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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Virginia legislative session hits crucial midpoint

Split control of the state's General Assembly chambers has given few bills a clear path to passage, but the new Republican governor has already notched a win.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia lawmakers have hit the midpoint of their annual legislative session, known as crossover. Party leaders and advocates for legislation are reacting Wednesday to what they’re most proud of so far and what made the most noise as the two chambers gear up to swap bills before they can head to the governor’s desk. 

Undoubtedly the most headline-making effort has been the bipartisan push to empower parents to choose whether their children wear masks in schools. A campaign promise from recently elected Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, the amendment to a 2020 law passed both the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate earlier this week and was signed into law Wednesday afternoon, with the bill going into effect March 1.

"We've got a ton of momentum across our agenda,” Youngkin said in a statement Wednesday. And where his goals may falter through traditional legislative means, he hoped some could be addressed via the more loose and negotiation-driven budgeting process.

Democratic leadership in the Senate praised their own work in pushing progressive legislation, and also emphasized their role as a firewall against GOP measures they argue would turn back the clock in the state. 

“Senate Democrats have stood firm to ensure justice, protect rights, and provide safety to everyone at home, school, and work,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke in a statement following Tuesday’s final, pre-crossover floor session. 

Following two years of Democratic control, the new Republican majority in the House of Delegates championed bills which roll back voting laws and limit the teaching of critical race theory.

“As the House completes its work on our legislative priorities, I’m pleased to report that we’ve accomplished what voters sent us here to do,” said Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert in a statement

Beyond boasts from both sides, the future of many priorities for each party is still undetermined. 

The GOP hopes to get rid of ballot drop off locations, limit early voting and require photo ID to vote. The advancement of those bills were among the most celebrated Republican wins after Democrats made Virginia one of the easiest states to vote in over the last two years. 

“We will not stop fighting until our elections are secured and Virginia voters are assured that our democratic system is trustworthy,” said one of the bills’ patrons, freshman Delegate Wren Williams, who was part of former President Donald Trump’s legal team in a failed effort to overturn 2020 presidential election results in Wisconsin

But similar measures in the Senate failed to gain ground, offering little hope for new election limits by the end of the 2022 session.

The anti-critical race theory bill – meant to “ban divisive concepts in schools,” according to Youngkin and his GOP allies – faced a whirlwind of pushback from House Democrats as the last few pre-crossover days came to a close. The measure's language bars teaching any one group is inherently discriminatory or “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” 

Delegate Dave La Rock, who authored the legislation, said in a text message after the bill passed the House along party lines that it only puts into law what “we hoped was already the case.” 

But the bill is all but doomed in the Senate, where a version from Republican Senator Jennifer Kiggans was immediately slammed by the chamber's Education Committee Chair Louis Lucas.

“I want all students to know my schools were closed down when I was in first grade,” Lucas said in an education subcommittee meeting after asking if her own history of facing so-called Mass Resistance, a nearly decade-long period in the 1950s and 60s where segregationists closed state schools rather than integrate, would be considered a "divisive topic."

“I don’t like this at all," the Democrat added of the bill which mirrors the successful House version.

But that firewall against House GOP legislation hasn't been a constant.

In addition to passing Youngkin’s school mask opt-out, Senate Democrats also moved to roll back expanded labor protections for some workers and reduce the number of civilian members on the state’s air quality control board, something environmentalists have decried. Both bills are sure to find support among House conservatives. 

On other issues, the left-leaning chamber has offered balance. While the House killed an effort to roll back the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the Senate kept it alive. Its failure in the House, however, means the language may remain in the state’s most important legal document for years to come, despite the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. 

A Republican-backed bill to remove regulations across multiple state agencies found support in the House but was nixed quickly in a Senate committee

Jacob Fish, deputy director for Americans for Prosperity - Virginia, said the red-tape reduction legislation was not entirely dead yet.

“We’ve had some great conversations with members in both chambers,” he said, noting the 2022 legislation picks up where a related 2018 bill, approved by former Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, left off. 

Finally, there’s marijuana legislation. Both parties agree the legalization of the drug – approved for personal use just last year – needs to be sped up to address a growing demand for legal retail options before a black market takes over. But the House failed to pass any law to address the issue and will instead rely on a last-minute, 450-page door-stopper of a bill passed by the Senate. 

The bill allows sales at existing medical dispensaries this fall while opening the door to more cultivation, manufacturing and retail licenses under the recently established Cannabis Control Authority.

JM Pedini with Virginia’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as Virginia NORML, said in a statement they were pleased with the Senate legislation but predicted it would face an uphill battle in the House. 

“Multiple cannabis bills filed in the House failed to receive a single hearing,” they said in a statement. But Pedini also noted Gilbert called creating a regulatory structure for pot an “overriding top-tier concern” through a spokesperson at the start of session.

For longtime Virginia political observers, the split chambers harken back to issues the state’s legislature faced before the past two years of a Democratic trifecta, when Republicans who controlled the House blocked bills despite Democrats holding the Senate and governor’s mansion for almost a decade. 

Now the tables have turned, with the Senate on track to stymie the priorities of Youngkin and the House.

“Aside from bipartisan cooperation on school masking rules, the session so far looks to be a partisan stalemate,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, in a phone interview. “What the Republicans want the Democrats don't and vice versa.” 

The 2022 Virginia General Assembly session ends Saturday, March 12.

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