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Lawmakers wrap ‘historic' General Assembly session

Posted at 10:59 PM, Mar 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-08 22:59:59-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A “historic” Virginia General Assembly session wound down Sunday evening with supporters for the Equal Rights Amendment celebrating on the front stairs of the State Capitol. Virginia voted to ratify the amendment supporters say would enshrine equal legal protections in the U.S. Constitution more than two months ago, but given the pace at which lawmakers voted to change Virginia law Sunday alone, the ERA vote may seem like long ago.

“It's been a very good year, we've got a lot of progress made in a very short time,” ERA Supporter Lynn Johnston said.

Virginia lawmakers voted to extend work on non-budget bills until Sunday after dozens remained in limbo. Facing the deadline of the final day, state lawmakers approved agreements on several high profile issues.

Increasing Minimum Wage:

Under the plan approved in the Virginia House and Senate, the minimum wage would go up to $9.50 per hour statewide beginning in January 2021. It would gradually increase to $12 per hour in 2023, and the General Assembly would have approve further increases following a study into the economic impact of the increase in various parts of the state. Should another increase win approval, the minimum wage would reach $15 per hour in 2026.

Supporters said the increase is the best agreement they could come about given the various approaches at play, but said it gives all minimum wage workers a raise the is “overdue.” Republican lawmakers said small business owners will be harmed by the increase and that young or low-skill worker will lose jobs. Some progressive groups said the bills does not go far enough because it exemptions young people and farm workers.

Marijuana Decriminalization:

The agreement passed Sunday means a person stopped with less than one ounce of marijuana would be given a $25 fine, similar to a parking ticket. Under current law, first or second offense simple possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Past criminal convictions for simple possession will be shielded from public release in most cases, under the bills passed by both chambers.

“For far too long our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records. Those days are over,” said Virginia Attorney General Herring. “With this historic vote we are making Virginia a more fair, just, equal, and progressive place. Decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path towards legal, regulated adult use, and one many thought was still years away, but we cannot stop now.”

Critics of loosening marijuana laws said it will lead to increased drug use by sanctioning personal use.

Removal of Confederate War Memorials:

The House and Senate approved bills that would allow localities to decide whether they want to remove, relocated, or contextualize Confederate war memorials, including several that line Monument Avenue. A city or county that wishes to do so would be required to hold public meeting and must give the statues to any museum or battlefield that wishes to keep them. A voter referendum on removing monuments would also be allowed under the bills.

Casino gaming and sports betting: Lawmakers gave final approval to legislation Sunday to allow voters in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums later this year to approve casinos. Legislators also have approved the expansion of slot-like machines and signed off on online lottery sales and sports betting.

Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) said the rapid changes championed by Democrats now in control will amount to a cost-of-living increase and harm Virginia businesses.

“It's a very dark day in Virginia,” Chase said. “We need to return sanity. We are trying to balance Virginia's budget on alcohol, drugs, casino gambling. We're turning into Nevada.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) said the 2020 session was “historic” in the progress Democrats made in 60-days and said voters put them in power to do just that.

“Really doing things that for years, if not decades, folks have really wanted us to do," Fairfax said. "We're very proud of the work that we've done. As Lt. Gov., presiding over the Senate, I thought we had a very successful session.”

The General Assembly will meet Thursday to vote on the two-year state budget and approve judges. Budget negotiators in the House and Senate said they had reached a compromise on the spending plan.

Gov. Northam will spend the coming days reviewing the bills passed during the 2020 session and decided whether to sign them into law or use his veto pen. Northam said in the past he backs several of these measures.