The 2020 General Assembly session begins today. With Democrats set to control both the House and the Senate for the first time since 1995, analysts and voters alike are expecting big policy changes for the state. Below we have highlighted the issues to keep an eye on, from gun safety to health care to the Equal Rights Amendment. In each section you’ll find details on what Democrats have already proposed, and where Republicans traditionally have fallen on those issues.
Gun safety: Democrats have explicitly said they plan on passing several new gun safety laws that aim to reduce reducing gun violence in the state. The measures they’ve proposed include a requirement for background checks, and creating red flag laws which would allow the police to temporarily take guns from people considered a threat to themselves or others. They also have pre-filed legislation banning assault-style weapons, high capacity magazines, bump stocks, and silencers.
There has been significant opposition from conservative groups towards any potential gun safety laws in the months leading up to the start of this General Assembly session. The “Second Amendment Sanctuary” movement has spread throughout the state, with over 90 cities and counties passing resolutions opposing gun safety laws . The Virginia Citizens Defense League has also helped organize a rally against any new gun safety legislation on January 20th in Richmond.
Environment: Democrats have indicated that they plan on supporting a number of clean energy policies. Many Democratic candidates ran campaigns which made protecting the environment as a central part of their platform. Environmental groups have expressed hope that the Democratically controlled General Assembly will pass new protections. Some Democrats have already pre-filed legislation for Virginia’s version of a Green New Deal.
Previously, Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade program aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Health care: Gov. Northam is leading the way for Democrats on a number of measures that aim to increase access to health care. Northam announced he would like to lower premiums on the individual marketplace by doubling the tax on cigarettes. Several Democratic legislators are . pushing to go further by expanding Medicaid to include dental coverage for adults. Only minors who receive Medicaid are currently eligible for dental coverage.
Some Republican have said that they are open to amending the state’s healthcare system but have voiced hesitation due to cost.
Reproductive health: Democrats are looking to roll back restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, put into place by former Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell. These include a law that requires a woman to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion, and another law imposes strict, hospital-level building codes on clinics. Cirtics say those requirements are intended to restrict access and have no medical justification.
Republicans have repeatedly moved to restrict a woman’s right to choose over the years and have regularly rejected Democrats’ efforts to expand access.
Education: Northam included several education improvements in his proposed budget that will need to be approved by the General Assembly’s money committees. He proposed giving teachers a 3% raise, and increasing funding for early education programs. Democratic legislators have already made moves to improve the education system. As of early December, legislators had already pre-filed 14 bills relating to education.
After decades of Republican control of the General Assembly, Virginia teachers are among the lowest paid in the country.
LGBT Rights: Bills to ban LGBT discrimination in housing and expand the state’s hate-crime law to include gay and transgender people are now likely to pass. While some Republicans in the General Assembly voiced support for passing LGBT-friendly legislation last year, the bills were ultimately killed by their fellow party members in committee.
Criminal justice: Democrats have already filed several bills focused on addressing some of the flaws in the state’s criminal justice system. Their goals include reducing prison size and addressing the racial disparities in the law.
Republicans, for their part, have largely opposed efforts to overhaul the system, arguing that the bills may increase crime. There have been some modest steps taken by the party to address some problems in the system, like last year’s decision to increase the minimum dollar amount that constitutes as a felony theft, but the party has largely been slow.
Equal Rights Amendment: Democrats have said they plan to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would add equality among the sexes as a part of the Constiution. Virginia would be the 38th and final state needed to pass the ERA, clearing the path for it to be incorporated into the Constitution.
Last year’s effort to ratify the ERA ultimately failed after Republicans blocked it in committee. Conservative groups argued that passing the bill would make it more challenging to separate genders in restrooms and was a covert effort from Democrats to expand access to abortion.