By BEN PAVIOUR AND ROBERTO ROLDAN, WCVE-FM VPM NPR VPAP
The General Assembly wrapped up its 2021 session on Saturday after lawmakers passed major legislation on marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, and COVID-19.
For a second year, Virginia Democrats used majorities in the House and Senate to push their top priorities. They advanced “first-in-the-South” legislation that would ban the death penalty, create a Virginia Voting Rights Act, and declare racism a public health crisis. Lawmakers moved to allow people to expunge criminal records and expand access to absentee voting.
But the party also hedged on other ambitious proposals. Lawmakers delayed the legalization of marijuana until 2024 over the objections of some progressives; they’ll have to re-approve much of the legislation next year. The state Senate narrowed plans to mandate paid sick leave and killed new oversight over powerful utility monopolies. Lawmakers kicked proposals to overhaul campaign finance — including personal use of campaign money — to future study.
Strong state revenues allowed Democrats to restore and even expand funding that they had suspended last March, when the pandemic shut down Virginia. Lawmakers agreed to a 5% pay raise for public school teachers and state employees as well as a 7% pay raise for state police officers. Lawmakers sent an extra $433 million toward public schools hit by enrollment drops, restoring 95% of new funding they approved in March 2020 and suspended the following month.
“Our House Democratic Majority has kept its promise to protect families, keep Virginia healthy and rebuild our economy stronger,” Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement.
Republicans scored a victory in a push to mandate public schools reopen, although it won’t go into effect until July. They called for stronger oversight of the parole board, fought efforts to expand voting, and found some Democratic support for allowing tax forgiveness for businesses that received federal PPP loans.
The General Assembly finished its work over the weekend and is expected to formally end the session on Monday.
Topics from the session are likely to surface again soon. All 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for election this year. Voters will also choose a new governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.