gun-rights supporter, but he hasn’t talked about the issue with as much vigor as he’s shown with other conservative causes. An assault weapon ban would likely be too contentious to win his support, but a number of other gun-related bills could present tougher calls.

Democratic lawmakers have also filed proposals to incentivize gun owners to store their guns safely around minors, impose a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, ban so-called “ghost guns” made with do-it-yourself kits and prohibit concealed carry permit holders from taking handguns into restaurants and other establishments that serve alcohol.

Republicans have re-filed bills seeking tougher punishments for repeat offenders who commit crimes with guns.

School funding

With federal pandemic relief funds drying up, local governments will be following discussions on how Virginia will address the underfunding of public schools identified in a state study last year.

Last July, researchers with the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported that Virginia schools received 14% less state funding than the 50-state average, equal to roughly $1,900 less per student.

Policymakers are expected to consider changing the state’s existing funding formula, which is based on the staffing needs of each school division, to a formula more tailored to the needs of students.

JLARC estimated that if Virginia had used the student-based rather than staffing funding formula, schools would have received an additional $1.17 billion in fiscal year 2023.

The governor’s administration is also receiving criticism from education advocates who say that the proposed budget presented by the governor reduces state general funds for K-12 education by nearly $300 million over the two-year budget, compared to the current funding level.

Democrats and groups following the budget process, such as the Virginia Education Association, said the administration is using the relief funds to offset K-12 education costs.

The administration said that “it is not obligated to replace one-time federal COVID allocations with ongoing state funds,” the Richmond Times Dispatch reported.

Marijuana

After two sessions of failed bipartisan attempts to legalize retail sales of marijuana, legislators will likely try again this year to create a framework for state-regulated weed dispensaries.

The effort may finally move forward this year because Democrats hold majorities in the House and Senate, but Youngkin’s stance on marijuana remains the wild card. The Youngkin administration has been cold to the idea of establishing a recreational weed market on his watch, but it’s unclear if that opposition is so strong the governor would veto a bipartisan bill if it gets to his desk.

The substance became legal for adults to possess in small amounts in 2021, thanks to Democratic majorities in power at the time, and Virginians are allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants in their homes. But the pathway to regulated retail sales has been more difficult, even though many legalization supporters say the lack of regulated retail stores has contributed to the proliferation of black market cannabis products.

No bills had been filed as of Tuesday afternoon but Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Fairfax, and others previously pledged to again carry legislation to legalize retail weed sales in the 2024 General Assembly session.

Abortion

Democrats campaigned heavily last year on preserving abortion access in Virginia, and they’re moving to deliver on that promise.

They’ve introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in the Virginia Constitution. That amendment, which anti-abortion critics argue goes further than the legal framework established under Roe v. Wade, declares that “every individual has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom.”

Constitutional amendments don’t need Youngkin’s signature. In order for the abortion rights amendment to become law, the General Assembly would need to pass it again in 2026, then it would go to Virginia voters for a final decision.

Democratic lawmakers have also introduced legislation to block authorities from accessing menstrual data stored in period-tracking apps and prevent abortion-related extraditions to other states that have banned the procedure. Those less-sweeping measures would require approval from Youngkin, who has called himself a “pro-life governor.”

Because constitutional amendments can’t be changed once the multi-session process has started, the final text Democrats land on this year is significant because it will shape debate on pending amendments for the next two years.

Same-sex marriage

Some LBGTQ+ legislators have been stunned by their Republican counterparts’ continued opposition to repealing Virginia’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage, which has been legally moot for almost nine years.

But with Republicans no longer able to control the legislative flow in committees, there are fewer obstacles in the way of Democratic efforts to protect marriage equality from any future action by the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court.

A constitutional amendment formally scrapping the same-sex marriage ban has been introduced, but it too must be reapproved by the General Assembly before it can go to voters in 2026. Democrats have also introduced regular legislation, which would go to Youngkin this year if it passes, requiring marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples.

That bill alone wouldn’t preserve same-sex marriage if Virginia’s constitutional ban goes back into effect, but it could put Youngkin on the spot and force him to take a clearer stance than he has before. The governor has previously claimed that Virginia law already protects same-sex marriage, a statement PolitiFact VA deemed “mostly false.”

Sports arena

Legislators will take another shot at bringing not one, but two pro sports teams to the commonwealth. There are questions about and pushback against the idea, however, by some residents in the city of Alexandria where the project would be located.

The proposed price tag to move the Washington Wizards and Capitals requires lawmakers to create a new authority that would issue $2 billion in bonds to develop an entertainment district in the city of Alexandria to include a sports arena, a practice facility for the Wizards, a performing arts venue and an expanded esports facility.

The governor and his partners with the project are facing opposition from some residents questioning the proposal’s perceived lack of transparency and the negative impacts on taxpayers and their quality of life.

The same group of residents, who have formed a coalition,“Stop the Arena at Potomac Yard,” have also questioned the validity of the project’s economic study.

If lawmakers can agree to the proposed deal, the pro teams’ owner, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, would have a 40-year lease of the site and would repay the bonds annually through rent payments, arena parking revenues, district naming rights and incremental taxes generated by the development.

