In 2019, voters handed Democrats unified management of Virginia authorities for the primary time in 21 years, guaranteeing the occasion a minimum of two years of unfettered lawmaking earlier than the subsequent election.
This 12 months’s Home of Delegates elections and race for governor can be a debate largely over whether or not Democrats delivered what most Virginia voters needed or modified an excessive amount of too quick.
Right here’s a take a look at the consensus agenda that emerged as lawmakers labored to squeeze a technology’s value of pent-up legislative need into a couple of brief legislative classes.
Elections and voting
Making it simpler to vote was a high precedence when Democrats took management, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the tempo of change to Virginia’s once-strict election legal guidelines.
Democrats handed payments to open absentee voting to anybody who desires to forged a poll early or vote mail, not simply those that have an appropriate excuse. That change got here simply because the virus arrived, bringing with it a large spike in absentee voting (nearly 60 % of voters forged absentee ballots final 12 months) which have reworked how Virginia elections work. Legislators additionally authorized poll drop-off containers, pay as you go postage for poll return envelopes, and a formalized course of permitting voters to appropriate errors with absentee paperwork.
The brand new majorities have taken important steps on voter entry, repealing Virginia’s obligatory photograph ID rule, making registration near-automatic way of the DMV, and passing a state-level voting rights regulation that creates a stricter overview course of for any native election modifications that may discriminate in opposition to racial or linguistic minorities. Legislators additionally teed up extra sweeping reform sooner or later giving preliminary approval to a constitutional modification that, if handed once more subsequent 12 months and authorized voters, would mechanically restore felons’ voting rights upon launch from jail.
Extra election reforms initially handed in 2020 can be coming on-line sooner or later. A invoice permitting ranked-choice voting in native races takes impact this 12 months, and laws permitting same-day voter registration is scheduled to start for the 2022 normal election.
Republicans have repeatedly stated the election-law overhaul has sown confusion and alternatives for fraud. Democrats have dismissed these claims, saying they perpetuate baseless theories that the voting system is vulnerable to widespread manipulation.
Local weather change
Earlier than Democrats regained energy, the state had handed no important legal guidelines geared toward addressing local weather change. In brief order, insurance policies started effervescent up simply as absolutely as tidal floods in a Hampton Roads storm sewer.
In 2020, they handed the landmark Virginia Clear Economic system Act, which sketches out a roadmap for the state’s two largest electrical utilities to go carbon-free 2050 and units binding annual targets for renewables adoption and vitality effectivity. And along side the Clear Vitality and Group Flood Preparedness Act, it commits Virginia to participation in a carbon market generally known as the Regional Greenhouse Fuel Initiative.
In 2021, efforts shifted to transportation, which is accountable for roughly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions. Lawmakers dedicated to extra stringent transportation emissions requirements set California and shared 14 different states, in addition to a requirement for a sure share of autos bought in Virginia to be electrical. Different legal guidelines which have handed start learning and constructing out electrical car infrastructure, though legislators failed to supply any funding for a rebate program. And a little-noticed invoice will create a job drive to look at the potential of carbon sequestration.
Some members of the extra progressive wing of the Democratic caucus within the Home unsuccessfully pushed their colleagues to go additional, criticizing the Clear Economic system Act for not shifting quick sufficient and faulting the chamber’s management for blocking consideration of a Virginia model of the Inexperienced New Deal in favor of an strategy they view as overly deferential to electrical utilities.
When Democrats took management of the Normal Meeting, they pledged to extend funding for schooling — touting it as a precedence for the 2020 session.
A 12 months later, investments have elevated whereas falling in need of the practically $1 billion that the state’s Board of Schooling says is important to totally fund public faculties. This 12 months’s compromise funds consists of near $50 million for college divisions to rent extra assist workers corresponding to counselors, nurses and social employees. It improves the ratio of assist positions to college students, however falls in need of totally assembly the board’s really useful Requirements of High quality — the minimal pointers for staffing, instruction and different areas of accreditation.
