RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers reconvened Wednesday to take up the changes Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is proposing to the bills passed this year.
The governor added proposed amendments to 37 new bills for legislators to consider when they reconvene for Wednesday’s “veto session.” Northam approved over 500 pieces of legislation passed during this year’s Virginia General Assembly session and did not veto a single bill.
Assembly members passed bills to legalize marijuana in 2024 and abolish the death penalty, two changes once seen as improbable in Virginia. A Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates decriminalized cannabis last year, but efforts to legalize it and rid the commonwealth of capital punishment were approved after nationwide protests and growing activism against racial injustice in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Whether lawmakers will approve Northam’s proposed amendments remains unclear. The governor has included proposals to fund an independent investigation into a state report alleging violations by the Virginia Parole Board and move up marijuana legalization from 2024 to this July.
While those amendments are expected to stir up heated debates among lawmakers during the one-day session, the General Assembly will also consider proposed changes to gun-control measures, a bill imposing stricter restrictions on the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and whether to ban so-called skill games on July 1.
Marijuana legalization bill
The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation to allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana when retail sales were expected to begin in 2024. Advocacy groups and legislators criticized the approved measure for falling short of fulfilling the bill’s original intent: address the racial disparities in enforcement and citations for marijuana offenses.
On the last day for him to submit amendments, Gov. Northam announced he was proposing changes to speed up legalization to this summer. If approved, Northam’s amendments would legalize simple possession and allow households to have up to four pot plants on July 1.
Northam also wants people with past nonviolent marijuana-related offenses to be able to have those criminal records sealed as soon as possible. The governor added two budget amendments to set aside funding for a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of cannabis, as well as training for law enforcement to recognize and prevent driving while under the influence.
While lawmakers have signaled their support for Northam’s changes to the bill, Republicans and some Democrats have questioned the idea of speeding up legalization. Many key details within the legislation, including the regulatory framework and how law enforcement will enforce the open container provision, are still up in the air and will require approval by new General Assembly next year.
Northam shared 18 proposed amendments to this year’s budget bill with lawmakers on March 31. The governor is asking for $250,000 to be set aside for an independent probe into an Office of the State Inspector General report claiming the Virginia Parole Board violated its own procedures and state code during the parole process of Vincent Martin.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have come out in support of a third-party investigation but Republicans have questioned the proposals in Northam’s budget amendment, including its limited scope to focus only on the OSIG report on Martin’s case.
GOP state lawmakers have come out against allowing Attorney General Mark Herring to select the investigator, citing claims from a whistleblower that Herring’s office played a part in altering the report before it was sent to state officials. A spokeswoman for Herring denied all allegations made by the whistleblower, an OSIG investigator who was fired following her decision to seek whistleblower protection status.
Another issue Republicans have with Northam’s proposal for an investigation is the provision that the findings would not be available through public record requests. However, a final report would be due no later than June 15 and must be made public if Northam’s amendment is approved.
The Virginia House voted along party lines, 55-45, to approve Northam’s budget amendment. The Senate still needs to vote on the governor’s recommendation.
- Republicans call Northam’s plan to investigate watchdog agency ‘weak’ as Parole Board saga continues
- State investigator who looked into Va. Parole Board fired after seeking whistleblower status, attorney says
Democrats seized control of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019, with many candidates focusing much of the campaign season on promises to introduce and pass gun-control bills the following year. After the 2020 General Assembly session, Northam signed measures requiring background checks on all firearm sales, establishing a “red flag” law in Virginia and reinstating the state’s one-handgun-a-month policy.
In 2021, lawmakers introduced and passed a bill to ban firearms inside the Virginia State Capitol, inside buildings owned by the state and on Capitol Square.
Northam made only change to the bill to exempt magistrates from the ban. On Wednesday, both chambers in the General Assembly voted to approve the recommendation.
Northam also amended a bill introduced by Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-Fairfax) that would prohibit those convicted of assaulting a family or household member from having a firearm for three years.
Gov. Northam added a proposed amendment to extend the ban to five years and clarify that individuals in a domestic partnership — those living in the same household within the previous 12 months — are included in the measure. Both chambers in the General Assembly approved the governor’s proposal.
The legislature approved a bill from Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William) to create a retirement plan run by the state for workers without any access to a 401k. Gov. Northam is proposing expanding access to those in part-time positions.
The bill calls for the program to be established and open for workers on July 1, 2023. On a 55-45 party-line vote, the Virginia House approved the change from Northam.
A bill making certain workers – firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, law enforcement officers, correctional officers and regional jail officers – eligible for compensation if COVID-19 leads to death or disability passed with overwhelming support in the General Assembly.
