BETWEEN the rock of a legislative election year and the hard place of being almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, chances were good that the Virginia General Assembly’s short session this year would devolve into a shoutfest of partisan bickering and legislative gridlock.
Ironically, it took a partisan political scandal—or three—to convince lawmakers in Richmond to work together for the good of their constituents.
While a failed bill that seemingly promoted infanticide and racial and sexual scandals engulfing Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring went viral nationwide, state lawmakers hunkered down in Richmond and quietly passed bipartisan legislation on a number of key issues.
In addition to passing a two-year $117 billion state budget, legislators wisely approved a tax package that conforms the state tax code to the revised federal tax code and returns almost $1 billion in unanticipated new revenue back to Virginia taxpayers, while setting aside $565 million in the commonwealth’s cash reserves.
Lawmakers also started the process of ending decades of blatant partisan gerrymandering by approving a 16-member independent redistricting commission. The compromise bill was acceptable to OneVirginia2021 while satisfying one of our main concerns: that elected members of the General Assembly, not appointed commissioners, have the final word on proposed district maps. Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania, author of a House bill addressing this concern, also noted that “there would be no chance of somebody trying to pack the commission with an inordinate number of partisans.”
Legislators also approved “no-excuses” absentee voting that allows voters to cast ballots in person up to seven days before an election without having to state a reason, allowing them more flexibility to vote without creating never-ending elections.
The General Assembly also passed a bill that would prohibit the governor or any state official or agency from adopting cap-and-trade regulation or participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. The bill ensures buy-in by elected members who are accountable to voters.
Education bills supported by The Free Lance-Star that passed this session include one that repeals the so-called “Kings Dominion” law and allows local school officials, not politicians in Richmond, to decide when classes for the new school year should begin, and legislation that provides $57.7 million to institutions of higher learning that agree to freeze tuition next year.
Three years after the General Assembly outlawed the proffer process, which helps localities offset the financial impact of new residential construction, proffers are back. Having seen the issue from both sides, a bill (HB2342) patroned by former Stafford-supervisor-now-Del. Bob Thomas will bring local officials and developers back to the land-use bargaining table without fear of litigation. Lawmakers also passed legislation that expands protection for state residents threatened with eviction.
Another Thomas bill that lifts the existing age cap for autism coverage (age 10) was also approved. Other health-related bills that passed this session with bipartisan support include one that will result in Dominion’s 27 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash being excavated and relocated to lined pits at Virginia landfill sites; expanded patient access to cannabidiol (CBD), also known as medical cannibas; and restrictions on the sales of highly addictive nicotine products to individuals under the age of 21.
We also applaud the unanimous passage of legislation that would study and compile data on restrictive housing in state prisons, otherwise known as solitary confinement, and a bill that sets mental health standards for prison inmates in the wake of the death of 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell in Hampton Roads. Mitchell, who had been arrested for stealing less than $5 worth of snacks, had stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia in jail. Both reforms were long overdue.
Increased penalties for animal cruelty and failure to comply with Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act by altering or destroying public records were also passed by state legislators.
All in all, this was a much more productive legislative session than most observers had anticipated.
Hopefully, members of the General Assembly won’t need another ugly statewide scandal to work together and find common ground again next year.