What happened this year in the General Assembly
By Davis Burroughs
April 10, 2019

Virginia’s General Assembly is gone for the year. Despite being engulfed by scandal, some things of note actually happened during this session. Below we’ve gathered the highlights of what got done, what didn’t and why it matters.

Most things did or didn’t happen for one big reason: Control of the General Assembly is narrowly held by Republicans (by two votes!) But over the last decade, Democrats have slowly eroded Republican’s hold on the General Assembly, where they’ve had a majority in the Senate since 2011 and in the House since the turn of the century. And when it comes to getting things done, two votes could make a world of difference for Virginians. Among the 212 highly contested bills in the 2019 General Assembly, nearly 90 percent of votes were decided on party line votes.

HEALTH: Republicans for making health insurance worse

Virginia got to start this year off right. After five years of opposition from the GOP, Democrats succeeded this year in expanding Medicaid coverage to 400,000 residents, many of whom have never had regular health insurance. While a few Republicans crossed the aisle and joined Democrats to expand the program, Del. Tim Hugo (R-40) and Del. Roxann Robinson (R-27), both of whom face tough races this November, voted against the program.

[Read more: How getting on Medicaid changed this cancer patient’s life]

Of course, expanding insurance came with efforts from Republicans to also make health insurance worse. Del. Glen Sturtevant (R-10) and others offered legislation that would allow insurers in Virginia to offer “catastrophic” health insurance plans to all individuals. These plans can have cheap premiums, but provide far less coverage than plans in the health insurance exchange, and end up attracting healthier people needed to keep premiums low for everyone.

Northam vetoed those bills and two others from Republicans that would’ve let insurers offer short-term coverage, which Northam said would undermine “an individual’s right to quality, affordable, and comprehensive health care coverage.”

Democrats attempted to pass several progressive measures that ultimately failed to breach the Republican majority. Among them were bills that would’ve required health insurance carriers to provide coverage for contraceptives and reproductive health services. For more details, check out Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia’s bill tracker.

ECONOMY: Let’s not talk about paid family leave or increase the minimum wage

Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33) and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2) fought to require the state offer paid 12 weeks paid leave to active duty military personnel, new parents, and Virginians either grappling with serious medical conditions or caring for family members with severe health problems.

Neither the House or Senate bill made it out of committee, where it was voted down by a majority of Republicans.

Meanwhile, 19 states across the country increased minimum wage requirements this year, and Virginia was not one of them. Our state has the lowest minimum wage allowed by federal law, $7.25 per hour. In this session Republicans voted down four different minimum wage hikes offered by Democrats, including separate bills that would have risen the rate to $10 per hour, $9 per hour, and $8 per hour.

Democrats had some success, passing a bill repealing a racist Jim Crow era law that allowed employers to pay less than minimum wage to “newsboys, shoe-shine boys, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and theater cashiers.”

DISCRIMINATION: No history to be made here, ERA

Virginia had the chance to be the 38th and last state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, a measure first proposed by Congress in 1972 that outlaws discrimination based on gender. The Virginia Senate approved the bill with mostly Democratic support, but the GOP in the House of Delegates killed the bill, refusing to even debate it on the floor. All but one Republican voted against debating the ERA.

House Republicans also killed four bills that would have explicitly banned housing and employment discrimination against LGBTQ Virginians. Under federal law, housing and employment discrimination is illegal based on factors like race and gender, but not sexual orientation.

Virginia Democrats have tried to extend discrimination protections to LGBTQ residents since 1999, and Brian Koziol, a director at HOME, which advocates for equal housing opportunities, said they got further than previous years. Much like paid family leave, this is another issue that Republicans preferred to kill in committee and not discuss with the public.

IMMIGRATION: Don’t even THINK about being a sanctuary city

There are zero localities in Virginia that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” but this didn’t stop Republicans from trying to take the freedom to do so away from those localities.

Republicans passed two bills that would have banned localities from becoming “sanctuary cities” and forced them to comply with federal immigration enforcement agencies like ICE. HB2270, from Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-9), and SB1156 from Sen. Richard H. Black (R-13), were both passed without any support from Democrats and vetoed by Gov. Northam.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, an advocacy group, wrote in a letter that the legislation was unnecessary and would “do nothing to solve our national immigration crisis,” while also adding that the bills would “erode trust between local law enforcement and the community, discourage immigrants from working with the police, and make our streets less safe.”

Northam agreed, and while Republicans in the Assembly attempted to override his vetoes, they ultimately fell short.

GUN CONTROL: Concealed carry permits from other states? Yes!

