In this most unusual year, the General Assembly adjourned sine die in the most unusual way. We adopted a procedural resolution to extend the 30-day session to the usual 46 days by having a special session the last couple of weeks. We finished our work late on Saturday, February 27, but we did not adjourn sine die until March 1.
During a regular session, new bills take effect on July 1 unless otherwise specified in the bill. The rules for a special session are different. Since we technically were in special session, the legislature had to adjourn on March 1 to ensure the bills would still take effect July 1. On Monday, Senators Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Richmond, Ryan McDougle, a Republican from Hanover County, and Bill Stanley, a Republican from Franklin County, gathered at the Science Museum for a minutes long session to adjourn sine die.
The last full day of the session saw passage of the budget and votes on over forty conference reports. Several bills died because consensus could not be reached, including a bill banning so-called ghost guns, legislation to alter the dismissal of certain legal cases when a settlement agreement has been reached, and the Governor’s last-minute attempt to increase state contracts awarded to Small, Women-owned, and Minority-owned Business (SWaM). Consensus was reached on many bills, some of which I will highlight.
The Governor’s proposal to expand the Court of Appeals garnered a lot of scrutiny from day one and held us up on Saturday. A final agreement was reached at the last moment. As passed, the bill will expand dramatically the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals, granting criminal defendants an appeal of right for the very first time. The bill adds six new judges to the Court to handle the increased workload. Nine years ago I introduced legislation to abolish the Court of Appeals. I was concerned that the Court was not filling its role to reduce the workload of the Supreme Court or to create a new body of law. This bill, in my view, makes the Court of Appeals relevant and critical to the pursuit of justice in Virginia.
An agreement was also reached on the marijuana bill, which passed. As you may recall, the special subcommittee I chaired added a reenactment provision to the legislation. The bill is more than 260 pages and 14,000 lines long. During a short session, reviewing each of the components of the legislation was a monumental task. Despite meeting multiple times for hours to discuss the provisions, I felt the prudent approach was to pass what we could this year and require the General Assembly to take another look at the bill next year. For the most part, that is what happened. The bill, as modified in the conference committee, contains some inconsistencies. I voted for the bill to keep it moving along and to make sure I have a place at the table when further discussions occur.
Over the years, we have taken actions to try and improve the affordability of health insurance in the Commonwealth. Reinsurance programs, which provide funding to insurers to defray some of the expense of high-cost enrollees, have been successful in other states at lowering premiums for everyone and legislation was introduced this year to implement such a program in Virginia. While the House and Senate both supported the concept, disagreement arose about how to fund it. The Senate viewed this is a short-term general fund expense while the House wanted to add a new tax to managed care companies to pay for it. The Senate position prevailed.
Every year the Virginia General Assembly considers legislation to conform state tax laws with federal tax law. The tax conformity bill passes every year with little opposition. When significant changes occur at the federal level, this bill generates a lot of buzz. This session the legislature was faced with how to handle funding received through PPP loans. The Senate version provided for a $100,000 deduction for PPP loans and Rebuild Virginia grants. The House only provided for a $25,000 deduction. The legislature adopted the Senate position.
We passed legislation modifying the Percentage of Income Payment Program, which is aimed at helping low-income customers of Dominion and Appalachian Power. With passage of this bill, the Program will assist with weatherization and energy efficiency measures to help reduce energy consumption and costs to those who can least afford it.
On Saturday, the legislature also approved landmark legislation (SB 1315 and HB 2047) to allow the introduction of evidence of mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and autism in criminal cases. The bills also add requirements for court appointed lawyers to attain two additional mandatory continuing legal education credits on how to represent clients with mental health diagnoses and clients with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Several conference reports were adopted relating to workers’ compensation benefits. The bills establish a presumption that contracting COVID-19 was work-related for workers’ compensation purposes for certain healthcare professionals and first responders. The critical part of both conference reports was figuring out when the presumption should apply, because the earlier the presumption applies, the more costly the bills. A compromise on both was reached.
All of the bills now go to the Governor for his consideration. He has until March 31 to sign, amend, or veto the legislation or allow it to become law without his signature. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 7 to consider the Governor’s amendments and vetoes of bills.
Overall, this was an incredibly busy session for me. Not only do I chair a committee and several subcommittees, but I was appointed to 10 conference committees, including the budget. It was a productive session, and I expect the coming months will remain busy. I anticipate being involved in discussions relating to marijuana legalization and am already working to establish a work plan and meeting schedule for the Mental Health Joint Subcommittee.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of assistance. You can reach my office in Hot Springs at 540-839-2473 or in Charlottesville at 434-296-5491 or by emailing [email protected].