On day one of General Assembly session, lawmakers spar over priorities & COVID policies

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The Virginia General Assembly returned to Richmond on Wednesday for its first regular session at the State Capitol since COVID-19 hit in 2020.

Unlike the last two years, the 2022 legislative session will be defined by a divided government. Republicans disrupted one-party control last election season by taking back power in the House of Delegates and sweeping statewide races.

The start of the 60-day session is happening ahead of Saturday’s Inauguration, when Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares will be sworn in.

On Wednesday, the new Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert addressed House members on the floor for the first time and pledged to be accessible to all Virginians, regardless of party affiliation. Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax presided over the Senate for one of the last times before Lt. Governor-elect Sears takes over the post on Monday.

Lawmakers spent their first day back sparring over coronavirus precautions and unpacking their priorities. Here are some takeaways:

COVID-19 Precautions

The House of Delegates does not have a mask mandate. Senate Clerk Susan Schaar said in an email on Tuesday that there would be a mask requirement on the floor, though many lawmakers took them off once seated.

Neither chamber is requiring lawmakers to show proof of vaccination, despite a last-ditch effort from former Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

Both the House and the Senate are allowing legislators to participate and vote remotely if they’re showing coronavirus symptoms. The general public will also be able to participate in committee meetings virtually.

Some Republican senators pushed back on plexiglass dividers that surround their desks, calling them ineffective. The House has no such barriers.

Even as cases surge, it appears unlikely that lawmakers will return to a fully virtual format. The House adopted a rule allowing that to happen only if two-thirds of the body votes in favor. The Senate doesn’t have a similar vote requirement, according to Schaar.

Education

In early morning press conferences, House Republicans and Senate Democrats both said education is among their top priorities. A tense debate is already brewing on school choice.

In addition to expanding charter schools, House Education Committee Chair Del. Glenn Davis said Republicans are focused on boosting funding for school construction projects, raising teacher pay, preventing race-based admissions at Governor’s schools, requiring parental notification on sexually explicit content in curriculums, repealing a bill eliminating reporting requirements for student misdemeanor offenses and requiring school resources officers in every building.

“Parents are deeply concerned about the education their children are receiving and that’s why education is a huge part of our 2022 agenda,” Davis said.

Senator Ghazala Hashmi, who serves on the Senate Education and Health Committee, said Democrats are sponsoring bills to address the increase in student mental health conditions and teacher shortages. They also want to raise pay for educators and boost support for students who speak English as a second language.

Asked about the push to expand charter schools, Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds said, “We’re not going to compromise our principles and our principles are going to require us to make sure we don’t take money away from our public schools.”

Tax Reform & Economic Policy

Lawmakers from both parties are supporting some form of tax cuts but there is disagreement on how far to go.

Governor Ralph Northam’s budget includes a one-time tax rebate and a repeal of the state’s portion of the grocery tax. House Republicans are backing a slightly larger rebate and they want to get rid of the local component of the grocery tax as well.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Del. Barry Knight said they will hold localities harmless from the resulting revenue loss.

“I’m going to find a sustainable revenue stream to replace these funds that go back to the localities,” Knight said.

Knight also spoke to the Republican push to double the standard deduction, saying it would keep more money in paychecks.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat, opposed the idea.

“You’re going to wind up giving a lot of tax money away to people who don’t need it,” Saslaw said. “If you use a refundable tax credit, you can zero in on the people that need it.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are renewing the push for paid family medical leave, proposing funding for economic development sites and pledging to protect clean energy legislation. House Republicans are pledging to slash business regulations, roll back portions of the Virginia Clean Economy Act to lower energy bills and repeal mandatory coronavirus safety guidelines for businesses.

Criminal Justice Reform

Both parties are in search of common ground when it comes to the future of recreational marijuana sales. While many Republicans didn’t initially support legalization, many have concerns about leaving the regulatory framework unfinished with limited possession already allowed.

“It’s a mess and it has been handed to us and we want to deal with it responsibly,” Gilbert said.

Del. Rob Bell, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said Republicans also want to revisit legislation that shortened prison sentences for certain offenders, reform the Parole Board and address gang violence through initiatives like Project Ceasefire.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. John Edwards, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Democrats want to reform so-called “barrier crime” laws, which prevent people with certain convictions from getting jobs in some fields. Additionally, they want to automatically restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals and get rid of most mandatory minimum sentences.

“Judges by looking at the facts of the case can properly decide what the sentence should be and mandatory sentencing runs against that concept,” Edwards said.

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