RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The Virginia General Assembly convenes on Wednesday to kick off the 2021 legislative session.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the House of Delegates will once again meet virtually and the Senate will be back at the Science Museum of Virginia.
For now, the session is set to be just 30 days long. Republicans have so far refused to support a 15 day extension but Gov. Ralph Northam has suggested he could step in to lengthen the session if necessary.
The extension would give Democrats more time to push through a jam-packed agenda before elections later this year jeopardize the party’s sweeping power.
Continuing the coronavirus response
The coronavirus pandemic remains top of mind going into the 2021 session.
Lawmakers will once again revise the state budget based on new revenue projections, which paint a rosier picture than what the General Assembly was grappling with during the special session last year.
Northam indicated in a speech last month that funding for vaccine distribution, small business support and reforming the unemployment system would be priorities as the state plans for the pandemic rebound.
Since then, Congress has passed another coronavirus relief package with additional funding that’s expected to lift some pressure off of state lawmakers.
Meanwhile, some Democrats are reviving a push to pass required paid sick days and family medical leave for certain employers. Supporters argue the pandemic has further demonstrated the need for statewide standards while opponents fear an unfunded mandate on small businesses could be devastating.
Restoring slashed education spending
At the end of the 2020 session, the pandemic created uncertainty around the state’s economic future. That forced lawmakers to ‘unallot’ most new spending, including what some called record investments in public education.
With revenues rebounding, the General Assembly will have to decide which priorities to restore.
In a press release on Monday, House Democrats expressed support for raising teacher pay and committing funding for additional school counselors to deal with emotional challenges heightened by the shut down.
Northam also wants to spare local school districts from more than $500 million in possible funding losses tied to declining student enrollment during the pandemic.
Both parties are generally backing increased funding to help schools navigate the pandemic, as well as significant investments in broadband expansion. Republicans have also emphasized the need to put more money towards interim solutions for students who don’t have internet access.
Additionally, Democrats are pushing for $30 million in tuition assistance at Virginia’s public institutions of higher education.
Gov. Northam threw his weight behind marijuana legalization towards the end at 2020, making the major policy shift more likely though not guaranteed.
Momentum towards the change built throughout 2020. After backing a legalization study, the General Assembly decriminalized marijuana and prevented police from stopping someone based on scent alone.
Discussion continues around how the industry should be regulated and how to ensure the roll out is equitable for communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement in the past.
Reforming the criminal justice system
Accompanying the marijuana legalization conversation is a push to automatically expunge various convictions. It’s one of several changes to the criminal justice system that Democrats deferred action on in a special session last year that largely focused on police reform.
With the recent endorsement of the Virginia Crime Commission, the elimination of all mandatory minimum sentences will also be considered in the 2021 session.
Additionally, Democrats are pushing for the death penalty to be abolished in Virginia.
Republicans have generally opposed these proposed policy changes and have further criticized Democrats for prioritizing ‘checking progressive boxes’ over the pandemic response.
Changes to voting and elections
After a contentious 2020 Presidential Election, lawmakers are split on what voting regulations should look like in the future.
Last year, Democrats temporarily loosened long-standing rules to make it easier to vote during the pandemic. Now, some are backing an effort to make those changes permanent, including a requirement that a witness be present for the signing of an absentee ballot.
Republicans argue moving in this direction will further reduce confidence in democracy, fueling so-far baseless claims of widespread fraud. While the party remains in the minority, conservatives hope to reinstate voting ID requirements as part of a larger package to ‘restore faith in the process.’
Democrats are also backing campaign finance reform and an effort to render the electoral college irrelevant.
Additionally, the party plans to begin the lengthy process of passing a Constitutional Amendment to automatically restore voting rights for convicted felons following their release.