The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

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RICHMOND – Lawmakers descend on Richmond Wednesday for the start of the 2023 General Assembly session to debate a wide array of issues, from more tax relief measures to abortion and energy policy.

But due to a divided legislature – Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates, while Democrats have a 22-18 majority in the Virginia Senate – political analysts don’t expect to see many big surprises in an election year when all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats are on the ballot.

“A lot of lawmakers have new districts, some of them are running against each other, and as a result the top priority is going to be a session that ends promptly,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “That means a lot more of the contentious issues will be stalled, killed in committee perhaps or maybe kept off the agenda until next year. “

Part of the legislature’s job in the coming six weeks is to adjust the two-year state budget they passed last year, which included a historic $4 billion in tax relief – a key pillar of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign promises. Last month, Youngkin, now in his second year in office and expecting a $3.6 billion budget surplus for fiscal 2023, rolled out his proposed amendments comprising another $1 billion in tax cuts.

“There is definitely an opportunity for tax relief, it’s the one area where there may be some progress by giving the voters something before you ask for their votes again. The state’s economic station allows for a little bit of election year generosity,” Farnsworth said. 

Youngkin is also asking the legislature for a $200 million deposit in the newly created Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund for flooding prevention projects statewide, and an additional $11 million in emergency funds for the Buchanan County flood victims.

But Youngkin’s ability to negotiate with Democrats may have been compromised by his political campaigning nationally throughout last year, Farnsworth added. “There is little interest on the part of Democrats in furthering the governor’s national profile, and that may lead to a frosty reception for some of his initiatives,” he said. 

As a more contentious issue, several Republicans are seeking to enact new restrictions on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which provided constitutional protections for abortion nationwide.

Within hours of the court’s decision last June, Youngkin asked four Republican lawmakers – including Sen. Steve Newman and Del. Kathy Byron of Bedford County – to draft legislation that would “chart the most successful path forward” for the commonwealth on this issue. 

Under current law, abortions are legal in the commonwealth in the first and second trimesters, allowing for the procedure in the third trimester only if continuing the pregnancy “is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

But because of the legislature’s divided nature this year, hyper-partisan legislation like restricting abortion rights is unlikely to succeed, Farnsworth said. 

“With the Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House, the smart money is going to be on gridlock anyway,” Farnsworth said. “But the new district lines increase the chances that this will be a session of at best modest accomplishment.”

Below, we have compiled a list of proposals drafted mostly by lawmakers from Southwest and Southside Virginia relating to issues with statewide implications and others that are unique to our coverage area. Because the deadline for filing legislation is Friday, the list is not complete. If there’s no bill number listed, that means one hasn’t been assigned yet.

Bills with statewide implications

Tax Reform

Much like last year, Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, carries Youngkin’s signature tax relief legislation in the House. “This includes a reduction in the top rate and a qualified business investment deduction of 10% for small business,” McNamara said Tuesday. He added that he also anticipates carrying the governor’s bill on reduction of the top individual tax rate, but at the time of publication of this story, the bills had not yet been uploaded to the legislative information system. “There’s still a lot of maneuvering going on,” McNamara said. 

McNamara also reintroduced a measure that would repeal the remainder of the state’s former 2.5% grocery tax. During the 2022 session, Democrats only agreed to slashing the state’s 1.5% portion of the grocery tax while retaining the 1% portion that benefits local governments to fund schools, following a proposal by then-Gov. Ralph Northam in his own budget in December of 2021. 

McNamara’s House Bill 1484 provides for an exemption from local sales and use tax beginning July 1 for food purchased for human consumption and essential personal hygiene products. The bill also provides an allocation of state revenues to fund the distribution to localities for funding that would have been distributed to them absent the exemption created by the bill. “I’m big on finishing off the grocery tax, which is not in the governor’s budget. But we are hoping to accomplish it,” McNamara said. 

State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, sponsored Senate Bill 850, the companion bill, in the Senate. He also introduced SB 851, which increases the standard deduction – starting with taxable year 2023 – from $8,000 to $12,500 for single filers and from $16,000 to $25,000 for married filers (one-half of such amount in the case of a married individual filing a separate return). The increase would remain in effect until taxable year 2026, when the standard deduction is scheduled to be reduced to $3,000 for single filers and to $6,000 for married filers.

Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, filed HB 1402, which would require that tangible personal property employed in a trade or business be valued for taxation using the federal Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) of depreciation instead of the valuation methods currently in effect. The legislation would go into effect for taxable years beginning on and after Jan. 1, 2024.

