Sunday, July 21, 2024

Crossover Roundup: What’s Alive and What’s on Shaky Ground in Virginia’s General Assembly

The Virginia Capitol (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — At the halfway point of Virginia’s 2024 General Assembly session, Democrats have used their majority power on both sides of the Capitol to pass bills to raise the minimum wage, ban newly made assault weapons, protect abortion access and allow recreational weed dispensaries.

All of those priorities are expected to win final passage in the weeks ahead, but they’re heading to an uncertain fate at the hands of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has not yet played a major role in the policymaking process.

With the governor pushing hard for a Northern Virginia sports arena deal, the story of the 2024 session could come down to whether Youngkin and Democratic leaders can strike a bargain that gives both sides some of what they want.

Some of that negotiating could be worked out through the state budget, which will take up more of legislators’ time in the session’s second half.

Tuesday was the deadline for the state Senate and House of Delegates to finish work on their bills before they cross over to be heard by the other body. Here’s a rundown of what’s happened on big issues so far:

Sports arena

Legislation that would create a sports authority to issue $2 billion in bonds to build a new arena for the Washington Wizards and Capitals in Alexandria has been one of the most closely watched proposals of the session. Backed by Youngkin, the project envisions the construction of not only the arena, but a new entertainment district in the Potomac Yard neighborhood that the governor says could produce $12 billion in revenues over the coming decades.

The authority bill has cleared the House with a reenactment clause that would require the General Assembly to approve the proposal again in 2025 for the project to move forward. But it died in the Senate after Finance and Appropriations Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said she wouldn’t bring it to a vote, citing concerns with the project’s financing and what she and Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, described as Youngkin’s unwillingness to negotiate with Democrats.

Still, some members of the Senate have signified they aren’t abandoning the arena idea. “To quote Eric Idle — it’s not dead yet,” Surovell told The Washington Post Monday. “We are always open to talking about ways to try to alleviate our concerns, but the conversations need to happen ASAP.”

Taxes

Youngkin came into the 2024 legislative session seeking major tax reforms: an across-the-board 12% cut in income taxes, a bump in the state sales and use tax from 4.3% to 5.2%, and an expansion of the sales and use tax to digital goods like digital downloads and streaming services. He also proposed eradication of the widely disliked car tax, a goal that has eluded former Republican governors and would require more than one piece of legislation to accomplish.

Democrats rejected bills to carry out much of that agenda, which they have complained would disproportionately harm lower-income people. While the ideas remain alive in the governor’s budget proposal, their prospects appear dim as the House and Senate prepare to unveil their own two-year spending plans on Sunday.

Banning legacy admissions

Legislation to ban the practice of providing special treatment in college admissions decisions to applicants related to alumni and donors is on course to reach the governor after both chambers unanimously backed the proposal.

If the legislation passes for a second time and the governor signs it into law, all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities would be prohibited from engaging in the admissions practice.

Education Reform Now, a think tank, says more than 100 colleges and universities have ended legacy admissions since 2015, but 787 still used the practice as of 2020.

Gambling

In a major policy reversal for the General Assembly, skill games — the slots-like machines tucked into corners of gas stations and bars all over the state — appear to be on track to be fully legalized, taxed and regulated. Lawmakers have signaled broad, bipartisan support for repealing a skill game ban that first took effect in 2021, but they haven’t finalized the details of how tough or lenient the new regulatory structure should be.

Lawmakers punted on a proposal to allow a voter referendum on a potential casino in Fairfax County, blocked an effort to allow cruise ship casinos to operate in Virginia waters and again said no to the idea of allowing sports betting on college games involving Virginia schools.

After Richmond voters said no to a casino twice, legislators have advanced a bill to give Petersburg voters a chance to weigh in on whether their city should host a casino in the capital region. Another piece of legislation moving forward would take Richmond off the state’s list of cities allowed to pursue casinos.

Guns

Leaving past caution behind, Democrats have passed dozens of new gun control bills, many of which are almost certain to be vetoed by the governor.

