RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers are set to start this year’s legislative session focused on COVID-19 relief efforts and legalizing marijuana.
The 2021 session will kick off Wednesday, with lawmakers meeting away from the Capitol as the state continues to wrestle with the impacts of a global pandemic that’s shut down schools, closed businesses and left more than 5,000 Virginians dead in last 10 months, including a state senator.
The House of Delegates plans to meet remotely, while the Senate will meet at a large conference center near the Capitol. This will be the second regular legislative session controlled by Democrats since they won control of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation in 2019.
Republicans, upset that the House is meeting remotely and that lawmakers held an extended special session last year, have signaled they will limit what’s normally a 45-day session to only 30 days. Democrats can extend the the number of legislative working days by having Gov. Ralph Northam call a special session.
Here’s a look at key issues that lawmakers will debate:
Northam is pushing to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Virginia, which could be the first Southern state to do so. Northam announced his support for legalization in November, saying he wants a responsible approach that promotes racial equity and preserves youth safety.
It’s unclear if there are enough votes for the measure to pass, but lawmakers in both parties have been more open to marijuana issues, and the state decriminalized the drug last year.
Northam’s push comes as marijuana becomes more broadly accepted throughout the United States.
COVID-19 RELIEF & STATE BUDGET:
Like in every session, lawmakers will have to deal with adjustments to the state’s spending plan.
Northam outlined his proposed amendments last month, presenting a plan that includes hundreds of millions in spending on the pandemic response and restores Democratic priorities put on hold in the spring over economic uncertainty.
The governor’s proposals typically serve as a starting point for lawmakers. Administration officials have said the governor’s proposals account for the fact that Virginia’s economy has held up better than expected amid the pandemic. The proposal is based on a revenue forecast that anticipates $1.2 billion more than a forecast released in August.
Northam’s proposal restores about half of the $2.7 billion in spending that was put on hold earlier this year, including funding allocated for expanding access to early childhood education, for higher education tuition assistance and for his G3 Program to provide free or low-cost job skills training at community colleges.
State Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg said a top priority will be ensuring that schools have “robust” funding, including money for extra counselors, to help teachers deal with the fallout from the coronavirus once students return to the classroom.
“It’s not going to be smooth,” said VanValkenburg, who is also a high school teacher.
Virginia currently has a mix of schools currently offering in-person and virtual instruction.
Liberal lawmakers are also set to push for paid sick leave as part of the state’s coronavirus relief efforts. Similar bills failed to pass last year.
DEATH PENALTY REPEAL
Opponents of the death penalty are confident there’s a real shot of getting legislation through the General Assembly that would end executions in Virginia.
Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell is again sponsoring a death penalty repeal bill, and Republican Sen. Bill Stanley said he will sign on this year as a chief co-patron. The measure would commute the sentences of the only two inmates on Virginia’s death row to life in prison without parole.
Other issues that will likely see pitched debate this session include Democrats’ push to expand voting access.
And Del. Marcus Simon said he’s going to push for legislation to bring Virginia in line with almost every other state and ban the personal use of political campaign funds. Despite support for such a measure by officials in both parties, including Northam, the legislation has recieved a cool reception by the General Assembly in past years.