The legislative process in Virginia is almost exactly like what you remember from the Schoolhouse Rock video with the singing scroll of paper known as Bill. You remember him, right? He’s just a lonely old bill, and he’s sitting there on Capitol Hill? He was born as an idea from a constituent who called his congressman, who sat down at a typewriter, and typed him up, then he went to committee, then he’s signed and goes to the other House, then he waits to be signed, but explains that he’s worried about being vetoed? Yeah, that’s the one.
In Virginia it works almost the same way, except since the legislature only meets part-time, 60 days in this year’s “long session,” we can’t just start over if the governor vetoes a bill. We have to wait until next year to start the process over. So if the governor likes most, but not all, of a bill or wants it to do more, he can make recommendations for amendments, which the General Assembly can vote up or down. If we accept the recommendations, the bill becomes law. If we don’t the governor can still veto it, or he can sign it as we originally sent it to him.
We are now in the week between the governor’s deadline to sign, veto or recommend amendments to bills (April 11) and the reconvene session where we decide what to do about them (April 22). When we do go back, the General Assembly will have just over 100 bills with recommendations (but only one veto) to act on.
Like many things these days, this will be an unprecedented reconvene session. We won’t meet indoors in the House chamber, because it would be impossible to adhere to social distancing and sanitation practices. Instead, the Senate will convene at the Science Museum of Virginia and the House will gather outdoors on the Capitol grounds.
The setting won’t be the only thing this session will be remembered for. It’s unprecedented in more substantive ways as well, as this is likely the first time since Reconstruction, we’ve had what you can call a progressive or liberal majority in both legislative chambers with a like-minded governor.
I’m proud to report that 14 of my bills passed this session, nearly doubling my production from my first six years in one session.
The governor signed the Virginia Values Act, making Virginia the first southern state to provide sweeping anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people — a bill I was proud to help craft as it came through one of the three subcommittees I chair.
Governor Northam also signed new laws to strike discriminatory language from Virginia’s Acts of Assembly, deleting 98 instances of overtly discriminatory language still on the commonwealth’s books. This includes laws that banned interracial marriage, blocked school integration and prohibited black and white Virginians from living in the same neighborhoods. While many of these Acts of Assembly have been overturned by court decisions or subsequent legislation, they remained enshrined in law.
The governor also signed a criminal justice reform agenda that includes measures raising the felony larceny threshold; permanently eliminating driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees, and court costs; raising the age of juvenile transfer to adult court; and reforming parole, while decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana and sealing the records of prior convictions.
He also signed bills to make voting easier, to encourage the use of clean energy, and to enact common sense gun safety reforms. Any of these would be screaming headlines in any other year, but this year they barely made it into my column for lack of column inches!
Among the recommendations we will have to consider are amendments delaying the implementation of incremental increases to the minimum wage on a path toward $15 an hour, allowing local government employees to collectively bargain, and encouraging the use of project labor agreements and prevailing wage clauses in local government contracts. Although these progressive items may be put off a few months, they will become law, something unthinkable given the political landscape in Virginia a year ago at this time.
The 2020 General Assembly session will go down in history, regardless of what we do, or where or how we do it at our reconvene session, and I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of it. Thank you for your trust and confidence during these trying times.