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Northam Backs ERA, Decriminalization Of Marijuana In Speech To GA

Craig Carper/WCVE News

Marking the first day of the 2019 General Assembly session, Governor Ralph Northam delivered his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.

Northam began by looking back at his first year in office. He highlighted the expansion of Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians, low unemployment, and economic development projects like Amazon’s new headquarters in Northern Virginia. He also made an announcement during his address that Microsoft would create 100 new jobs at their data center in Mecklenburg County.

“It’s clear that our efforts to bring new jobs and investments to our commonwealth are paying off. These companies are attracted to virginia for our exceptional education system, our skilled workforce, and our strong business climate.”

Outlining his policy priorities for the General Assembly session, Northam reiterated his support for of the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed its first senate committee Wednesday afternoon.

To the surprise of some Republicans and Democrats, Northam also backed efforts to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.

“We want to keep people safe, but we shouldn’t use valuable enforcement time and costly prison space on laws that don’t enhance public safety.

Throughout his speech Northam preached a message of bipartisanship in the session ahead, saying he thought there were many areas where Republicans and Democrats could work together on issues like opioid crisis legislation.

But there’s a fundamental disagreement about tax reform, and that disagreement could jeopardize many of the proposals Northam has put forward.

Because of changes to the tax system under President Donald Trump, some states are expecting a windfall of new tax revenue. But Republican leaders in Virginia would like to see the federal tax cuts mirrored at the state level, which could cut into Democratic priorities like increased teacher pay and rural broadband expansion.

Following Northam’s address, Republican leaders flooded out into the atrium of the State Capitol.

They outlined a tax plan that would take the Governor’s priorities out of the proposed budget and put any new state tax revenue into the rainy day fund instead.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment says tax reform is an issue that will need to be dealt with early on.

“The dramatic difference between the Governor’s initiatives on spending and the Republicans wanting to provide some meaningful tax relief needs to be worked out, because that is otherwise going to create a significant impact before we can even address some of these policy issues.”

In November, all 140 members of the General Assembly will be up for reelection. Senator Mamie Locke of Hampton says that could further complicate bipartisan efforts.

“They will start thinking about the election in terms of what can they put on a brochure,” Locke said. “You’ll see a lot of that.”

Lawmakers have just 45 days to hammer out the details in this year's short session.

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