Those proposals include a ban on assault-style weapons manufactured after July 1, a ban on untraceable “ghost guns” assembled at home, a five-day waiting period for gun purchases and several bills meant to encourage safe gun storage, particularly when children are present.

A few gun bills have picked up Republican votes, most notably a proposal to ban auto sears, small attachable devices that can produce automatic fire from semi-automatic handguns. Unregistered auto sears are already banned under federal law, but the Virginia bill aims to create a state-level ban that would give police more power to remove them.

Republicans have criticized Democrats for blocking their proposals to toughen criminal penalties for people convicted of multiple gun crimes.

Minimum wage

A top Democratic priority for the session, legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 has cleared both the House and Senate on strict party-line votes. The bills continue a process started by Democrats in 2020, when they began raising the minimum wage from the federal floor of $7.25 per hour to the current level of $12 per hour.

The legislation is virtually doomed, however: While Youngkin hasn’t promised to veto the bill, he’s tiptoed right up to the line. At a small business-focused event in Richmond this January, he told reporters there was no need for the General Assembly to send him a bill “because the market is handling it. And they should allow small businesses to handle this.”

Behavioral health reforms

After a state report found severe overcrowding and understaffing at Virginia’s nine state-run mental health hospitals, both Democrats and Republicans have backed proposals that aim to ease the strain on the facilities. Bills that try to reduce “inappropriate” admissions of patients with conditions like autism or dementia, align nursing schedules with industry standards and step up investigations of abuse and neglect allegations have gotten unanimous support.

Lawmakers have stopped short of recommendations to reform Virginia’s “bed of last resort” law, which requires state hospitals to accept any patient under an involuntary commitment order if a bed can’t be found for them in a private facility. A December report found the law was contributing to dangerous numbers of patients in state wards.

Constitutional amendments

Democrats came into the session with several big ideas for constitutional amendments on abortion, same-sex marriage and voting rights, but decided to push them off until next year.

Those amendments would scrap Virginia’s longstanding policy of stripping voting rights for life after a felony conviction unless a governor restores them, create a state-level right to abortion and ensure same-sex marriage remains legal in Virginia no matter what future rulings come out of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Because those amendments need to be approved by the General Assembly in both 2025 and 2026 before going to voters for a final decision, passing the amendments this year wouldn’t have made the process any faster. Waiting a year could also bring strategic advantages for Democrats, giving them more time to reassess the political environment after the 2024 presidential race and build momentum heading into Virginia’s 2025 elections.

Weed

Both chambers have approved legislation to allow retail marijuana sales for recreational use, which remains a major unfinished piece of Democratic efforts to decriminalize and regulate weed.

Democrats are still working out the details of how a state-sanctioned retail market would work, but they don’t appear to be having much luck yet convincing Youngkin to allow legal weed stores on his watch.

Nevertheless, a recreational marijuana bill could still land on Youngkin’s desk, forcing him to veto it or give in as part of a broader legislative deal with Democratic leaders.

Abortion

With abortion access in Virginia protected due to last year’s election results, Democrats have passed several bills meant to protect abortion providers and women seeking abortions in Virginia from being targeted by authorities in other states with abortion bans.

One bill would prohibit anyone from being extradited to another state for abortion offenses that are not a crime in Virginia. Another would prohibit law enforcement from getting search warrants for menstrual data stored in period-tracking apps, a preemptive safeguard abortion rights advocates say would prevent private health information from being seized for abortion-related prosecutions.

Proposals creating a state-level right to contraception — another measure advocates have pitched as a way to prevent further erosion of reproductive rights — have also passed both chambers.

Democrats have defeated several GOP-sponsored bills to ban or restrict abortion. One of those bills created high drama in the House when Democrats forced Republicans to take an up or down vote on whether all public funding for abortion should be banned with no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal abnormalities and when the life of the mother is at risk. After trying to avoid the vote altogether, nearly all Republicans ended up voting against the bill that came from their side.

