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General Assembly starts special session

General Assembly starts special session

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The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to gavel in for a unique 30-day “short” session today, but even that appears subject to change.

The 39 members of the state Senate will be in Richmond, meeting in the Science Museum of Virginia instead of the Capitol building to accommodate COVID-19-inspired distancing guidelines, while the 100-member House of Delegates and its committee system will all meet virtually in an online setting as was employed during the special session held late last summer and fall.

The Senate will be minus one member following the Jan. 1 death of Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon. A special election will be held at an unannounced later time to fill the seat he held since 2014.

There is already a dispute along party lines about the length of the session, which can be extended up to 45 days.

“The Republicans are saying 30 days; we feel like that is enough, but the Democrats are definitely not happy about that,” Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, said last week. “They have made it clear they can go to the governor and have a special session after the 30 days. … We’re starting off on a contentious foot already.”

Local lawmakers continue to oppose the virtual House plan, saying it limits public access and debate.

“If you’ve been on a Zoom or other platform during the pandemic, you know trying to get five people on a call can be challenging. Let alone trying to get 100 people on a call trying to carry out legislative business,” Del. Israel O’Quinn said. “It stifles debate, certainly limits public input during the committee process.”

Del. Will Morefield, R-North Tazewell, said he will likely not travel to Richmond.

“I am not planning on being in Richmond since the House will be meeting virtually. It will be extremely difficult to conduct committee and floor sessions,” he said. “The special session is a recent testament to how challenging it will be. I strongly believe that all members should limit the number of bills they introduce and only focus on initiatives that will promote the recovery from the pandemic.”

Delegates have a limit of seven bills rather than the traditional 15.

O’Quinn doesn’t advocate having everyone in the House chamber simultaneously but calls the online process “clunky” and said committee and floor schedules have been totally revamped. He expects daily sessions will go much later into the evening.

“In this format, it would be good to get finished as soon as possible, but 30 days is a pretty compressed timeframe for a legislative session,” O’Quinn said.

Del. Will Wampler, R-Abingdon, suggested the General Assembly consider going into a “bubble” situation like the National Basketball Association did to complete its 2020 season.

“The Legislature was never created to be a virtual process,” Wampler said. “In a virtual format, people can ignore emails, phone calls or texts, and it suppresses the voice of the public who have strict time limits to speak or sometimes are not let into the committee rooms.”

Hot topics

The 2020 regular and special sessions generated considerable legislation, including increasing the minimum wage, and law enforcement reforms like eliminating no-knock search warrants, minimum training standards, strengthening decertification guidelines and creating civil review boards. There were also new, more lenient parole guidelines, marijuana decriminalization and green energy promotion.

Local lawmakers predict this session will see more of the same, including the effort to legalize recreational marijuana use. They also note that, with all 100 delegates, the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general seats on the November ballot — and several lawmakers running — this session will likely include considerable political “posturing.”

“Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who is a self-described socialist running for governor, has introduced a bill to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work,” Pillion said, referring to a statute that prohibits agreements between employers and union employees that require workers to pay for the costs of union representation.

“We expect to see some of the police reform that wasn’t passed last year to be back this year. The Crime Commission already came back and said they want to eliminate all mandatory minimums [criminal sentencing], so we anticipate that. I’d say there will be some pushes with Second Amendment. They did a ton of stuff last year with Second Amendment, and I could see them coming back this year and trying to do some more for political gain,” he said.

There is also likely to be legislation proposed regarding election reform, checks and balances on executive power and a bill that would allow public sector employees to strike, O’Quinn said.

“The issues that will get the most attention versus the issues we are, as a delegation, pushing, are sometimes different,” O’Quinn said. “We’re looking for jobs, economic development, broadband expansion, transportation infrastructure. Those are the things we think are very important for Southwest Virginia.”

Additional funding for broadband is also likely to get some attention.

“We continue to have serious needs, not only in the commonwealth but specifically in Southwest Virginia, with broadband as it relates to education and working from home, as well as the substantial limitations given the uncertainty of our current environment,” Pillion said.

He also plans to advance legislation for sales tax exemptions for personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies and to aid businesses that received loan forgiveness under the CARES Act.

“I want to make sure the state doesn’t profit off the pandemic or the executive orders when so many of our businesses and employees are suffering because of it,” Pillion said. “These loans were authorized by Congress to save American businesses and jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, and, for some, these loans were a lifeline.”

Morefield said he is “still evaluating potential legislation to file” but plans to introduce as few bills as possible given the circumstances of the session.

“I anticipate there will be legislation filed by other members that could potentially be harmful to Southwest Virginia. With the session being limited to 30 days and the House meeting virtually, I will need to focus the majority of my time on addressing such legislation,” Morefield said.

Marijuana

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam called it a priority for lawmakers to legalize recreational marijuana use.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “Our commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

Recreational adult use is presently legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Last year, the General Assembly approved legislation decriminalizing the drug. Two years ago, the state approved the establishment of up to five CBD and THC-A oil dispensaries across the state to provide products derived from marijuana to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

Pillion said the effort appears to have legislative support.