Monumental would also invest $403 million into the proposed project, while Alexandria would contribute $56 million toward the construction of the performing arts venue and $50 million for an underground parking facility.

Some lawmakers have expressed interest in Virginia providing toll relief for drivers in the Portsmouth area and funding to address Metro’s shortfall in Northern Virginia as part of negotiations for the arena deal.

Minimum wage

Will Virginia’s minimum wage keep going up? It depends on how policymakers vote on two pieces of proposed legislation in this year’s General Assembly session.

In January 2023, Virginia raised its minimum wage from $11 to $12 per hour, the tail end of a three-year gradual increase plan designed by Democrats and made law in 2020. At that time, the state’s minimum wage had been stuck at $7.25 for more than 10 years.

The same plan called for the state’s minimum wage to increase to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026, but only if the General Assembly reapproved those hikes this year.

House Bill 1 from Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, and Senate Bill 1 from Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, aim to do just that. However, Republican legislators have been resistant to a higher minimum wage, and Youngkin could put the brakes on the effort once the legislation reaches his office.

Data centers

About 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows through warehouse-like data centers in Northern Virginia. A projected increase in them has prompted calls for guardrails against their development.

Environmental groups and community members say building them leads to increased electric utility costs, a drain on water resources for their cooling and an impact on nearby parks and residences.

But the industry, which received about $100 million in tax exemptions in 2023, says data centers positively impact the economy. Prince William County is expecting an estimated $400 million in annual tax revenue from one campus.

In addition to bills that require site, resource and cost evaluations, proposed legislation from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, and Sen. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun, would require data centers to meet an energy efficiency standard in order to receive tax credits. Sullivan and Subramanyam’s bills would also ban the use of diesel for onsite power generation.

Voting rights

The Youngkin administration’s process for restoring voting rights to Virginians with felony convictions has been a sore spot for many progressive activists, but Democrats can now use their majorities to begin the process of taking that power away from the governor and making rights restoration automatic.

Virginia’s current constitutional rule — in which a felony conviction brings a lifetime prohibition on voting unless a governor chooses to restore an ex-offender’s civic rights — has made the state a national outlier, sparking calls for a more lenient process that better helps former inmates rejoin society after completing their sentence.

Last year, Republicans blocked a constitutional amendment that would have automatically restored voting rights to people exiting incarceration. But the push for reform has drawn bipartisan support, and tough-on-crime Republicans no longer have the numbers to block the proposal that’s been re-upped this year.

A Republican lawmaker has introduced a competing proposal that only makes the process automatic for nonviolent offenders who have also paid off any fines, fees or restitution owed to a victim.

Democrats have resisted those limitations, and they must now decide whether to try to seek a bipartisan compromise with the GOP — which could ensure the measure keeps moving forward if Republicans retake the House of Delegates in 2025 — or push through a stronger bill at the risk of losing votes on the other side.

SCC judges

Two vacant seats on the three-member State Corporation Commission– which regulates utilities, insurance and business – could be filled this session. Retired judges have been recalled for temporary stints to maintain a quorum on the panel during the legislature’s quarrels over electing members to it.

One of the vacant seats has been empty since the 2022 session, while the other hasn’t been filled since the end of 2022, because of a political standoff between the formerly GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Former Democratic legislators Lynwood Lewis and Chap Petersen have been floated as potential candidates to be chosen for the positions.

Mental health reforms

Out of all the state’s big policy issues, Democrats and Republicans perhaps share the most common ground when it comes to improving Virginia’s struggling mental health system. Topics expected to garner significant discussion are how to decrease unnecessary emergency room visits, as well as improving the nine significantly overcrowded and understaffed state mental health hospitals revealed in a recent JLARC report.

In December, state Behavioral Health Commission lawmakers agreed to adopt several recommendations from the JLARC report to introduce as bills and budget amendments this session. Those include changing the definition of mental illness so that having a neurocognitive or neurodevelopmental disorder isn’t a basis for temporarily and involuntarily detaining individuals at hospitals.Other legislation proposes increased funding for more staff at state hospitals and enabling private hospitals to admit more involuntary patients.

While the JLARC report indicates much of the state hospital overuse is due to the state’s 2014 bed of last resort law — which requires state psychiatric hospitals to accept any patient under a temporary detention order if a bed cannot be found at a privately operated facility — legislators didn’t recommend any changes to the law.

Additionally, a bill proposed this session by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, would require access to behavioral health screening and treatment when receiving emergency medical services, as well as requiring health insurance to cover crisis centers where mobile crisis response services may be provided.

Prescription Drug Affordability Board

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are introducing bills this session to establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Board in a bipartisan effort to set price limits on certain drugs, following four years of previously failed attempts by Democrats.

The two other bills included in the drug affordability package aim to create transparency on pharmacy benefit managers fees, as well as improve efficiency for state government prescription drug spending.

Last years’ prescription drug board legislation faced opposition from both House Republicans, who quickly tabled the bill, and the Youngkin administration, which called it too “wide-reaching.”

During a press conference Tuesday, bill patron Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, said the legislation is an example of both parties finding common ground, which Youngkin emphasized following November’s elections.

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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