The original bill applied to any death or disability on or after Sept. 1, 2020 and before Dec. 31, 2021. Northam’s amendment, which the Virginia Senate approved unanimously Wednesday, changes the measure to apply to any death or disability on or after July 1, 2020.
After the Senate voted, the Virginia House overwhelmingly approved the recommendation.
No more skill games?
In an effort to ensure so-called skill games — casino-style gambling devices that popped up in convenience stores, gas stations and grocery stores last year – are banned in Virginia this summer, Gov. Northam is proposing removing lines from a bill from Del. Don L. Scott (D-Portsmouth).
Scott’s bill would impose a penalty of up to $25,000 to the stores that continue using the machines, but language in the approved conference report left an opening for some businesses to keep their devices until 2022.
“Any organization or person that conducted bingo, network bingo, instant bingo, pull tabs, seal cards, raffles, duck races, Texas Hold’em poker tournaments, or regulated gaming outside of the county, city, or town in which the organization’s or person’s principal office or registered agent, as registered with the State Corporation Commission, is located or outside of an adjoining county, city, or town on or before February 1, 2021, may continue such activities only at those locations until June 30, 2022,” the last lines of the report.
Northam’s proposed amendment removes these lines from the final bill, prohibiting so-called skill games on July 1. The Virginia House voted 76-23 to approve Northam’s proposal.
Restrictions on facial recognition technology
During this year’s General Assembly session, lawmakers approved a bill from Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) that would prohibit law enforcement and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology without authorization from the state legislature.
Gov. Northam added a change to ensure the ban would not apply to commercial airports. The Virginia House voted 99-1 to approve the technical amendment.
What new laws go into effect in July?
The Virginia General Assembly gave final approval to a bill to legalize simple possession of marijuana and limited home growth beginning July 1, 2021, three years sooner than initially planned.
Northam approved a bill requiring school systems in Virginia to offer students a full schedule of in-person learning by July 1. The governor did not add a proposed amendment for an emergency clause, despite calls from Republicans seeking to have the bill go into effect immediately.
Legislation banning firearms near a polling location or an electoral board meeting where election results are being certified –within 40 feet — will go into effect on July 1 after Northam signed the bill.
This summer, Virginia will also eliminate the use of the “gay/trans panic” defense that murder and assault suspects may attempt to use in court to justify acts of violence and extend a moratorium on evictions to help people struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Northam statement following 2021 reconvened session of the General Assembly
“Today, we concluded a legislative session that will be regarded as one of the most consequential policy-reforming periods in modern Virginia history.
“We approved a state budget that will help Virginians get through the pandemic while laying a foundation for a strong economic recovery. We have directed resources to provide grants for small businesses and built up a robust process to protect renters from eviction. And we have come together to support our schools and safely return students and teachers to the classroom.
“We made history as the first state in the South to legalize the simple possession of marijuana. I am pleased that the General Assembly accepted my proposal to make this change on July 1, 2021 nearly three years earlier than planned. Marijuana laws were explicitly designed to target communities of color, and Black Virginians are disproportionately likely to be stopped, charged, and convicted. Today, Virginia took a critical step to right these wrongs and restore justice to those harmed by decades of over-criminalization.
“I am grateful to Lieutenant Governor Fairfax for his tie-breaking vote, and to the legislators, all of the advocates, and the members of my team who have worked to ensure that our framework for legalization focuses on public health, public safety, and equity. This includes a plan to seal certain crimes from an individual’s record automatically, so those with past convictions can get a clean slate and move on with their lives.
“We joined 22 other states and put an end to the inhumane practice of capital punishment. Virginia has executed more people than any other state—and now we are charting a more equitable way forward for our Commonwealth. And we took action to establish a constitutional amendment that would make the process of restoring political rights to individuals upon completion of their sentence one that is automatic.
“We passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which restores and builds on key provisions of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the United States Supreme Court. Voting is fundamental to our democracy, and this legislation is a model for how states can ensure the integrity of elections and protect the sacred right to vote.
“As this historic session comes to an end, I am heartened by all that we have done together to advance our priorities and make Virginia stronger, fairer, and more equitable. But we must also remember that there is still important work ahead of us to implement these new laws, continue expanding vaccination efforts, and strengthen our economy.
“When I took office, I shared a vision of a Commonwealth that is open and welcoming, one that takes care of people in need, and where every person has the opportunity to build the life they want. I am proud of how far we have come—there is every reason to have hope and optimism for our future and I look forward to building on our progress in the weeks and months to come.”