“If Virginia is going to do it, it needs to be slow and deliberate, well thought out and well planned,” Pillion said. “We started with medical marijuana, and we’ve not even rolled that out yet and seen the benefits of that. We need to slow the train down and study this.”

The issue sounds an alarm for Pillion, who has carried extensive legislation in recent years dealing with the region and state’s opioid addiction crisis and treatment.

“I’ve spent a ton of time on substance abuse and addiction, and I don’t want to see us going down this path again. It’s alarming to me,” Pillion said. “I don’t think we’re there yet and need to push this through in a short session. I think this needs to be debated. This is a major policy shift in Virginia, and we need to really consider this before we take another step.”

A 2020 Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study forecast legalized marijuana could produce between $31 million and $62 million in state tax revenues the first year and up to $308 million in taxes by year five, depending on demand and the tax rate. It also forecasts that a commercial marijuana market could create between 11,000 and 18,000 jobs over time.

O’Quinn also expressed reservations.

“I know some people are opposed to it. I don’t think it is a good idea to roll out a full-on Colorado-style marijuana use,” O’Quinn said. “I know the tax benefit of that is something a lot of people are looking at, but I’ve seen several national articles that it has not destroyed the black market for illegal drugs — it has driven it even deeper under the surface because no one wants to pay taxes.”

Ultimately, he said, it appears likely to pass.

“I think it’s got a pretty good tailwind, and my guess would be it would narrowly pass the House,” O’Quinn said.

Del. Wampler also expects the effort will receive support — likely along party lines.

“If it is legalized, Southwest Virginia farmers need to be able to grow it without an extremely high regulatory burden or barrier of entry to the market,” Wampler said. “What we don’t want is to see monopolistic players controlling the whole thing. … There is still a lot of risk out there because it is a controlled substance at the federal level through the Controlled Substances Act. Hopefully, if the state moves that direction, the federal government will also, so there won’t be confusion for agricultural producers, the supply chain or retail.”

Minimum wage

Legislation approved last year to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 on Jan. 1 was ultimately delayed to May in the face of a recession sparked by COVID-19 and state-mandated shutdowns. Under that bill, the hourly wage is to increase gradually to $15 per hour by 2026, but that could change.

“At this point, it’s unclear if there may be an effort or support for delaying that or there may be an effort to speed it along and forget the timeline,” Pillion said. “Given the impact of COVID, we’re hoping there is an effort to tweak that a little bit.”

Reducing SOLs

Pillion and O’Quinn plan to continue their efforts to reduce the number of standardized tests required for students in K-12 public schools — at a time when many of the state’s students are learning from home via computer and not in classrooms.

“We’re not in the camp of saying we need to do away with SOLs. We need the benchmarks, we need to know the kids are making progress, if things are going like they should go in the classroom. But testing is in overkill mode,” O’Quinn said.

“There is no call for the amount of tests we put young kids through during the course of their K-12 career. A few sessions ago, we got about 25% of those repealed from grades four through eight. We’d like to pull a few more off so we’ve got the essential tests but with more time and latitude to do more hands-on learning.”

Pillion said he hopes to eliminate about 10 more tests and reduce the amount to what is required by the federal government.

“Now it’s [reform] needed more than ever,” Pillion said. “We’ve now had two school years that have been anything but standard, so holding teachers and students to high-stakes standardized testing is not helpful, in my view, and our focus should be elsewhere.”

In addition to lessening the pressure in the classrooms on students and teachers, it would generate a $1.5 million annual savings to the state, Pillion said.

Outdoor refreshment

Wampler is introducing House Bill 1738, which seeks to allow localities to establish up to three “outdoor refreshment areas” to permit consumption of alcoholic beverages in outdoor, public settings. Beverages would have to be purchased from permanent retailers — primarily restaurants and bars — operating within the designated areas.

“Part of it is economic. We need small businesses to have some flexibility and local governments to have more flexibility,” Wampler said. “I saw the outdoor refreshment area legislation as a local, optional tool for localities to use if they want.”

The bill has already received “significant interest” from other lawmakers across the state, he said, and Del. Martha Mugler, D-Hampton, has signed on as a chief co-patron.

“Every locality is struggling with the same issue. Restaurateurs, hoteliers and tourism-related industries, in particular, have been devastated by this virus. We feel this is a way we can be responsive to that, help them recover and build an economy that is stronger in the future,” Wampler said.

He used downtown Bristol as an example of an area that could benefit from the legislation and, if successful there, could possibly later include West State Street.

“It’s not just one area that wins. This could be a tool to allow localities to revitalize and redevelop other areas and tie together unique community assets,” Wampler said. “Each locality has something different to offer.”

Center for Hope

Del. O’Quinn is working with Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Marion, on a bill and budget amendment to facilitate the creation of the Appalachian Center for Hope, a residential drug treatment center, in Marion.

“Hopefully, we can get that done. Anytime you can have an inpatient treatment center, you’ll have better results than just medical-assisted treatment, and there is jobs and skills training so you’re clean and you have a marketable skill when you complete the program,” he said.

The project is being driven by a group from Smyth County based on a needs assessment by Smyth County Hospital that showed high levels of neonatal abstinence syndrome and opioid overdose rates, plus high incidences of hepatitis C and HIV in the area.

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