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Lawmakers work to settle dozens of bills before General Assembly session ends

Posted at 5:19 PM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-04 17:40:39-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- With three full days left on the 2020 Virginia General Assembly calendar, state lawmakers are still working out the final details of dozens of bills that hit on touch-point issues. The final day of the session is scheduled for Saturday, and if discrepancies in bills passed by both the House of Delegates and Senate are not rectified by then, changes will have to wait until next year.

For example, in 2019 a version of the “hands-free” driving bill passed both chambers, but the agreement put forth in a conference report gave the some lawmakers pause and ultimately led to its demise. A bill sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) on the issue is already on the Governor’s desk this year.

The list of issues awaiting final action as the session deadline approaches is extensive:

  • Minimum Wage Increase: Both chambers are debating whether Virginia should take a regional approach or gradually increase it to $15 per hour statewide.
  • Casino Gaming: Both the House and Senate versions of the bill are in conference committee
  • Marijuana Decriminalization: The two versions of the bill in play have different amount thresholds for simple possession (one verse one-half ounce) and the maximum fine allowed ($25 versus $50)
  • Repealing the Photo ID Requirements to Vote: The House and Senate differ on whether someone who does not have an acceptable photo ID could sign an sworn statement affirming their identity or have to show some other form of documentation confirming their identity
  • Gun Control Bills: One handgun purchase per month, tightening background checks for purchases, and banning online concealed handgun tests all remain in conference committee

Conference committees are formed when the House and Senate cannot come to an agreement on a bill, and a select group of lawmakers from both chambers meet to try and iron out the differences in the bill. Many times issues are technical in nature and easily resolved. However, some issues where two very different schools of thought exist, such as the minimum wage debate, can lead to a stalemate.

Multiple aides and lawmakers said Wednesday they expect several late nights as conference committees continue their work and try to sell their compromises to both chambers.

Also hanging in limbo is the two-year state budget. It remains in conference committee where both chambers debated over hundreds of amendments the other put forth. One source briefed on budget negotiations said it is possible disagreements between House and Senate conferees will result in either a special session or an extension of the current one.

Just down the hill from Capitol Square, Nobert Hicks brought his new camera to the James River to capture a sunny March afternoon. Hicks said of all the issues left awaiting action, marijuana decriminalization could be the most impactful.

“Half my friends going through life got in trouble for it,” Hicks said. “I mean, what’s it cost to incarcerate somebody? A fortune for a $5 joint.”

Decriminalization should have happened decades ago, according to Hicks. Although he thinks lawmakers are heading in the right direction, Hicks hopes the looming deadline does not prevent state lawmakers from doing their jobs now.

“Everybody is not us. We’re all individuals. Just coming to a consensus on anything can be hard,” Hicks said.