Lawmakers approve Voting Rights Act of Va., marijuana legalization bill clears Senate committee, and a debate over death penalty repeal

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Weeks into the 2021 Virginia General Assembly session, lawmakers have introduced criminal justice reform bills, legislation in response to the coronavirus pandemic, measures to legalize marijuana and repeal capital punishment.

Like past sessions, some measures have failed to get through committee while others have moved through without many complaints. The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates must complete work on its own chamber’s legislation, except the budget bill, by Friday, Feb. 5.

With the deadline and end of the session looming, legislators have conceded it may be in the General Assembly’s best interest to extend the session instead of having Gov. Ralph Northam call a special session in order for them to get their work done. WFXR’s sister station will provide an update each day on what you may have missed, legislation to watch out for, and the impact that the bills are expected to have on Virginians.

What you may have missed

On Monday, Feb. 1, both chambers approved measures that aim to make the voting process easier and combat voter suppression. The Virginia Senate narrowly approved a bill to make drop-off locations for absentee ballots permanent and requiring local election officials to notify voters of any issues with their submitted ballots.

The House of Delegates advanced legislation — referred to as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia — that prohibits localities from using discriminatory methods in voting and election administration. The vote was 55-45.

In another tight vote, the Senate approved a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to receive funding from the state to pay for college.

A last-ditch effort to repeal qualified immunity during this year’s Virginia General Assembly session fell short Monday after a Senate committee rejected a measure that would have made it easier to sue over misconduct claims against police officers and collect damages in state court. 

The Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee killed legislation from state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) on a bipartisan vote Monday, days after a similar, broader bill was tabled by a House subcommittee for further review.

That same committee also voted 9-5-1 to advance a measure to legalize marijuana, removing the existing civil penalty by July 1, but not allow retail sales until 2023.

Legislation creating an ombudsman to investigate claims and incidents in prisons managed by the Virginia Department of Corrections was tabled Monday by a House subcommittee. 

“Yes, the bill was tabled but I have a firm commitment from the Appropriations Committee to include language in the budget to direct a stakeholder workgroup to prioritize the powers and functions of such an Ombudsman, the costs, and to make recommendations to the General Assembly in November 2021,” Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), the lawmaker who introduced the bill, told 8News’ Kerri O’Brien in an email.

Debates to watch out for Tuesday

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Virginia Senate approved legislation to develop a dedicated fund to help all schools with renovation and construction. The bill was lauded for trying to help modernize all Virginia schools, including those in cities and in rural counties.

The Virginia House has yet to vote on a similar bill in the chamber.

A measure to repeal Virginia’s death penalty is expected to be discussed in the Senate on Tuesday after the lawmaker who introduced the legislation, Surovell, asked senators to delay a debate twice.

The bill faces an uncertain future following the introduction of a substitute from state Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City) that would permit the state to enforce the death penalty on those who kill law enforcement officers or individuals who are found guilty of multiple homicides.

Surovell said Monday that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office requested changes to the legislation that would impact a current case, but that a debate would happen Tuesday.

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