After deferring instructor raises in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators capped this 12 months’s session with a 5 % pay improve for educators. However analysts at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Evaluation, a nonprofit Richmond suppose tank centered on how coverage impacts low- and moderate-income individuals, says the language provides native college divisions the pliability to scale back their share all the way down to 2 %, which might then lower the state’s match.
“In observe, it implies that not each instructor goes to see a 5 % elevate subsequent college 12 months,” stated Chad Stewart, TCI’s supervisor of schooling coverage and improvement. General, per-pupil funding elevated underneath the state’s Democratic majority — particularly uncommon given an anticipated funds shortfall, in accordance with Stewart.
“However the challenge at hand is the extent of funding nonetheless doesn’t come near the extent of funding our state specialists say is important,” he stated.
In larger schooling, Democrats delivered on one among their greatest priorities — free neighborhood faculty for low- to middle-income college students. This 12 months, the Normal Meeting practically unanimously backed a invoice to fund tuition for college students in high-demand fields. It was a marketing campaign promise for Gov. Ralph Northam.
Virginia expanded Medicaid earlier than Democrats took management of the Normal Meeting, permitting lots of of 1000’s of beforehand ineligible Virginians to realize protection. However within the two years since, they’ve made important modifications to the state well being care trade in an effort to stabilize enrollment and decrease the costs on premiums.
Final 12 months, lawmakers voted to set up a state-run market that might reserve extra funding for outreach and enrollment efforts. The objective of the trade, scheduled to debut in 2023, is to deliver on new shoppers who would diffuse the price of premiums.
This 12 months, the Normal Meeting additionally authorized a reinsurance program funded way of federal waivers, state income and a small evaluation on insurance coverage firms. Beneficial the identical workgroup that urged a state-run trade, this system goals to offset claims from high-risk sufferers, reducing the prices for different shoppers.
“Reinsurance is basically focused at that demographic that’s struggling,” stated Sara Cariano, a coverage specialist for the Virginia Poverty Regulation Middle, in an interview final month. “Proper now, it’s actually costly to get insurance coverage if you don’t get any assist.”
Whilst Democrats have bolstered the trade, they’ve averted extra drastic modifications to the state’s insurance coverage panorama. A invoice filed this 12 months Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, directed the state’s Joint Fee on Well being Care to contract a examine on the price of common insurance coverage. However the laws died in a Senate committee with bipartisan opposition.
Abortion is one space the place Democrats have made sweeping modifications. In 2020, lawmakers repealed the state’s obligatory ultrasound and 24-hour ready interval. This 12 months, they voted to repeal a ban on abortion protection for plans provided way of state trade.
Democrats voted to elevate the state’s minimal wage to $12 an hour over the subsequent three years — the primary improve the state has seen since 2009, when the federal minimal went as much as $7.25 an hour.
The settlement represents a considerable improve — with the primary bump to $9.50 an hour scheduled to enter impact in Could — nevertheless it falls in need of the $15-an-hour minimal many Democrats campaigned on.
Democrats within the Home and Senate discovered themselves at odds over the proposal, with the Home pushing for $15 and the Senate worrying the determine was too excessive for companies, significantly in rural areas, to pay.
They’ve agreed to revisit the problem in 2024.
The 2 chambers have additionally disagreed over which classes of employees needs to be included, with the Home pushing to incorporate agricultural employees and the Senate twice refusing.
They had been equally divided over different labor points, with the Senate scaling again a invoice that can enable public sector unions for the primary time, however solely on the native degree and provided that authorized native elected officers.
One space the place Home and Senate lawmakers discovered settlement was an unwillingness to repeal the state’s proper to work regulation, which bars obligatory fee of union dues as a situation of employment.
The deadlock led to one of many extra dramatic moments within the Home of Delegates this 12 months when Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, unsuccessfully tried to make use of a procedural maneuver to drive a vote on the Home flooring.
Earlier than profitable their majorities, Democrats made it clear they needed to go tighter legal guidelines to forestall probably harmful individuals from accessing weapons and permit firearm bans in additional public locations. They principally delivered on that entrance, however they’ve stopped in need of outlawing particular forms of weaponry.
