RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Several new laws went into effect at the stroke of midnight Thursday, including major, unforeseen shifts making Virginia the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and legalize recreational marijuana.
While those changes have garnered much attention, a slew of other measures have also been enacted. There are new laws that expand voter access, bring changes for K-12 teachers and pay raises for state employees. A ban on so-called skill games also went into effect and there are new places where guns won’t be permitted.
Here’s a glimpse at some of the new Virginia laws:
One new law gets rid of a rule that prohibited insurers selling health insurance plans through Virginia’s health benefits exchange from offering abortion coverage.
The Virginia General Assembly approved a bill allowing restaurants to sell to-go cocktails for another year. The measure, passed during the height of the pandemic, is set to end July 2022.
Legislation giving businesses with wine or beer licenses the authority to sell wine or beer for consumption off-premise was also extended. The bill, which also allows those businesses to deliver wine and beer without a permit, delays the effective date of the 2020 alcoholic beverage control license and fee reform from July to Jan. 1, 2022.
Banning balloon releases
A new law banning the release of balloons in Virginia goes into effect July 1. Anyone 16 and over caught intentionally releasing or discarding balloons can face a $25 fine per balloon.
Under the law, adults who direct people under 16 to release a balloon will be liable for the fine.
Starting Thursday, drivers will be required to change lanes when trying to pass a bicyclist if the lane of travel is not wide enough to give the motor vehicle at least three feet to the left of the bicycle.
Changes for voters
First-time voters in Virginia will be allowed to register for an absentee ballot through the mail in July, absentee ballots will not longer require a witness signature, localities must offer drop-off locations for absentee ballots and curbside options for those with a disability or injury.
Virginians who apply for an absentee ballot can vote at their polling place instead if they wish — they may have to use a provisional ballot and will have to turn in the absentee ballot they receive — and “a ballot marking tool with screen reader assistive technology” will be available for absentee voters with a print disability.
Local election officials will also be allowed to open polling places (a general registrar’s office or voter satellite locations) for in-person early voting on Sundays.
The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation earlier this year to end capital punishment, a move that makes life without parole the harshest penalty that can be handed down in the commonwealth. Virginia has conducted the second most executions, behind only Texas, since the U.S. Supreme Court let states resume the death penalty in 1976.
Starting July 1, all local public school districts must offer in-person instruction, the minimum requirement of lockdown drills per year goes from three down to two and school boards won’t be allowed to file lawsuits against students or their parents for not being able to afford a meal at school or for having a school meal debt.
Those seeking a license or license renewal from the Virginia Board of Education will need to complete cultural competency instruction or training and “with an endorsement in history and social sciences to complete instruction in African American history.”
Virginia school boards must implement policies requiring teachers and other school board employees with licenses issued by the state’s Board of Education to finish cultural competency training “at least every two years.” The evaluations for teachers, principals and division superintendents will start including evaluations of cultural competency.
On July 1, guns won’t be allowed within Capitol Square or in any building owned or leased by the state. Firearms also won’t be permitted 40 feet from a polling place, including an hour before and an hour after it’s used as one.
Another law stops people found guilty of assaulting a family or household member from owning a gun three years after the conviction.
Those who are not exempt from these rules and violate them could face a Class 1 misdemeanor, which comes with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine in Virginia.
One new law permits school boards to designate any building or property it owns or leases — where school board employees are regularly present performing their duties — as gun-free zones.
The minimum fine for littering in Virginia will double on July 1, going from $250 to $500.
Adults 21 and over will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and use cannabis in private on July 1. Several provisions within the legislation, including whether retail sales will come in 2024, will require another vote in the 2022 General Assembly session.
Skill games ban
The slot machine-like devices found in convenience stores and certain other businesses throughout Virginia, commonly referred to as “skill games,” will be banned starting in July.
Despite being money-makers for small businesses and the state, Gov. Ralph Northam amended legislation to prohibit unregulated locations from owning such gambling devices. Violators could face a $25,000 fine and the state or locality can also seek the money within the devices.