March, who owns several businesses in Pulaski County and Christiansburg, also introduced HB 1476, which provides that localities and their constitutional officers shall be subject to monetary penalties for failure to comply with various deadlines for preparing local financial audit reports and submitting such reports to the Auditor of Public Accounts.

Abortion

Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, filed a measure that likely goes further than Youngkin’s signature abortion bill that has yet to be rolled out. March’s HB 1395 not only provides that life begins at conception and each person is accorded the same rights and protections guaranteed to all persons by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Virginia, and the laws of the Commonwealth beginning at the moment of conception, but the proposal also repeals all provisions of the Code of Virginia allowing for the performance of abortions, banning the procedure altogether. 

Cannabis

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, wants to put in place more regulations for cannabis dispensaries across the state. Head’s HB 1846 allows pharmacists who are employed by a pharmaceutical processor or cannabis dispensing facility to issue written certificates for cannabis products if the pharmacist is acting as the agent of a practitioner, is acting pursuant to policies established by a practitioner who has contracted with a pharmaceutical processor or cannabis dispensing facility to serve as the medical director of such pharmaceutical processor or cannabis dispensing facility, and has verified the patient’s diagnosis with a practitioner with whom the patient has a bona fide practitioner-patient relationship. 

The bill amends and adds numerous provisions regarding the commonwealth’s medical marijuana program, including provisions related to recordkeeping, product registration, expiration dates, allowable deviations, dispensing, packing, labeling and advertising. It also requires pharmaceutical processors and cannabis dispensing facilities to collect and provide to the Board of Pharmacy by July 1, 2024, data regarding implementation of the bill. 

Education

A proposal by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, would allow parents to send their children to any public school of their choice without boundaries defined by zip code. “As a parent, I understand the importance of providing your children with the best opportunities possible,” Ballard said in an email. The legislation has not yet been posted at the time of publication.

A measure proposed by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, would establish the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Computing (STEM+C) Competition Team Grant Program to encourage interest in STEM+C-related subject areas and support STEM+C-related extracurricular team-building activities in Virginia’s public schools by providing grants to qualified schools for this purpose. SB 806 would also create a related fund to provide such grants to qualified schools.

Under current law, unscheduled remote learning days during severe weather conditions or other emergency situations are permissive rather than mandatory, but HB 1666, sponsored by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, would require school divisions to declare an unscheduled remote learning day in the case of such an event. However, the bill also provides that no school division claims more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year unless the Superintendent of Public Instruction grants an extension. 

HB 1399, sponsored by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, would require each athletic team or sport that is sponsored by a public elementary or secondary school or a public institution of higher education to be expressly designated as one based on each team member’s biological sex at birth. Another March measure, House Joint Resolution 474, would dissolve the Virginia Board of Education and transfer its powers and duties to the Superintendent of Public Instruction. March did not respond to a request for comment on her proposals. 

A measure (HB 1726) sponsored by Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, requires the Department of Education to authorize a Virginia-based nonprofit organization as a local education agency to provide schools for adults to earn an industry-recognized credential or dual college credit and a high school diploma on one or more diploma pathways set forth in the relevant Board of Education regulation.

Energy

SB 1083, introduced by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, would expand shared solar programs into Appalachian Power and Old Dominion Power service areas. Legislation in 2020 created such a program in Dominion Energy territory; a work group convened last year by the State Corporation Commission studied the feasibility of expanding it into the rest of the state.

Under the shared solar model, customers subscribe to an off-site solar array, which feeds power into the electric grid. Each subscriber gets a monthly credit on their utility bill for their share of that power.

Edwards’ legislation would cap a customer’s minimum bill at $20 – compared to about $55 a month for Dominion customers, a rate that many consumer advocates have said is prohibitively high – and would establish incentives for certain types of shared solar projects.

HB 1770, introduced by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, the House majority leader, would make several changes to how the State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia’s investor-owned electric utilities. It would require a review of rates and conditions every two years instead of every three. It also would change some aspects of how the SCC determines utilities’ rates of return by expanding the peer groups to which they are compared and by requiring the commission to hew closely to the average returns realized by those peers. Under the legislation, Dominion customers also would see some rate adjustments rolled into base rates. 

Kilgore’s proposal also would change the process through which the utilities retire their remaining fossil fuel-fired power plants, as required by the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. Currently, the SCC may step in and halt a planned closure if it determines that the retirement would hurt grid reliability. This bill would require the SCC to determine in advance of any closure that the proposed retirement is prudent. 

