In five weeks, Virginia Democrats reshape decades of state policy

In five weeks, Virginia Democrats reshape decades of state policy
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. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia General Assembly passed bills to raise the minimum wage, let local governments remove Confederate statues, transform the energy landscape in response to climate change and grant legal driving privileges to undocumented immigrants.

And that was just Tuesday.

At the halfway point of a hectic, 60-day legislative session, Virginia’s new Democratic majorities are dismantling decades of Republican-approved policy and advancing a broad progressive agenda.

A legislature that once made national headlines for requiring transvaginal probes before abortions is now rolling back abortion restrictions like mandatory ultrasounds and the 24-hour waiting period. Past Republican efforts to create legal protections for traditional religious viewpoints have given way to a far-reaching LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill, the first of its kind to advance in the South. The photo ID election rule Republicans enacted as an anti-fraud measure is on the verge of being scrapped and replaced by a more lenient system that would allow excuse-free early voting and automatic voter registration.

In a state where many areas see gun rights as sacrosanct, bills to impose new restrictions on firearm access — including universal background checks and a red flag law — are well on their way to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Alexandria, said the Democrats’ agenda should come as no surprise because Virginia voters chose a “resounding move in this direction” when they gave Democrats control in last year’s elections.

“They wanted change. They wanted action,” Filler-Corn said. “And we are doing exactly that.”

Tuesday was the legislature’s crossover deadline, the final day for the House to act on the 1,734 bills its members filed and the last day for the Senate to finish work on its 1,095 bills. As of Tuesday evening, the two chambers had passed more than 1,400 bills combined. Starting Wednesday, House bills will go the Senate and vice versa as lawmakers try to work out any differences before the final votes to send legislation to the governor.

Among the bills moving forward are proposals to decriminalize marijuana, legalize casinos and sports betting, boost the number of school counselors in public schools, tighten regulations on short-term payday lenders and education loan servicers, create a state-run health insurance exchange and overhaul transportation policy by raising the gas tax to increase road funding, enhancing rail infrastructure and imposing several safety measures like a ban on holding a phone while driving. There’s also the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping move to eliminate electric power sector carbon emissions and promote distributed renewable energy and energy efficiency, among other provisions.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.