The Virginia General Assembly 2021 regular session is right around the corner on January 13 and the Democrats will again be calling all the shots for the legislature thanks to their majority in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.
This means that the agendas and priorities of Democrats in the Senate – as well as their counterparts in the House – have quite a good chance of passing through each chamber if broadly supported. Yet, what exactly are Senate Democrats focusing on?
The Virginia Star spoke with multiple Democratic Senators and discussed their top agendas for the January session.
“Part of what we’ll be doing is picking up where we left off in the special sessions and dealing with the issues related to the pandemic and the economic impact of that on a lot of families across Virginia,” Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax County) said.
Barker, who specifically said his focus was on the budget and continuing in his role on the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, added that a lot of work pertaining to COVID-19 will go toward extending support initiatives that have helped Virginia’s families, but end before the new year.
“I would just say as a group that we’re dynamic, diverse and determined in that [we] are recognizing the changing times and dealing with the situations that have presented themselves to us whether it’s through COVID or challenges in criminal justice that we dealt with in large measure [during] this summer’s legislative session,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) told The Star.
Specifically, both Ebbin and Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City) brought up the legalization of marijuana as a top priority. An issue that entered the spotlight last month when Governor Ralph Northam publicly expressed his support for legalization and bills to accomplish that.
The two lawmakers said they thought a bill legalizing marijuana would pass the legislature, but Morrissey admitted that there are still some issues needing to be resolved, such as social equity components.
Additionally, Morrissey said another subject he views as high on his legislative “hierarchy” is expungement, specifically getting misdemeanor convictions wiped off certain people’s records.
When asked about priorities for the upcoming session, Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) simply said: “Reopening schools. That’s the number one issue, it’s also the number two issue.”
The Star reached out to Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) and Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) to discuss their priorities for the session, but did not get responses before press time.
Sen. Scott Surovell, vice chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus and one of the primary voices of the party, said his top agenda involves creating an equitable expungement and record sealing policy to replace Virginia’s restrictive existing policy, increasing the state’s minimum automobile insurance limits and expanding the jurisdiction of the Virginia Court of Appeals.
In terms of priorities for Senate Democrats as a group, Surovell said they have not discussed policy much at this point and that “we’ve been mostly focused on the actual structure of the session and figuring how we’re going to get to a 45-day session.”
The issue of session length has been front and center for legislators since Republican leaders from the House and Senate called for January’s regular session to not extend beyond 30 days, which has been the norm for many decades.
In order to extend a session, the state constitution requires two-thirds of each chamber to approve it and many Republicans have already said they would not vote for that.
Surovell and many other Democrats believe it is not possible to get an appropriate amount of work completed in 30 days, even with new limits on legislation put in place.
One method Democrats could use to extend the session would be to have Northam call another special session, and Surovell told The Star he did not think there is any doubt that Northam will do just that but it would be a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.
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