The 2021 Reconvened Session, commonly known as the veto session, occurred on April 7, 2021. Typically a one day affair, the session has been known to go long into the evening or the early hours of the following day. With the reduced bill limits this year, the legislature only sent about 550 bills to the Governor for consideration. In turn, he did not veto any bills and only amended 37, including the budget. For comparison purposes, the Governor amended over 100 bills and vetoed four during the 2020 Session. Given the small number of bills we had to consider, I thought we would adjourn fairly early. Instead we saw a lot of speeches and politicking that extended our work past 8 o’clock in the evening.
A couple of issues dominated the reconvened session.
The first was marijuana. Last year the General Assembly decriminalized simple possession of marijuana, essentially replacing the criminal punishment with a civil penalty. Last fall, the Governor put forward a plan to legalize recreational use of marijuana and the development of a marketplace to allow for the legal sale of small amounts. His proposal was modeled to a large extent after the laws of 16 other states. The plan was one that could produce a significant amount of revenue to state and local governments.
The House and Senate agreed to much of what the Governor proposed but took different approaches. The Governor proposed having legal sales January 1, 2023 and sought to regulate the new marketplace through the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority. The House and the Senate opted to create a new entity to regulate marijuana, thus delaying the opening of the marketplace to 2024. The Senate had a couple of other ideas. First, the Senate provided for an advisory referendum so that the people could have a voice in this process. Frankly, there is no question in my mind that such a referendum would pass. Second, we included a reenactment clause on many significant provisions of the bill. In my view, a reenactment clause made sense because this is such a complicated, substantive proposal. Finally, the Senate proposed legalizing simple possession this July in large part because of the disproportionate amount of tickets being issued to African-Americans.
While the legislature adjourned on March 1, our work on this bill continued. At the end of the day, the Governor agreed with most of what the Senate had passed. The final version did not include the advisory referendum, and I am disappointed that Virginians will not have a say in this significant policy change. The Governor’s changes also included a provision allowing people to own four plants, which would provide a legal means for Virginias to acquire marijuana. The bill does not legalize the sale of marijuana this year, which must wait until we establish the new agency and regulations.
A second area of focus was the work of the Parole Board. Recently the Board has come under significant criticism after several people were paroled. As is widely known, the Parole Board rarely used its parole powers in the last 26 years. In fact, people who were convicted after January 1, 1995, have not been eligible for parole. So the only people who actually are eligible, except for geriatric release, are people who were convicted over 26 years ago. Recently, a number of disturbing emails involving a former chair of the Board were released. Those emails raise a number of issues that require an independent investigation. The Governor proposed a budget amendment to require an investigation by a law firm, independent of state government or either political party. My colleagues on the other side of the aisle pushed to create a special legislative committee, armed with subpoena power, to conduct investigations. I am afraid such an investigation would allow legislators to showboat and create headlines rather than getting to the bottom of what really happened in a nonpartisan way. As such, I prefer an independent investigation, which is what we agreed to on Wednesday.
In addition to these high-profile topics, the legislature also approved amendments to: allow the Department of Taxation to waive the accrual of interest given the extension to file taxes this year, extend the new VirginiaSaves program to part-time workers, and change the start date for workers compensation presumption relating to COVID from September 1, 2020 to July 1, 2020. The COVID pandemic has driven a lot of our legislative work, and there is still work to be done this year on this front.
The General Assembly will convene this year for at least one special session. The legislation passed at the federal level to provide for a third round of stimulus payments, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also provided approximately $3.8 billion in federal spending to Virginia. The General Assembly will have a hand in the budget process, and is expected to return in June or July, once we get direction from the federal government on how the money can be spent. My view is that we should invest that money in one-time needs rather than building it into our base budget. It’s a one-time appropriation, and we would be foolish to allocate the funds for programs or services that will require additional expenditures in the years to follow.
In terms of one-time spending, I have a couple of ideas to jumpstart some projects I’ve been working on in recent years. In last year’s budget, we included language to review how the state can ensure the financial stability of the Virginia Horse Center in Rockbridge County. The Center has had an enormous economic impact locally and in Virginia over the years, and we have to protect our investment. The pandemic delayed that study.
A second project that did not move forward last year that could improve the economic future for our citizens is the development of a state park in Highland County. A feasibility study was held up because of COVID as well. I am hopeful to see some progress on that front. Perhaps the new infusion of federal money can help.
The federal dollars could also supplement some of the work we accomplished in this year’s budget. We set aside about $10 million to look at the development of statewide trails. One proposal, that makes more sense now with the state’s purchase of the Buckingham Branch line, is the development of a scenic rail line starting in Doswell in Hanover County. The line would go through Gordonsville in Orange County, Charlottesville, Staunton, and end in the Town of Clifton Forge. Such a train route would be one of the most scenic in the country and offers incredible economic benefits for citizens and communities along that route.
Judicial vacancies are a second issue that could be taken up during a special session. As you may recall, the General Assembly passed legislation remaking the Court of Appeals. The Court already had a vacancy, and we added six more judges to the Court. The discussion to fill those seven seats will take some time.
While we have accomplished much this year, more work always remains. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this process. It continues to be an honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may ever be of assistance, please call my office in Hot Springs at (540) 839-2473 in Charlottesville at (434) 296-5491 or email me at [email protected].