The 2021 Session of the General Assembly got off to an interesting start. The pandemic has pushed us into a corner. On January 1st, we lost a member of the Senate. Senator Ben Chafin was a good man who cared about the people he represented and the issues he fought for. He will be missed. His death from complications of COVID-19 brought home the real consequences of this novel coronavirus. While the vaccines have been developed and everyone is tired of social distancing and wearing facemasks, we must remain careful. Until a sufficient number of people are vaccinated, we will not have this disease under control.
The House of Delegates and Senate are operating in much the same way as we did during the special session last year. The House of Delegates is holding their 2021 Session virtually. Members are participating, debating, and voting via Zoom. The Senate will meet and hold committee meetings in person at a larger venue than available to us at the Capitol, but the public testimony during committees will be remote. This promises to be the weirdest of the sessions I have experienced.
On the first day, we spent a lot of time debating the procedural resolution, specifically on the length of the session. The 1971 Constitution stipulates that sessions during odd numbered years last 30 days but can be extended by a 2/3 majority vote in both chambers. Every odd-numbered year since the 1971 Constitution was adopted, the session had been extended to 46 days. Tired of the time that the General Assembly spent working last year, the Republicans decided to put their foot down and deny a 2/3 majority to extend the session this year. We are a part-time legislature, and the extended session made it complicated for some to work and earn a living. While I understand the sentiment behind their stated objections, this tactic was a lot of noise but will have little consequence. The governor will call a special session at the end of the 30 days, and we will have a 46-day session in any event.
The budget is built on estimates of what the revenue will be, and we simply need more than 30 days to gather as much information as possible to develop a realistic and balanced budget. Republicans rightly pointed out that we could work on weekends and longer on Fridays. For 20 years, the same individuals while in the majority party never suggested we meet on weekends or Friday afternoons to shorten the legislative session. In fact, the only time I remember the legislature holding floor sessions on Sundays was during my time in the House of Delegates when the Democrats were in the majority in the 1990s. Two or three Sundays every year we would hold floor sessions to deal with the crush of bills.
This session will be of consequence for a lot of reasons. I laid out some of my priorities in my last newsletter. Some of other big issues revolve around three things: education and the budget, the Court of Appeals, and legalization of marijuana.
Legalization of Marijuana
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, yet a significant number of Americans reside in states where recreational use is legal. Poll after poll suggests the majority of Virginians support the legalization of marijuana. In fact, the General Assembly, with my support, decriminalized recreational use of marijuana just last year. The Governor seeks to build on those efforts and is pushing an ambitious proposal for legalization. I think the legislation is likely to pass.
The proposal would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by January 1, 2023. The delayed effective date gives us two years to develop the necessary infrastructure for regulation and taxation. In my view, a few key issues need to be resolved for any plan to be successful. First, we must include provisions to keep marijuana out of the hands of individuals under the age of 21, which is the legal age for cigarettes. Second, we need to maintain a stiff penalty for illegal possession. Third, we need to determine the right level of taxation and identify how best to spend the generated revenues. Under the current proposal, marijuana will be regulated by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but this approach is getting mixed reviews. The experiences of other states that have already legalized marijuana can serve as a guide. The fourth key consideration is how to develop this industry in a fair and equitable way throughout the Commonwealth. Small farmers and businesses must be able to compete in the new market. This is not an easy endeavor, and I expect it will take a lot of work this session.
Court of Appeals
The second issue is the Court of Appeals. The governor has proposed increasing the membership of the Court from 11 to 15. While that part of his plan has received a lot of attention, opponents of the proposal who are claiming he is trying to “pack” the Court have ignored the rest of the plan. The Governor has proposed expanding the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals to all appellate matters and making appeals matters of right for the first time in Virginia in many cases. This change is significant and will invigorate the Court and provide aggrieved parties with greater access to justice. Several years ago I introduced a bill to abolish the Court of Appeals. In my view, the Court of Appeals was not really contributing significantly to the law in Virginia and was merely becoming a place to elevate political cronies. This proposal could make the Court of Appeals a worthwhile institution.
Finally, public education is always a top priority and dominant topic of conversation in Richmond. Three of my colleagues in the Senate are pushing a budget amendment to directly tie the state share of the cost of public education to reopening the schools. Certainly this is a huge issue. I have worried that early learners, particularly children in pre-K through 3rd grade and children receiving special education services, will feel a disproportionate impact from this pandemic. We are losing precious time and opportunity during this pandemic for those learners who needs hands on instruction the most. I agree with my colleagues that we need to find a way to, at a minimum, serve that population in person. With that said, I am not certain penalizing our school divisions is the right approach, as I know they are just as committed to helping their students. The good news is the vaccines are available, and our teachers are considered essential workers and are in the early stages of the vaccination plan. Hopefully by summer, in person instruction will occur whether or not this budget amendment is adopted. Our task will be to figure out if there is a way to make it happen sooner.
The revenue report from December was promising, and I am hopeful we will be able to fund a teacher pay raise soon. While it looks like we will have the revenue for a two percent raise, I am hopeful we can come up with the necessary revenues to provide a bigger raise for our public school teachers.
It continues to be an honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please know that we do not have the usual support staff this session because of COVID restrictions. Due to these changes, the best way to reach my office is by emailing [email protected] or by sending a letter to PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218. You may also call the Senate Message Center to relay your views on a specific bill by calling toll free (833) 617-1821. The staff answering the phones will relay the message to my office immediately. I look forward to your input.