Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, center, arrives to deliver his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) General Assembly
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, center, arrives to deliver his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

From abortion and LGBTQ rights to marijuana and gun safety, Virginia lawmakers have a lot on their plates when the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday.

Virginia’s General Assembly session is kicking off! Here’s what that could mean for you.

In Virginia, the General Assembly convenes for a legislative session every year, where state legislators have an opportunity to present bills that can have dramatic impacts on life in the commonwealth. Some of these measures bring about positive change; others seek to restrict freedoms. 

If previous years are any indication, there could be upwards of 3,000 bills introduced this session. Generally speaking, roughly half of all bills introduced in the commonwealth’s regular session have passed each year since 2008, with few exceptions. 

As of publication, nearly 400 bills have been introduced for the 2023 legislative session. So how do you keep track of hundreds of proposed changes to state law and policy? Well, you follow us and we’ll follow them! 

Let’s be upfront about our methodology, here: we’re not covering all 3,000-ish bills. Rather, we’re zeroing in on legislation that could have big impacts on you. 

Education

If you’re a parent, grandparent, or caregiver of a school-aged child, chances are you’re interested in what they’ll be learning—or not learning—in school this year. 

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been touting so-called “parent choice” since his days on the campaign trail. Now, House Bill (HB) 1379—prefiled by Republican Del. Timothy Anderson—would require that public schools create a catalog of printed and audiovisual materials containing “graphic sexual content”–which he defines nebulously and broadly–so that parents may review the material and choose whether or not to restrict their child’s access to certain items. 

Another “parent choice” bill would have a negative impact on children’s and community health. Del. Marie March, a Republican, prefiled HB 1397, which would effectively eliminate school vaccination requirements by allowing parents to opt out for any reason at all, thus endangering other children. 

Also, a GOP-proposed constitutional amendment would drastically change the nature of education oversight in the commonwealth. House Joint Resolution (HJ) 474 also comes from March and seeks to gut the powers of the state Board of Education, which is made up of appointees of multiple governors, and transfer its constitutional authority to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who is appointed by a single sitting governor. 

Abortion

Following the fall of Roe v. Wade in June, questions started swirling about what it meant for abortion in each state. Abortion is still legal in Virginia, but some lawmakers are seeking to change that. 

March, who also proposed the childhood immunization opt-out, proposed HB 1395, which would establish that life begins at conception, making abortion illegal in the commonwealth and potentially impacting the ability of women to use the birth control method of their choice. Republican Rep. Amanda Chase also introduced a bill that would establish that life begins at conception

Another Republican bill (HB 1488) seeks to strip away provisions that authorize the use of state funds to pay for qualifying abortions in cases of rape, incest, and totally incapacitating physical deformities or mental deficiencies. 

LGBTQ

As in recent years, it’s likely that rights of the LGBTQ+ community will take center stage in Virginia’s General Assembly. 

Republican Sen. Amanda Chase is sponsoring a bill targeting transgender kids we’ve already got our eyes on, Senate Bill (SB) 791. The legislation seeks to enact a “Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act, which would preventthose under 18 years of age from receiving gender-affirming medical treatments. The bill also seeks to prohibit the use of public funds for gender transition procedures for people under 18. 

There’s also HB 1387 from Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh, which would target transgender kids who want to play school sports. If a student wants to participate in those activities, a medical professional would have to certify the student’s biological sex.

Another bill we’re keeping our eyes on that targets transgender kids is from Republican Del. Jason Ballard. HB 1434 would prohibit school board members and school board employees from changing a student’s name on any education record unless the request came alongside a court order. 

Climate

In Virginia, climate isn’t just a topic of conversation around winter weather patterns. Climate conversations also include productive methods to help lower energy costs, address flooding, reduce pollution, and more.

A major force in Virginia’s involvement in climate protections is the commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Since 2009, RGGI has made progress in reducing pollution from power plants, protecting public health, expanding clean energy, addressing climate change, driving economic growth, and lowering the cost of electricity in the process, according to the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Virginia became the first southern state to join RGGI in 2020.

Despite the positive aspects of RGGI, the State Air Pollution Control Board—with several pro-fossil fuel Youngkin appointees—voted in December to remove Virginia from the program.

“Gov. Youngkin’s vision for Virginia became abundantly clear: flooded streets, endangered communities, and more Virginians breathing dirtier air,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in part in a press statement. “When Youngkin’s rigged Air Board voted to move forward with his illegal push to single-handedly override Virginia law by taking Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, they also voted to eliminate one of our best tools to cut pollution, to take vital resources away from communities battling dangerous flooding, and to defund programs that help low-income Virginians cut energy costs.”

Town continued, calling the repeal effort “politically-motivated,” “misguided,” and “downright reckless.” He further alleged that at the time, Youngkin offered “no plan to address climate change, no plan to address its current impacts on Virginia, and no plan to secure a clean energy future.”

In addition to the statewide impact of RGGI, we’re likely to see local areas pushing for enhanced climate protections during the session. One such group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recently presented ways in which the General Assembly could help accelerate efforts to reduce pollution. Some methods include fully funding programs to achieve clean water, supporting cleaner vehicle emissions, passing an oyster shell tax credit, and more. 

Marijuana

In 2021, Virginia Democrats legalized marijuana, allowing adults 21 and older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana. 

No Republicans voted for the 2021 bill, but GOP Del. Keith Hodges has just introduced HB 1464, which seeks to create a regulated marijuana market in Virginia. However, marijuana legalization advocates say his proposal would benefit large corporations at the expense of equity provisions in the existing law designed to benefit people and communities harmed by decades of racist anti-marijuana policies.

The bill would change crucial aspects of Virginia’s current law—which allows legal, adult-use cannabis possession and personal cultivation—by establishing a commercial marketplace and overriding equity guidelines prioritizing cannabis dispensary licenses for individuals and communities most affected by the state’s marijuana prosecutions.

Guns 

Democratic Rep. Dawn Adams is sponsoring HB 1515, which would make it a felony to possess or use an auto sear, (a device that effectively turns a handgun into an automatic weapon) in a crime, in an offensive way, or for an aggressive purpose. Democratic Virginia state Sen. Jennifer Boysko has also introduced legislation to require unattended firearms and ammunition to be safely and separately secured in homes with a minor.

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