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What Virginia’s General Assembly did — and didn’t — get done this session

Crixell Matthews
VPM News
Gov. Glenn Youngkin Speaks in front of the Executive Mansion in 2022.

With a divided government, most controversial legislation got blocked.

The halls of the Virginia Capitol in Richmond are a lot quieter this week after a busy legislative session came to a close Saturday. Lawmakers passed almost 1,700 bills during the past two months.

Whittney Evans sat down with VPM News state politics reporter Ben Paviour to hear about what they did — and didn’t — accomplish.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Evans: I wanted to start by asking if you were surprised by any bills that passed this year.
Paviour: As you know Whittney, Virginia Democrats control the state Senate, Republicans have a majority in the House. That meant most controversial legislation got blocked.

But not everything is partisan. There’s been growing calls for lawmakers in both parties to increase oversight of public utilities like Dominion Energy, which is one of the biggest political donors in the state. In the past, those efforts have gone nowhere.

This year, lawmakers and Gov. Glenn Youngkin got behind a bill that would increase oversight in a significant way. It’s complicated, but one important takeaway is that it would give more power to the State Corporation Commission over how much money the company is allowed to collect from ratepayers.

One topic we’ve both covered over the past few years is the legalization of cannabis. I know lawmakers still didn’t agree on a way for adults to buy marijuana for recreational use.

Was there any movement on the issue?
No, but we did see a major piece of legislation that would crack down on the sale of intoxicating hemp products like delta-8.

The bill would effectively ban the products by capping the amount of THC — the main intoxicating compound in the marijuana plant — to 0.3%. Many in the hemp industry argue the bill is poorly written and would cripple their businesses. And some lawmakers say hemp and cannabis products should all be dealt with at once.

Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger addressed those concerns on Friday: "This Assembly in whole and the administration is not ready for recreational marijuana. And this is not about saying no to recreational marijuana. It’s about a safety issue that’s confronting us right now."

Backers of the bill say these products pose a danger to consumers because there’s no oversight into what’s going into them. Youngkin has signaled he’s on board with the approach.

Where else did we see bipartisan agreement?
One notable piece of legislation would up the rate of jury duty from $30 to $50 a day. There’s also a bill that classifies fentanyl as a weapon of terrorism and makes it a Class 4 felony to knowingly manufacture or distribute it.

Another piece of legislation, which I know you’ve covered, was originally pitched as a way to limit the use of solitary confinement. But advocates say the version lawmakers passed instead could actually expand the use of the practice.

All of these bills now head to Youngkin. He can either sign them as-is, veto them or amend them and send them back to lawmakers for a final vote.

Ben, there’s a big agenda item that didn’t get done this session — the budget. Where does that stand?
Some background: Tax receipts are higher than lawmakers expected, leaving lawmakers with roughly $3 billion to spend. Broadly speaking, Democrats want to see that go toward public services like education. Republicans are pushing for corporate and individual tax cuts, as well as smaller investments in public services.

It could be several months before they come to an agreement — if they do at all. In the meantime, lawmakers passed a kind of stopgap budget … including roughly $260 million to K-12 schools in order to correct a mistake from the Virginia Department of Education.

There were also a wave of retirement announcements this weekend. What’s triggering that?
In the past, lawmakers drew their own political maps when redistricting came around once a decade. They tried to avoid pairing members of their own party.

But this time around, court-ordered experts ignored where incumbents live when they drew the maps — and often pitted members of the same party against each other. So that’s been one factor in a wave of 14 retirement announcements, according to a tally from the Virginia Mercury.

The list includes some heavyweights like Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment and Democratic Majority Leader Dick Saslaw.

But not everyone is dropping out. Primaries are on June 20, and the candidates are looking ahead to what could be an especially tense set of races.

Disclosure: VPM News is pursuing litigation against the Virginia Department of Education over open records laws.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.