Environment

SB 779, sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, seeks to repeal the requirement that the State Air Pollution Control Board implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has filed legislation that would allow localities to prohibit the purchase, sale or provision – whether free or for a cost – of any single-use plastic carrier bag that is not recyclable from grocery stores, retail stores and convenience stores. But unlike a number of states that have outright banned single-use plastic bags, such as California, Connecticut, Maine, Delaware, New Jersey and Hawaii, SB 933 would leave the decision up to individual localities. 

Gambling

After Virginia approved four casinos in the commonwealth – including one in Bristol and one in Danville – Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, filed HB 1465 to create a Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee within the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) in an effort to reduce the negative effects of problem gambling.

“I know from prevention research that people who begin gambling in their teens are at a higher risk of developing a problem with gambling and that one of the fastest growing groups to have gambling problems are young adults,” Krizek said, adding that he sees this legislation as a consumer protection and public safety issue. “Gambling is supposed to be entertainment, not a lifestyle,” he said.

A companion bill in the Senate was filed by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania County. “As Virginia moves forward with the expansion of gaming, it’s important that we understand the ills that come with it,” Reeves said. “We must focus our attention on Virginians who struggle with gambling addiction.”

Gun control

Second-Amendment advocate Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, has filed three proposals this year aimed at expanding gun rights in Virginia. HB 1393 would eliminate the requirement for a concealed handgun permit, allowing anyone to carry a concealed handgun who is “otherwise eligible” to obtain such permit. 

March also renewed her effort to repeal Virginia’s so-called red flag law which allows authorities to take guns away from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Over strong opposition from gun rights advocates, the Virginia General Assembly had passed its own version of the legislation in 2020 after Democrats gained the majority in both chambers.

Although a Republican-controlled House panel approved March’s measure last year, the Democratic majority of a Senate panel defeated the proposal just a few weeks later. Whether March’s HB 1394 will share the same fate this year remains to be seen. 

March’s third gun rights measure, HB 1398, would prohibit an owner of private property from prohibiting a person who has a valid concealed handgun permit from storing a firearm or other weapon in a motor vehicle if such vehicle is located in a parking lot, traffic circle or other means of vehicular ingress or egress to such private property that is open to the public.

Internet Safety

SB 853, sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, would free up at least $2.5 million in each fiscal year for the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children (SOVA-ICAC) program for investigating and prosecuting Internet crimes against children. 

The program began in 1998 as one of the first 10 ICAC task forces in the United States.  Originally called “Operation Blue Ridge Thunder,” the SOVA-ICAC Task Force has over 150 task force members and covers from far Southwest Virginia to the Delmarva Peninsula on the Eastern Shore and as far north as Greene County.

Public Safety

A measure introduced by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, aimed at cracking down on gang violence would expand the definition of “predicate criminal act” to include all felonies and carrying a concealed weapon violation. HB 1478 also increases various penalties for gang crimes.

HB 1397, sponsored by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, would give parents of a child attending any public or private preschool, nursery school, licensed child care center, or elementary or secondary school, the option not to receive any immunization otherwise required by the State Board of Health. The measure also applies to parents of homeschooled children.

And HB 1401, another March proposal, would repeal the Community Policing Act that, under current law, prohibits law-enforcement officers and State Police officers from engaging in bias-based profiling in the performance of their official duties.  

March’s primary opponent, Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, introduced legislation that would create a “rebuttable presumption” against bail for certain criminal offenses enumerated in the bill and for persons identified as being illegally present in the United States who are charged with certain offenses. HB 1365 also requires courts to consider specified factors when determining whether the presumption against bail has been rebutted and whether there are appropriate conditions of release.

If successful, Williams’s proposal would repeal a criminal justice reform bill passed by Democrats in 2020 that eliminated the presumption against bond. “Since it went into effect, criminals arrested for committing serious, violent crimes are being released right back on to the street, where they commit more violent crimes. Our communities are less safe and these ‘felon first’ policies have crippled the morale and capabilities of our law enforcement officers,” Williams said. 

HB 1549, filed by Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, provides that in any action for death by wrongful act where the defendant, as a result of driving a motor vehicle or operating a watercraft under the influence, unintentionally caused the death of another person who was the parent or legal guardian of a child, the person who has custody of such child may petition the court to order that the defendant pay child support.

Voting Rights

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, sponsored HJ 459, which would allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to register to vote and to vote in local elections.