“We’re going to continue to push this issue out there until they all capitulate and start backing women’s reproductive health care,” House Speaker Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said of his move to bring the anti-abortion bill to the floor for a recorded vote. “Because they’ll continue to lose elections on this issue.”

Same-sex marriage

Virginia’s Constitution still has an antiquated ban on same-sex marriage voters approved in 2006, but Democrats have been trying for years to overcome GOP opposition and give voters a chance to formally approve marriage equality.

Democrats are waiting until next year to begin the process of formally scrapping the ban, but they’ll also probably need to retain control of the House in the 2025 elections and pass the amendment again in 2026 before it can go to voters in November of 2026.

For now, Democrats are pushing forward a mostly symbolic bill stating that marriage licenses must be issued regardless of the gender, sex or race of the two people involved. That legislation has picked up a few Republican votes in the process, but it’s unclear how Youngkin will handle it.

Local taxes for modernizing schools

Both chambers backed a bill that would let local governments increase their sales tax by 1% to pay for school construction projects as long as voters OK the increase in a referendum.

During the last two years of split control of the General Assembly, the legislation died twice in the House after Republicans balked at the idea of raising taxes. But this year, the proposals have gotten strong bipartisan support, passing the Senate on a 27-13 vote and the House on a 69-28 vote.

In Virginia, local governments have control over adjustments to their property tax rates but aren’t allowed to change the sales tax rate without explicit permission from the General Assembly. Under current law, only nine localities can impose a 1% sales tax to fund school construction and renovation projects.

Data centers

Lawmakers introduced roughly a dozen bills to address the ongoing proliferation of data centers in Virginia. But only one has made it through crossover, with the others headed to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which voted in December to conduct a study of data centers in Virginia.

“Let’s have JLARC have a look at it and move forward on data center and environment issues created by them in a uniform fashion and come up with really good public policy,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, during discussion of one proposal.

The lone bill to make it out of its chamber, from Del. Josh Thomas, D-Prince William, initially would have required local governments to conduct site assessments ahead of approving a project but was amended to say they can do the assessments if they want. It could face trouble in the Senate, which sent a similar version to JLARC for study.

Paid family and medical leave

A proposal to set up a state-run, universal paid family and medical leave program modeled on the state’s unemployment insurance program passed the Senate but never made it out of the House Appropriations Committee. Uniform Republican opposition to the idea also indicates that even if the legislation makes it through the Democratic-controlled legislature, it’s unlikely to gain Youngkin’s favor.

Under the proposal, both employers and employees would contribute small amounts to a state insurance fund that would then pay out 80% of a worker’s wages for up to 12 weeks annually if the worker had to take time off for the birth of a child, care for a family member or a serious health condition. Twelve states and Washington, D.C. have instituted similar programs to date.

Rent stabilization

The third time was not the charm for Suffolk Democratic Del. Nadarius Clark’s proposed measure to stabilize rent increases, which surged statewide during the pandemic and are still a big concern for some Virginia residents and advocates.

Clark’s House Bill 721 would have given localities the option to create anti-rent gouging ordinances and the power to enforce them, required that landlords give tenants at least two months’ notice before hiking rent, and capped annual rent increases between 7% and 15%. Lawmakers in the House Courts of Justice Committee voted to continue the measure until 2025. Clark had put forward similar legislation in the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions, both of which failed.

A companion bill by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, was also defeated.

SCC judges

It took almost two years for the General Assembly to fill two vacancies on the State Corporation Commission, the arm of state government that regulates utilities, insurance, banking and business.

A political standoff in the formerly divided legislature ended this session after Democrats took control of both chambers and appointed Kelsey Bagot, an attorney with NextEra Energy and former adviser to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member, and Sam Towell, an attorney for Smithfield Foods and former lawyer with the Office of the Attorney General. The appointments mean retired judges will no longer need to be recalled to maintain a quorum.

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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