Lawmakers work through the weekend to pass pivotal bills

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A historic General Assembly is winding down after lawmakers worked through the weekend to push a slew of hot-button bills across the finish line ahead of an extended deadline.

Democrats reshaped the state in two short months after winning majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in more than two decades.

“The election last year was a clear message that Virginians wanted a change in direction and wanted to make progress on a whole host of issues,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond).

As the party celebrates success on a number of campaign promises, Republicans are already calling on their base to push back on the blue wave next election.

“There is going to be a cry from the people who say enough is enough. We want to go back to the way Virginia used to be. We don’t want to look like Nevada. We don’t want to look like New York,” said gubernatorial candidate Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield).

Here’s a look at bills that passed in the final hours of session on Sunday.

Minimum Wage

Democrats did manage to raise the minimum wage but the party didn’t go as far as many had hoped.

By January 2021, employers will be required to pay at least $9.50 an hour. That rate will increase incrementally until it reaches $12 an hour by 2023.

The General Assembly will have to vote again to move forward to $15. The decision will come after the state completes a study evaluating the impact of having different minimum wage rates by region. Some lawmakers hope this will ease the burden on businesses in poorer areas of the state.

The bill includes exceptions, including several for youth employees and one for farmworkers. Domestic workers will be subject to the minimum wage increase after decades of exclusion from labor protections.

Marijuana

The General Assembly acted across party lines to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana–soon punishable by a $25 dollar fine. That’s down from a maximum penalty of $500 and 30 days in jail for a first offense under current law. The bill also calls for the sealing of any past misdemeanor records related to marijuana possession.

Lawmakers opted to remove an additional fine for smoking in public. They emphasize driving while under the influence of marijuana is still illegal.

This session, the state also legalized medical cannabis and authorized 25 new dispensaries across the state.

These are widely seen as steps towards looser laws to come. The General Assembly voted to allow the state’s non-partisan commission to study how to best legalize recreational marijuana. It’s expected to be completed by November in order to inform legislation for next year’s session.

Expanded Gaming

After years of failed efforts, a bill that passed Sunday paves the way for casinos in five economically distressed localities: Richmond, Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth.

The bill establishes a regulatory framework for the industry by establishing a seven-member board with five-year terms. The governor will appoint members subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.

The bill says those chosen to serve on the board cannot have a direct or indirect financial stake in casinos. The group is charged with reviewing project applications chosen by the host city, which have to be approved before local referendums can be held in November. The bill allows Richmond to hold its vote later, giving the city more time to choose a preferred provider.

Developers who apply have to commit to making a capital investment of at least $300 million.

To cushion the financial blow on the horse racing industry, the bill authorizes an additional 600 historical racing terminals each time a local referendum is approved. The total cannot exceed 2,000 statewide.

In response to concerns about increased gambling addiction, the legislation establishes a “comprehensive” program for prevention and treatment. It also creates a “voluntary exclusion program,” where people can sign up to ban themselves from casinos.

Separately, the General Assembly legalized betting on professional sports or college contests not involving a Virginia institution of higher education. It also bans betting on an individual’s athletic performance during a college game.

The bill establishes a consumer bill of rights to protect the identity and accounts of participants.

Confederate Statues

Localities will soon have the authority to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover war monuments on public property, including Confederate statues across the Commonwealth.

A governing body must give adequate notice of a public hearing before voting on the matter. If removal is approved, the locality still has to wait 30 days to offer the monument for relocation to a museum or historical society.

Localities have the option of holding a referendum but the bill doesn’t require elected-officials act upon the will of the majority.

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