A measure introduced by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, would requires general registrars to verify that the name, date of birth, and social security number provided by an applicant on the voter registration application match the information on file in the Social Security Administration database or other database approved by the State Board of Elections. If the information provided by the applicant does not match the information on file, SB 965 would allow for a provisional registration and a vote by provisional ballot, which shall not be counted until the voter presents certain information. 

Another Peake proposal (SB 967) would limit voter registration in person up to and including the day of the election to certain persons, such as members of a uniformed service, people residing temporarily outside of the United States, and their spouses or dependents. Under current law, anyone who is qualified to register to vote is entitled to register to vote after the close of registration records up to and including the day of the election.

Peake also wants to bring back Virginia’s photo ID law. His SB 968 would repeal the provisions of current law allowing a voter who does not have one of the required forms of identification to vote after signing a statement, subject to felony penalties for false statements, that he is the named registered voter he claims to be. Instead, the bill provides that such a voter is entitled to cast a provisional ballot.

Bills with implications unique to Southwest and Southside

Charters

HB 1539, sponsored by Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, establishes a new charter for the Town of Farmville in Prince Edward County and repeals the current charter, which was created in 1956. The proposed charter sets out the organization of the town’s government and contains powers typically granted to towns. Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, filed SB 961, the companion measure, in the Senate.

With HB 1641, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, makes good on a promise he made to residents of Pound a year ago, when he introduced legislation to revoke the troubled Wise County town’s charter by November 2023: If they worked on getting their act together, he told them then, he’d come back during the next General Assembly session and file to repeal the revocation before it could take effect.

They did, and he did. The town, which had been struggling for years with a dysfunctional town council and a declining tax base, elected new council members, named a new mayor and sought help from outside experts to improve how it does business.

Economic Development

A measure sponsored by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, adds Giles County and Pulaski County to a group of localities that are eligible to receive funds from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Fund and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revolving Fund. “These funds will help our community recover from economic changes relating to a declining tobacco industry and ensure that our economy remains strong,” Ballard said of his HB 1441

Energy

A proposal sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, would task the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority with supporting energy development projects, such as any activity that generates, produces or stores energy, any energy efficiency system, and any supporting ancillary activities located within Southwest Virginia. Under HB 1781, such projects include pump storage hydropower, energy storage, hydrogen production and uses, carbon capture and storage, geothermal energy, advanced wind and solar energy, and advanced reactors and advanced nuclear technologies, among others. 

In light of Youngkin’s proposal to build small modular reactors in Southwest Virginia, O’Quinn has also filed legislation that would establish a Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Under HB1779, this fund would award grants on a competitive basis to any public or private institution of higher education that seeks to establish or expand a nuclear education program.

Under another O’Quinn proposal, the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise and the City of Norton would be required to enter into a perpetual revenue-sharing agreement regarding a certain small modular reactor plant or facility to be located in one of these localities. HB 1780 also establishes the percentage of the revenue to be allocated to each locality and provides that the host locality shall retain the remaining six percent of the revenue. 

The bill requires any direct costs of infrastructure improvements incurred by the host locality for purposes of the small modular reactor plant or facility to be allocated among the localities in the same proportion as the revenues from the plant or facility.

HB 1643, a measure sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, Scott County, would add coal mine methane to the forms of renewable energy under the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act. In mining, methane is contained within a worked-out area of an underground coal mine and eventually escapes to the surface via vents, fissures or ventilation holes. Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, filed SB 1121, the companion measure, in the Senate. 

Transportation

Another Ballard proposal, HJ 464, tasks the Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of widening that portion of State Route 100 between the intersection of State Route 100 and State Route 692 in Giles County and the border of Giles County and Pulaski County from a two-lane highway to a four-lane highway. “This widening project will bring jobs, economic resources, and increased traffic to small businesses,” Ballard said. 

Virginia Museum of Transportation

After a Democratic-controlled Senate committee last year blocked his effort to turn the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke into a state agency, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, is giving his proposal another shot by filing SB 1020, which would establish the museum – which is currently operated as a nonprofit – as a public entity and educational institution under the commonwealth, governed by a 15-member board of trustees.

Miscellaneous Bills

Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, reintroduced legislation (HB 1483) requesting the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to study the effects of the commonwealth’s continued observance of daylight saving time under the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 and the potential consequences of a decision to use either standard time or daylight saving time year-round in the Virginia. When McNamara filed a similar bill last year, the House Rules committee did not take up the proposal. 

Megan Schnabel contributed to this story. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.