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Weed, taxes and schools: How the 2022 General Assembly could affect you

white building with columns
The Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Virginia Democrats’ two-year legislative blitz ended abruptly last November, when they lost the governor’s race and control of the House of Delegates. The new dynamics mean that anyone hoping to pass new laws this year will have to rely on a mix of compromise and cajoling.

Both the GOP-led House and Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will have to work with a narrow 21-19 Democratic majority in the state Senate to get anything done. Two Democrats – Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) and Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) – will get special attention from conservative-aligned interests given their occasional habit of bucking their own party. So far, however, the caucus is projecting unity and saying they won’t revisit legislation Democrats passed while they held power over the last two years.

Republican Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert said in November that his caucus will focus on issues they campaigned on, like addressing high cost of living and education, rather than hot-button issues like abortion or new voting restrictions. Still, individual GOP lawmakers have filed bills that would limit early voting, remove restrictions on firearms and allow local school districts to adorn school buses with “In God We Trust” decals. Any bills on those topics that squeak out of the House, which Republicans control by a 52-48 margin, will likely perish in Democratic committees in the Senate.

Despite the potential for gridlock, there are a few points where lawmakers are set to consider major legislation that could have a significant impact on Virginians. Here are a few to look out for:

Marijuana - Democrats legalized the adult recreational use of marijauna last year. But retail sales still aren’t slated to begin until Jan. 1, 2024. Republicans say the situation created a vast black market – though Virginia already had one under prohibition – with legal weed only available from four authorized plants per household. The state’s Cannabis Oversight Commission recommended bumping up retail sales to 2023 in a 7-1 vote last month, with existing medical marijuana operators serving as some of the first retail outlets.

Republicans are also likely to re-examine a push toward equity. In a bid to address the historic harms of the War on Drugs on people of color, the bill Democrats passed last year would have steered 30% of state revenues from marijuana sales toward funding programs in communities affected by those policies. Legislation from Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) would send that money to the state’s general funds. Another Republican, Del. Danny Marshall (R-Danville) has proposed including applicants in economically distressed areas as so-called “social equity applicants.”

The advocacy group Marijuana Justice is lobbying against those changes as well as expediting the timeline for retail sales. Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group, said the current setup would allow social equity applicants time to stand up businesses and compete with larger players. And she dismissed claims that setting aside licenses for marginalized groups was unfair. “I've heard some really off-putting language that ignores the decades-long impacts that we see in the data,” Higgs Wise said.

Wise said the group’s top priority would be setting up a process where people serving existing marijuana-related sentences would immediately have those sentences reconsidered. According to data from the Department of Corrections, 570 people are serving time in state prisons for charges that include marijuana-related offenses; for ten members of that group, the marijuana charges are their most serious offense.

Gay marriage and voting rights -  The General Assembly will consider two amendments to the Consitution of Virginia when it meets on Wednesday. Both passed last year under a Democratic majority and need a second vote from both chambers before voters see them on their ballot this November. At least one of the amendments could have the votes to pass if Gilbert, the incoming House speaker, allows them to the floor for a vote.

One amendment would strike a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage passed by voters in 2006. That language was rendered toothless by a 2014 U.S. district court verdict and a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that cemented same-sex couples’ right to marry. But advocates warn that a newly-empowered conservative majority could at some point revisit that verdict. Six Republicans in Virginina’s House joined Democrats in voting in favor of a proposal to strike the language from Virginia’s Constitution last year – more than enough to pass the amendment this year if their votes hold.

Another proposal would enshrine the right to vote in the state Constitution for people who’ve been convicted of felonies but are no longer incarcerated. Currently, in order to be qualified to vote a person convicted of a felony must have his civil rights restored by the governor. Only one House Republican – Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) – voted for the amendment last year. Coyner told VPM she still supports the amendment. Incoming Del. Mike Cherry (R-Colonial Heights) is sponsoring the amendment in the House this year. Advocates need to convince one more House Republican to vote in favor of the amendment in order for it to clear the House.

Education - Gov.-elect Youngkin ran heavily on education. Many of his plans – like banning the teaching Critical Race Theory from schools, creating education vouchers and building more charter schools – are likely to run into obstacles in the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

Still, Petersen and Morrissey have signaledthey are open to proposals that would make it easier to set up charter schools. Currently, only local school boards can approve the schools.

It’s unclear how Youngkin would enact his proposed ban on the teaching of Critical Race Theory, a graduate-level framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. While other state legislatures have considered or enacted legislation restricting the way race is taught in schools, the practical impacts of those bills are unclear and a similar bill would face steep challenges in Virginia’s Senate.

Taxes - Flush with record state surpluses, Youngkin has proposed a slew of new tax cuts. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam included some, too, in his final budget.

Three tax proposals are especially likely to win enough bipartisan support to pass, according to Stephen Haner, senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. At the top of Haner’s list is raising the cap on Virginia’s standard deduction of $4,500 for individual filers, which sits at less than half of the federal level. “Compared to other states, we tax an awful lot of low income and other states don't,” Haner says.

Youngkin has proposed doubling the deduction and Petersen, the Democratic senator, has filed a bill that would raise Virginia’s deductions to match federal levels. Both Northam and Youngkin have also proposed sending sizeable checks to taxpayers – $250 for individual filers in the case of Northam and $300 in Youngkin’s proposal. Youngkin has also pledged to entirely eliminate Virginia’s grocery tax, a plan that has some bipartisan support but could run into opposition from localities that rely on the funding.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-partisan think tank, estimates Youngkin’s cuts and changes to Virginia’s tax system would cost the commonwealth about $2.9 billion in revenue annually, threatening local and state services. Youngkin said last month there was “plenty of money in the system” to fund tax cuts as well as his other priorities, including raising teacher pay.

Additional reporting by Megan Pauly.

Correction: This article previously stated that only localities could propose charter schools. In fact, they have the sole power to approve the schools. The article has been updated, and we apologize for the error.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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