Things have been surreal in Richmond this year, as legislators race through a 45-day short session while scandal rocked the highest offices in the commonwealth. Be that as it may, lawmakers did their best to focus on the task at hand – considering hundreds of bills and hammering out a new state budget – while the aforementioned scandals remained largely unresolved.
Why Virginia, the 12th largest state in the U.S. with a population of 8.5 million, continues to adhere to unreasonably short legislative calendar more suitable for a smaller, agriculturally-focused state — escapes us. But that's a topic for another time.
For now, suffice to say the timeline leaves too much to consider in far too little time. Tuesday, Feb. 5, alone saw more than 100 bills move through the House. By crossover day, the General Assembly had killed or ignored four of every 10 bills, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Virginia’s trio of embattled leaders aren’t going anywhere. Democrats seem to have come to terms with that.
So, let's review what has and hasn’t gotten done amid a troubled session at times so unsettling that one legislative aide described the atmosphere in the Capitol building as "like Chernobyl."
- Measures regarding school safety, a priority in the wake of last year’s Parkland tragedy and the subsequent scares in local schools, appear to be making their way toward Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.
- Ditto for a bill protecting the privacy of big-prize lottery winners.
- A move — finally — to make holding a cell phone while driving a primary offense has also found success.
- School boards will be required to implement policies to prohibit the distribution and use of tobacco and vape products on school property; also the age to purchase such products is on track to rise from 18 to 21.
- A measure requiring Dominion to clean up coal ash stored in unlined pits at four sites around the state is awaiting the governor’s signature.
- A move to put the brakes on casinos pending completion of a year-long study, will perhaps delaying the inevitable but allow the state to proceed cautiously, nonetheless.
- While the current proposal lacks strength to curb gerrymandering, there is growing bipartisan support for creating an independent redistricting commission, taking that role out of lawmakers’ hands.
- The Senate passed a bill allowing the creation of Bible classes as a high school elective. While we might view more favorably a comparative religion class, a class specific to one religion is inconsistent with the role of a public education.
- A bill to ease Virginia’s notoriously draconian absentee voting rules, which would have allowed voters to apply for absentee ballots without giving a reason for not voting in person, died in the House.
- A bill that would limit criminal charges for disruptive student behavior died in the House. A strikingly high ratio of criminal disorderly conduct complaints against children— two in five — originate in the classroom, according to state statistics.
- Bills to raise Virginia’s minimum wage, set at the national minimum, are dead.
- Regulations on high-interest loans — payday lenders, title loans and online lenders that prey on the poor — failed to pass after intense lobbying by the industry.
Along the way, the House and Senate found a tax relief compromise for those facing higher state income-tax bills due to last year’s federal tax changes.
Yet, much remains unresolved as the session races toward its Saturday, Feb. 23 adjournment, including the state budget and a fight to allow a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment.
One thing is certain: By the end of this blistering legislative session, Virginia will need a break to sort through the fallout.