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Legislature transitions to special session Wednesday in Richmond with a full plate

Legislature transitions to special session Wednesday in Richmond with a full plate

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RICHMOND — The General Assembly is halfway through its work in passing new laws in areas including transportation, COVID-19 relief and parole board reform.

The Democrat-controlled legislature is convening Wednesday for the start of a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam. Legislative sessions in odd-numbered years typically last 46 days, but because Republicans refused to provide the necessary votes to extend it from 30 days to 46 days, Northam had to call a special session so that the legislature could finish its work. The legislature is slated to wrap up by Feb. 27.

The House and Senate budget-writing committees are expected to reveal the state’s spending plan on Wednesday.

Here’s where some legislation relevant to Southwest Virginia stands:

New River passenger railLegislation from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, to set up a passenger rail authority in the New River Valley to support a train station has moved through the process with ease. The budget is expected to include $50 million to help the state with its negotiations with Norfolk Southern Corp. to bring a second Amtrak train to Roanoke and a train to the New River Valley.

BroadbandEfforts to get more people connected to high-speed internet will come through the budget. Northam wants the budget to include $50 million for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, one of the state’s primary mechanisms to expand broadband to areas where there is no internet.

There’s also a push for the budget to include language to allowing municipal broadband authorities to compete for those funds without having to partner with the private sector. Currently, funds can only be awarded to public-private partnerships.

Southwest Virginia economic developmentBoth chambers have approved legislation to eliminate the costly coal tax credits, a business incentive that has spent more than $300 million in the past decade with little return on investment. The legislation is expected to get to Northam’s desk.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are trying to sort out competing proposals on tax incentives for data centers. Lawmakers want to encourage data centers to expand to other parts of the states so that economically distressed areas can enjoy the property tax revenue that Northern Virginia has benefited from.

COVID-19Legislators are working on addressing various issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They want emergency personnel like EMS workers and law enforcement who die from COVID-19 to be covered by workers’ compensation. The House sent a bill to the Senate that tackles various issues related to stumbling blocks with the unemployment system.

A proposal to guarantee paid sick leave for certain essential workers, like grocery store employees and prison personnel, passed the House, but it has a shaky future in the Senate. It includes a hardship waiver that could exempt certain businesses from the mandate, and it would exempt retail companies with fewer than 25 workers.

Parole board reformThere’s bipartisan support for bills from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, are both carrying similar bills to provide for additional layers of notifications the Department of Corrections and parole board need to follow prior to releasing someone.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has a bill with a less certain future. It would require the votes of parole board members be made public. His bill passed the Senate, but the House did not schedule a a hearing for a companion bill from Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg.

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