Looking Back on the Legislative Session after Adjournment
The General Assembly formally adjourned on Monday in a pro-forma session, ending 46 days of legislating both online and in-person.
Lawmakers abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana, created a framework for the expungement of criminal records, and created new environmental regulations for vehicles, in a few of the nearly 1,000 pieces of legislation.
"We entered this session with Virginians from all over the Commonwealth counting on us,” said Speaker of the House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn, before adjourning Saturday’s session. “I am proud to say that the work we have accomplished here will lay the foundations on which a healthier, safer, more equitable, and more prosperous Commonwealth will stand.”
Throughout the day Saturday, Senators and Delegates sprinted to finish up pending bills and to resolve differences between their chambers. Remaining major legislation on the legalization of marijuana, passed after a contentious day, when many lawmakers were unsure on what the bill does beyond legalizing sale and consumption in 2024.
The compromise bill that legislators settled on lost the support of some house Democrats, who saw the bill as only setting up a regulatory framework for the production and sale of marijuana and ignoring calls for restorative justice measures.
“Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach, knowing that some of my constituents are in jail right now. And more may be sent to jail,” said Delegate Marica “Cia” Price (D-Newport News).
Marijuana reform advocates argued that the bill created new crimes that could lead to disproportionate policing along racial lines, calling the final bill “at most an aspirational policy statement.” Key parts of the bill will have to be revisited next year.
The newly held Democratic-majority has exposed debates in the party over how much to compromise on progressive legislation.
“I think nobody is promised tomorrow, right? We're not promised the majority,” said Delegate Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) of whether to wait to pass more progressive legislation, or compromise this session. “Compromise doesn’t mean that you're not willing to do it. It just means that we need to provide the infrastructure to do it.”
Lawmakers also passed a budget that spent $48 billion of the Commonwealth’s general fund. Mid-session lawmakers learned they had $730 million more to spend, after unexpected revenues were accounted for.
In a conference committee, representatives of the House and Senate laid out a budget that could give teachers a 5% raise, depending on how much local school districts match funds.
They also added money to the Commonwealth's reserves, despite unprecedented economic strain due to the pandemic.
“Some of the legislators are concerned with keeping rating agencies happy. Some have concerns about possible federal austerity measures in the future that could harm Virginia’s economy,” said Laura Goren of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. “We as an organization do think that a lot of Virginians are still hurting and the midst of a pandemic and recession is not the time to put money into our rainy day fund.”
New environmental regulations for vehicles drew criticism from Republican leadership in the House, in a statement issued Monday.
“Policies allegedly designed to make our Commonwealth ‘greener’ will instead impact the poorest Virginians who can least afford higher energy costs,” the statement read.
Legislating over Zoom was a challenge for legislators in some ways but Delegate Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) said she hoped some of the practices continue into the next in-person session.
“I love having my voting iPad,” she said. “Last session I had two committees that met at the exact same time and I would run in high heels back and forth between committee rooms to hit my voting button.”
She foresees legislators having to tweak bills next session too. “There's just unintended consequences from not having the benefit of getting as many heads around the table together, as we typically do, to work through complicated issues,” she said. “I think we'll see what ends up coming back based on implementation and folks realizing we need to have some changes made.”