They made background checks obligatory for all gun gross sales in 2020. Legislators constructed on that step this 12 months lengthening the period of time the Virginia State Police can take to finish a background verify from three enterprise days to 5 enterprise days, leaving extra time for vetting with out purchases going way of default as a result of paperwork delays. The legislature additionally sought to restrict entry to firearms passing a purple flag regulation, which permits authorities to briefly seize weapons from individuals deemed a risk, and reinstating the one-handgun-a-month rule.
Democrats have additionally pushed for gun bans at locations like authorities buildings, parks and at occasions like political rallies and protests. A regulation handed final 12 months gave native governments extra leeway to ban weapons at public occasions, and laws authorized this 12 months codified gun bans for Capitol Sq., state buildings and polling locations.
A proposed ban on assault weapons, which drew an intense backlash from gun-rights supporters in late 2019 and early 2020, didn’t win sufficient assist to go the extra reasonable Senate. A proposal to ban so-called ghost weapons, untraceable firearms assembled at residence from kits or 3D printers, met an identical destiny within the Senate this 12 months.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the invoice’s sponsor, stated he received the impression a few of his colleagues believed that they had already carried out sufficient on gun coverage.
“There was only a feeling that they didn’t need to have that combat once more,” Simon stated.
Most of the insurance policies had been the product of a particular legislative session final 12 months that adopted nationwide protests in opposition to police brutality, together with legal guidelines that went into impact this month banning no-knock police searches, limiting the usage of chokeholds and authorizing the lawyer normal to research native police departments. Additionally they handed an obscure-but-far-reaching invoice that eliminates what protection attorneys have come to name the “jury penalty.”
This 12 months, lawmakers agreed to extra reforms, together with laws that can for the primary time enable individuals to have some previous convictions on their information sealed — a step Democrats hope will make it simpler for them to rebuild their lives after jail.
However the reforms hardly ever went so far as advocates hoped and had been typically mired in bitter disputes between leaders within the Home and Senate. Laws to legalize marijuana practically failed within the ultimate hours of this 12 months’s session and the compromise that finally handed gained’t go into impact till 2024. A invoice that initially meant to ban police departments from acquiring navy weapons was rewritten to solely apply to obscure tools corresponding to bayonets.
And lots of proposed reforms failed fully, together with laws geared toward making it simpler to sue law enforcement officials for misconduct and a invoice that might have repealed most obligatory minimal sentences from state code — one thing leaders in each the Home and Senate known as a precedence however had been nonetheless unable to achieve an settlement on.
Democrats have additionally demonstrated reluctance to make use of their majorities to deal with jail circumstances, voting down payments that might have abolished personal prisons and jails, reestablished unbiased oversight of the Division of Corrections and imposed strict limits on the usage of solitary confinement.
The occasion has taken each concrete and symbolic steps on issues of freedom and equality. After his yearbook blackface scandal, Northam led an effort to repeal practically 100 outdated, discriminatory legal guidelines nonetheless on the books. This 12 months Democrats prolonged that symbolic step to LGBTQ rights, voting to repeal a ban on homosexual marriage nonetheless within the state Structure, which was invalidated a 2015 Supreme Courtroom ruling.
Democrats additionally put in place a variety of recent civil rights protections, making it simpler to lift discrimination claims of every kind in state court docket with the Virginia Values Act and for the primary time explicitly banned discrimination based mostly on sexual orientation or gender id in housing, employment and public lodging.
On immigrants’ rights, lawmakers handed payments that prolonged driver privilege playing cards, in state tuition and monetary help to undocumented immigrants residing in Virginia.
And laws that allowed native governments to take down Accomplice statues preceded the removing of 71 monuments and memorials this 12 months, in accordance with statistics tracked the Southern Poverty Regulation Middle.
There have been moments of disharmony and unease with the tempo of reform. Democrats within the Senate had been unwilling to repeal language within the state code that explicitly authorizes faith-based adoption and foster care businesses to refuse to serve LGBTQ households and other people of different religions — a coverage the GOP put in place in 2012 over strenuous objections from Democrats. The measure handed the Home however was withdrawn after lawmakers within the Senate amended it to chop state funding however enable the businesses to proceed to function, a compromise the Home deemed unworkable.
