Marijuana, Bikes, and More

This most unusual of legislative sessions is going quickly. We are nearing the crossover, the deadline for the Senate to act on senate bills and the House of Delegates to act on house bills. It’s crunch time as the Senate completes work on bills and get them to the House for consideration. I want to report on some of the more significant actions.

As I’ve written in the space before, one of the big policies under consideration is the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. I think the question is when and not whether Virginia will act. The simple possession of marijuana was decriminalized in Virginia just last session. The number of Americans that now reside in states where recreational use of marijuana is legal is a good indication that it will happen here in Virginia at some point.

In the Senate, we are dealing with a 263 page bill with 13,000 lines that scales back the Governor’s ambitious plan to legalize marijuana by January 1, 2023 by a year. The Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services decided to create a new state agency to oversee the marijuana industry rather than fold the responsibility under Alcoholic Beverage Control. Setting up a separate agency is complicated and takes money. The work will delay the legalization process by at least a year.

The bill has now been handed off to the Expungement Subcommittee, which I chair. We have conducted one public hearing and meeting on the bill, specifically dealing with the criminal aspects of the legislation. We have scheduled at least one more meeting, but will likely have a long weekend of work to finalize our work. There are many thorny issues that have to be resolved.

One bill that has generated significant discussion this week is Senate Bill 1263, the Bicyclist Safety Act, which was sponsored by Senator Joe Morrissey of Richmond. Sometimes things are labeled as one thing but not clearly articulated in the bill. The bill sought to accomplish three things. The first required cars to move to another lane when passing bicycles. Clearly that was related to bicycle safety, and I supported that aspect of the bill. The second removes the requirement that bicyclists riding two abreast move into a single-file formation when being overtaken by a car. I particularly understand the concerns this raises for families. While I am not confident this overall improves safety, I was prepared to give proponents of the bill the benefit of the doubt. My “no” vote on the bill came down to the third provision, which allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. I’m not certain that traffic safety signals should be interpreted differently by different types of vehicles. In my mind that part of the bill was simply enabling more accidents to occur. Because I wasn’t convinced the bill would promote safety, I voted no. A related bill is still active in the House of Delegates.

Some of the bills that I have introduced have advanced, and I want to report on those.

Senate Bill 1250 requires a background check on firearm rentals. I introduced this bill after being contacted by two families who lost their sons to suicide. Both young men struggled with mental health issues and were unable to legally possess or purchase a firearm. Both of them went to the same shooting range, rented a firearm, and took their lives within days of each other. Because a background check was not required at the shooting range, these two sons are dead. In my view, we have to do what we can to prevent the senseless loss of life. This bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week and is now awaiting action in the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Bill 1266 simply affirms the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution that says that no excessive bail can be required in criminal cases. Part of the problem of over incarceration, is that too many people are held for too long a period of time before their trial occurs. The Constitution of the United States says that one charged with a crime is not only presumed innocent but is entitled to bail that is not excessive. We have considered many bills over the years, some of which I have supported, to create a presumption against bail for certain crimes. It’s time to repeal the presumptions.

In 1998, I carried legislation to create a process by which a parent who is dying can establish standby guardianship for a minor child. This year, I sponsored Senate Bill 1184 to expand that law to cover parents who are incarcerated due to immigration issues or are facing deportation. Parents love their children, and we need to make sure they can make plans for the care of their minor children no matter their circumstances. The bill has advanced from the Judiciary Committee and will come up for a vote in the full Senate in the coming week.

Senate Bill 1286 was introduced to provide a stream of money to fund pay increases for law-enforcement and for school construction. Both causes draw bipartisan support, but no one seems willing to do anything significant to address these real needs. I hear from constituents every day about both of these issues. This bill was somewhat gratifying because even though it proposed a modest tax increase, .15% for more than $150,000 of income, I was attacked by the right for raising taxes and by the left for spending money on law enforcement.

Our local governments need help when it comes to building schools and improving critical infrastructure. We all want our children to be able to compete in the 21st-century workforce. That means that they need to learn in modern facilities and have access to the best technology available. Our children and our teachers should not have to learn and work in facilities that have significant health and safety issues. We have technological and school construction needs that are measured, statewide, at over $18 billion. Legislators talk about the condition of our schools every year yet nobody offers a solution for funding it, until this bill.

Likewise, we have a problem with pay for law-enforcement. This past summer during the special session we raised the standard for training and imposed new requirements for how they do their jobs. We need our best officers to stay, and we have to find a way to compensate them fairly.

Every year legislators introduce budget amendments to spend money on both of these causes and draw bipartisan support, but they have not included an avenue for raising money to fund it. This was the first attempt to invest significant money into both of these causes. Instead of passing the bill, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee referred the bill to a study commission. I am hopeful that some form of funding mechanism will emerge from that study. Both of these topics have garnered far too much discussion in the past. We need to take action now.

Senate Bill 1265 follows up on legislation I introduced in 2018 to provide the Department of Environmental Quality the express power to stop work on pipeline construction when erosion issues threatened groundwater. Candidly, in those days, I was more concerned about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While that project has been cancelled, work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline continues. We have been working hard to finalize the language of the bill. I’m hopeful the Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources Committee will take this bill up early in the week and move it forward.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, which I chair, reported out Senate Bill 1245 and Senate Bill 1246 earlier this week. The bills accomplish a number of election reforms. First, SB 1245 codifies the drop box provisions adopted last year for the 2020 elections. The boxes provide a safe and secure way for voters to return their absentee ballots. The bill also codifies a process for a voter to correct – or cure – minor errors on an absentee ballot. SB 1246 will require the pre-processing of absentee ballots. This will ensure every jurisdiction is ready to count the ballots as soon as possible on Election Day.

It continues to be an honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. The best way to reach my office is by emailing 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 hearing from you.