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General Assembly hits midsession deadline with gun control, gas tax, monuments and other bills advancing

General Assembly hits midsession deadline with gun control, gas tax, monuments and other bills advancing


RICHMOND — The new Democratic majority has been busy this General Assembly session passing hundreds of bills to advance its agenda.

Republicans have had to adapt to being in the minority, and many of them have found ways to build bipartisan support to pass their own bills. The session has been full of passionate debate on issues such as guns, abortion and Confederate monuments.

Tuesday was when the House of Delegates and the state Senate needed to complete work on their bills so surviving measures can cross over to the other chamber for consideration. This session is scheduled to conclude March 7.

Here is where some issues stand.


The House and Senate have passed several gun control proposals, but how many will reach the governor’s desk and in what form remains to be seen.

All eight of the proposals backed by the Northam administration are alive, including capping handgun purchases to one a month, allowing localities to ban firearms from certain areas and banning people with restraining orders against them from possessing a firearm.

The Senate didn’t pass bills requiring people to report their lost or stolen firearms or updating a law about adults recklessly allowing a loaded firearm to fall into the hands of a minor. The House passed bills on those measures, so they’ll head to the Senate.

The House and Senate have passed significantly different versions of bills that would expand background checks and allow courts to temporarily ban people from possessing firearms if there are clear signs that they pose a danger to themselves or others. The legislation faces the toughest hurdle in the Senate, which has a few Democrats more willing to protect gun rights.

The House also passed a controversial bill that would ban the sale of assault weapons and possession of “high capacity” magazines of 12 or more rounds. People who own assault weapons will be able to keep them and won’t have to register them. Senate Democrats have been indicating they don’t think it’s likely this bill will pass the Senate.

School construction

The proposed budget does not include any funding to help localities fix or replace their aging schools. But legislators are pushing for other ways to provide assistance.

Rural educators are backing legislation from Sen. Todd Pillion and Del. Israel O’Quinn, Republicans from Washington County, that would reestablish a fund that provides grants for school construction. A House panel killed O’Quinn’s bill. The Senate passed Pillion’s bill, so it will head to the House with another chance.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, saw two of his three bills dealing with school modernization pass.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee defeated his proposal to put on the November ballot a referendum that would ask Virginians whether they want the General Assembly to issue $3 billion in state general obligation bonds to go toward constructing or upgrading K-12 schools.

But the Senate passed bills to create a fund used to repair or replace roofs and require the State Board of Education to establish minimum standards for modern public school buildings.

The Senate also passed a bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, to create the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, which will provide guidance to schools on construction and upgrades as well as make funding recommendations to the General Assembly and governor.


The House and Senate have passed major transportation bills, but they’ll still face some twists and turns by the end of the legislative session.

Bills call for increasing the statewide gas tax, but whether it’ll be 8 cents a gallon over two years or 12 cents over three years still needs to be settled.

Tucked into the transportation package is a bond authorization of up to $1 billion to support upgrades to Interstate 81.

Gov. Ralph Northam wanted to get rid of the annual vehicle inspection fees, citing the lack of definitive studies that they improve safety. The proposal faced an uphill battle, because many legislators were skeptical that the inspections were useless. The Senate’s bill will keep inspections as they are, but the House passed a bill that would require inspections every other year.

Both chambers also have passed bills to ban holding a phone while driving. Legislators say the current law that outlaws typing text or numbers, but leaves it open for people to scroll through apps, while driving is hard to enforce.

The bills aren’t exactly the same, so they’ll need to be reconciled. Last year, the legislation failed at the last minute because the chambers couldn’t agree.

Health care

The Senate passed a bill from Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, to allow LewisGale Medical Center to equip and staff a neonatal intensive care unit so that it can care for tiny and ill newborns at its Salem hospital.

LewisGale has been trying for years to open a NICU, but the health commissioner has repeatedly denied that request. LewisGale, which delivers about 1,000 babies a year, transfers those needing specialized care to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital’s NICU.

Also, both chambers have approved bills to transition from the federal health insurance exchange to the state’s own online marketplace as a way to save money and improve access to affordable insurance.

Opioid crisis

Needle exchanges will be able to continue to operate in Virginia.

When Virginia enacted a law in 2017 that authorized harm reduction programs, it came with a sunset clause, meaning the law would expire in June 2020. These programs fight the spread of infectious diseases brought on by the opioid crisis. They offer various services, including testing for diseases, swapping used needles and syringes for clean ones and providing information about addiction services.

Both chambers passed bills from Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Pillion that would repeal the sunset. Additionally, the House passed another bill that would strip away some of the restrictive parameters for organizations to run needle exchanges. The bill would allow any locality to operate one and eliminate some of the requirements needed for approval from the health department.

The Drop-In Center in Roanoke will be operating a mobile unit to serve as the needle exchange.


Both chambers passed a package that would roll back abortion restrictions, including the requirement that women receive an ultrasound, as well as the mandate that women who are seeking an abortion wait 24 hours and undergo counseling.

The Senate also passed a bill from Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, which says a surrogate mother could not be forced to abort a fetus with abnormalities or reduce the number of fetuses she is carrying. The surrogate mother also could not be prohibited from terminating the pregnancy.

Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, filed a similar bill in the House, but it, along with a few other abortion bills Republicans filed, did not receive a hearing.

Confederate monuments

The House and Senate both passed bills to set up a process for localities to follow if they want to remove war monuments, particularly ones to the Confederacy. Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, is a co-patron of the Senate bill.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, submitted a last-minute change to the Senate bill, adding that any memorial or monument located on the property of a public institution of higher education in Lexington would be excluded from the legislation.

Virginia Military Institute has statues of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — a member of the VMI faculty before the Civil War — and a statue meant to honor VMI cadets who fought and died for the Confederacy at the Battle of New Market. Norment is a graduate of VMI.

Reckless driving

For five years, Suetterlein introduced legislation that would raise from 80 to 85 mph the threshold for reckless driving in areas of Virginia where a 70 mph limit is posted.

Under Virginia’s driving laws, reckless driving is 20 mph over the speed limit. What Suetterlein is trying to address is more of an issue on the interstates, where speed limits may be set at 70 mph, so going 11 mph over is considered a reckless driving offense.

The House and Senate both passed bills on bipartisan votes.

Student journalists

A bill from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, to protect student journalists from censorship passed the House. But the bill doesn’t look the way he would like it to.

He originally proposed that protections from censorship be extended to middle and high school students. But throughout the legislative process, legislators gutted the bill so it only applies to students attending a higher education institution.

High school students testified about their schools censoring their stories because they were “too controversial” or highlighted issues the school didn’t want publicized.

A companion bill in the Senate died early in committee, so Hurst’s bill faces an uncertain future in the opposite chamber.


Various bills have passed through both chambers to ban housing discrimination based on gender identity and to protect low-income residents in unstable housing situations.

The House also passed a bill from Rasoul that’s aimed at helping domestic violence victims from being discriminated against when seeking housing. The bill lays out ways for landlords to assess a domestic violence victim’s financial situation and determine if the person is suitable to rent to.

It’s common for domestic violence victims to also face financial abuse, which can damage their credit scores and put them in debt.

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