“The entire thought of getting this balkanized, state-sanctioned discrimination is one thing I couldn’t dwell with,” stated the invoice’s sponsor, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.
Democrats have remained deeply divided on electrical utility reform over the previous two years, with many Home members becoming a member of with a cadre of Republicans in that chamber to push for a set of modifications to state code that might restore a lot of the authority of Virginia’s public utility regulators, the State Company Fee, to control charges and earnings. Highly effective members of the Senate nevertheless, with longstanding ties to the utilities, and significantly Dominion Vitality, have been reluctant to relinquish legislative management, even amid common experiences of extreme income the monopolies.
One high-profile effort, the Truthful Vitality Payments Act of 2020, garnered stable bipartisan assist within the Home however was struck down within the Senate. This 12 months, a slate of proposals that sought to appropriate what their sponsors described as an imbalance in regulatory energy forward of Dominion’s first earnings overview in six years had been additionally scrapped the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
Nonetheless, the array of proposals put ahead Home Democrats and a shock success reformers in 2020 on a invoice that returned to the SCC its conventional energy to set the time period over which the prices of early energy plant retirements will be recovered point out ongoing shifts in how the legislature views its relationship with utilities. And though this 12 months’s reform payments all failed, stress within the Senate has led to a request for the reconvening of the dormant Fee on Electrical Utility Regulation to take a extra complete take a look at the prevailing regulatory system.
Marketing campaign finance
In his 2007 autobiography, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, stated his father taught him “cash in politics was neither evil nor good.”
“Cash in politics was like gasoline within the tank, it was what you wanted to get the place you had been going,” wrote McAuliffe, now in search of a second time period as governor.
If the final two classes are any indication, Democrats like their trajectory.
A number of makes an attempt to rein in Virginia’s wide-open marketing campaign finance system capping contribution quantities or limiting company donations have gone nowhere within the Democratic-led legislature, regardless of reform being a preferred challenge amongst progressives.
A less-sweeping proposal to ban politicians from changing marketing campaign funds to their private use, a rule that exists on the federal degree and nearly each different state, handed the Home of Delegates this 12 months however died within the state Senate. Gov. Ralph Northam known as for marketing campaign finance reform whereas working in a Democratic main in 2017, although he hasn’t been in a position to persuade fellow Democrats, who now wield legislative energy and the fundraising benefits that include it.
Marketing campaign finance reformers argue it’s a good-government step to scale back the affect of rich donors over state affairs and increase confidence that coverage is being written with most people’s pursuits in thoughts. Skeptics within the legislature have warned a clampdown may need unintended penalties encouraging the creation of dark-money teams working exterior current transparency guidelines.
The Normal Meeting authorized a decision this 12 months to review the prospects for complete marketing campaign finance reform sooner or later.
The report isn’t due till Nov. 1, which means candidates working on this 12 months’s statewide elections and Home of Delegates contests, which is able to decide whether or not Democrats hold energy, can have few authorized limitations on the quantities they elevate and spend on their campaigns.
Although the Democratic majorities have rewritten swathes of state coverage to make Virginia extra culturally progressive, they’ve proven much less urge for food for addressing financial disparities altering the tax code.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, the chairwoman of the Home Finance Committee is hoping to get that dialog began way of a complete examine on how the state can increase the “progressivity” of the person earnings taxes, which make up nearly 70 % of the state’s normal fund revenues.
“And but yearly, insidiously, the burden of the person earnings tax falls more durable and more durable on these having the least capacity to pay,” Watts stated as she offered her proposal to the Home of Delegates.
Underneath the prevailing system, the highest bracket begins at $17,000 in taxable earnings, a quantity that hasn’t modified since 1990.
The legislature authorized Watts’ decision calling for the Joint Legislative Audit and Assessment Fee to review the problem and make suggestions in time for the 2023 session.