A year after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, there was hope that Virginia might finally pass some meaningful gun control legislation to shore up the state’s lax gun laws. The Commonwealth’s gun control regulations are so weak that it received a “D” rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But despite the fact that 60% of Virginians support stricter gun laws, Republicans defeated over 20 Democrat-sponsored gun control bills in the House and Senate.

They then went a step further, by actually trying to ease the gun laws. Republicans in the House and Senate passed HB2253, a bill from Del. Brenda E. Pogge (R-96) that would make it easier for out-of-state residents to receive a concealed carry permit. Gov. Northam vetoed the bill and the House sustained his veto during the veto session on April 3.

Republicans also attempted to repeal the statutory prohibition on carrying a gun or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship. Republicans successfully moved the bill out of the Senate, but it never made it to a vote in the House.

ENVIRONMENT: Climate change, the perfect place for political games

The contentious battle over climate change continued this session, though for a moment, it looked as if Republicans had turned a page by supporting a bill that works toward a carbon-free future.

The Republican-led House Commerce and Labor Committee passed HB1635, which would place a moratorium on permits for new fossil-fuel fired power plants beginning in 2021.

But this ultimately seems to have been a political maneuver to force Democrats to take a hard vote. Republicans killed a number of more moderate climate bills in committee, but allowed a floor vote on the moratorium bill, which was the most aggressive and controversial piece of legislation.

In doing so, they put Democrats in an awkward position — either vote against the only climate bill to make its way to the House floor and risk alienating their base, which strongly supports action on climate change, or vote for it and go on the record supporting the most far-reaching climate initiative of them all. In the end, the bill was defeated on a party-line vote and Republicans may look to use the vote against Democrats in this year’s general assembly elections.

While that battle continues, bipartisan agreement was reached on one environmental bill, SB1533, that will force Dominion to clean up four legacy coal ash storage sites leaching toxins like lead and arsenic into groundwater. To the dismay of many Democrats, however, ratepayers — not the polluter — will foot the bill.

Check out Virginia Conservation Network’s bill tracker for a full list of energy and environment bills considered in 2019.

VOTING: Is the goal to make it easier or harder to vote?

GOP lawmakers in Virginia have long stirred baseless fears of rampant voter fraud in their districts. A 2018 report by The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission — the General Assembly’s watchdog agency — found that no large scale voter fraud existed in Virginia. But that didn’t stop Republicans from passing two voter suppression bills, HB2764 and SB1038, that would restrict voter access by creating unnecessary obstacles to voter registration in Virginia. Northam vetoed both measures, and Republicans lacked the votes to overrule the Governor’s vetos.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, State Sen. Lionell Spruill, Sr. (D-5), proposed SB1026, a bill that expands absentee voting rights. According to the ACLU of Virginia, the bill was watered down, but ultimately passed and was signed into law by Gov. Northam.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-46) also proposed HB1641, which would have further expanded absentee voting rights, but her bill died in committee.

The average increase in tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities since 2007? A whipping 80%. And some schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary have more than doubled their tuition.

COLLEGE: Tuition won’t decrease, but hey, it might not increase either

After years of inaction, the General Assembly finally tackled the issue on a bipartisan basis. Students and their families could see some tuition relief as a result of the state budget deal, which includes a $57.7 million funding boost for colleges and universities that agree to freeze their tuition rates next year.

This came after a series of other bills were proposed in the House and Senate, but failed to pass. One such bill, proposed by Del. David Reid (D-32), would have gone even farther than the budget amendment and capped tuition increases for institutions that have raised their tuition more than the state average for the past 10 years.

Bills to require schools to have public comment before a tuition increase vote also passed both chambers, but Democratic-sponsored proposals to extend in-state tuition rates to Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, students died in both chambers.

If you live in Virginia, get caught smoking weed and get convicted, you and your family are forever barred from receiving temporary assistance from the government.

MARIJUANA: Still banning people for life

Democrats tried to end that practice by unanimously backing HB2397, from Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-49).

The bill would have allowed anyone convicted of a felony offense of possession of a controlled substance to receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) assistance, so long as they complied with all obligations imposed by the court and Department of Social Services and had already completed or was in the process of completing a substance abuse treatment program.

The bill initially made it to a full floor vote in the House, but Republicans ultimately sent the bill back to the House Committee of Courts and Justice, where the chairman of the committee, Del. Robert B. Bell (R-58), let it die.

While polls consistently show Virginia voters overwhelmingly support marijuana decriminalization, legalized adult-use, and medical-use, House and Senate Republicans also killed dozens of bills that would have moved the Commonwealth’s marijuana policies out of the dark ages.

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