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Democratic lawmakers reflect on historic General Assembly session

Virginia lawmakers passed over 1,200 new laws in two months, a variety of them in the final days of the 2020 session, which expanded into Sunday evening to accommodate the backlog of legislation.

Capital News Service

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By Chip Lauterbach

Virginia lawmakers passed over 1,200 new laws in two months, a variety of them in the final days of the 2020 session, which expanded into Sunday evening to accommodate the backlog of legislation.

This session has been the first time since 1994 that the Democrats have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly along with the governor’s office. The House passed 746 of 1,732 bills introduced, while the Senate passed 543 of 1,096 bills introduced, excluding resolutions, according to the Legislative Information System. The number of bills sponsored in the House led to long sessions in both chambers and left the Senate grappling with an approaching deadline.

In eight weeks, starting with a vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Democrats worked to overturn close to 30 years of Republican dominance over issues such as gun control, reproductive rights and voter rights.

They also passed new measures such as empowering localities with the authority to remove or contextualize war memorials and adding LGBTQ protections from discrimination in housing and employment, as well as a ban on conversion therapy for minors, becoming the first Southern state to pass such legisation.

Seven out of eight major gun control measures supported by Gov. Ralph Northam are on the way to the governor’s desk for his signature. The legislation includes bills that limit handgun purchases to one per month, a background check on all firearms sales, and extreme risk protection orders, also known as the red flag law.

Other legislation that passed in the home stretch included decriminalization of marijuana, but efforts to legalize marijuana were squashed to the dismay of advocates. The decriminalization bill does away with the criminal penalty for simple marijuana possession, instead instating a $25 civil penalty for a person caught with not more than 1 ounce of marijuana. The Senate amended the bill from the original amount of not more than a half-ounce.

“For far too long our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement. “Those days are over.”

Herring, who pushed for the legislation, said there were 29,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2018. He also said decriminalization is an important first step toward legal, regulated adult use.

Lawmakers reached a compromise to increase the minimum wage, with a bill that gradually increases the wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and up to $12 in 2023. Following these raises, the measure is to be brought before the General Assembly for a future vote that must pass by 2024 in order to guarantee that the wage can reach $15 by 2026.

Democrats also pushed through an amended bill that allows access to collective bargaining for public employees — such as teachers and firefighters — in localities where local governments choose to participate. Sens. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, and Amanda Chase R-Chesterfield, criticized these policies, which they said create hurdles for enterprises.

“We’ve just crushed the small business atmosphere,” DeSteph said in a video posted on Facebook. “CNBC had us as the No. 1 place to do business. We’re going to be in the 20s after this. It’s a very sad day for the commonwealth.”

Freshman Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who defeated one-term incumbent Glen Sturtevant in November, reflected back on her first session.

“It’s been incredible, I have immersed myself in all the issues and critical pieces of legislation that we have had,” Hashmi said. “We have been able to pass some very important bills this year, for immigrant rights and for education, focusing on teachers and higher education, I’ve really enjoyed the work and am looking forward to coming back next year.”

In the House, Democrats held 55 seats to the Republican’s 45 seats. Democrats ushered changes that Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, felt will be instrumental in improving the lives of Virginians.

“With the partisan change in both chambers, the question coming down here was: ‘What kind of majority are we going to be?’” Carter said. “Whether we were going to be the type of majority that stood unequivocally for working people, against corporate interests and decided to make lives better for the people that desperately needed it, or if we were going to be a majority that was content to merely not be as bad as the Republicans.”

Carter said that he was happiest with the outcome of his bill that capped the price of insulin at $50 for a month’s worth.

“I introduced the bill with the cap at $30, the Senate put it at $50,” Carter said. “I’m hoping that the governor will put it back down to $30 or even lower, so we can get some relief to those people who have health insurance but their deductibles and copays are too high for them to be able to afford their insulin products.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, looked back on her third session in the General Assembly with pride, joking that she was able to pass 13 bills for the 13th District. Roem was pleased that her bill, HB 1024, which would establish a statewide cold case database, passed the Senate on the final day of this year’s session.

“This will allow reporters, as well the public in general, to look up every missing persons case, unidentified persons case, and every unsolved homicide in the state that is at least five years old,” Roem said. “This is a huge win for government accountability and transparency”

Some legislation that moved through the House met resistance in the Democrat-majority Senate, where moderate Democrats sided with Republicans. Three moderate Democrats tipped a Senate panel vote to continue HB 961 until the next session, the assault weapons ban sponsored by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.

On Saturday, citing concerns of minority profiling, Senate Democrats helped vote down HB 1439, which would have made not wearing a seatbelt in any seat of the vehicle a primary offense.

Some Republicans also advanced legislative reform. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, passed a measure that will remove the suspension of a driver’s license for nonpayment of fines. Stanley also supported a bill granting tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions.

Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn issued a statement saying that Democrats were celebrating a “historic, legislative session.”

“This General Assembly session has been historic in the extraordinary progress the House of Delegates has made for Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth,” Filler-Corn said. “In November, voters called for swift, impactful action to make their communities safer and more prosperous. We have delivered on that mandate.”

Multiple House and Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.

Lawmakers will return later in the week to tackle the state budget.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

New report finds Virginia Capital Trail generated $8.9 million in local economic activity last year

The report concluded that the Capital Trail contributed approximately $8.9 million in economic activity during FY 2018-19. The Trail which has seen a 65% increase in trail usage in March and a 46% increase in April over last year, is a driving stimulus for local business, tourism, and economic activity, the report found.

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The Virginia Capital Trail Foundation recently released an economic impact report by the University of Richmond in collaboration with the Institute for Service Research, the findings were significant.

The report concluded that the Capital Trail contributed approximately $8.9 million in economic activity during FY 2018-19. The Trail which has seen a 65% increase in trail usage in March and a 46% increase in April over last year, is a driving stimulus for local business, tourism, and economic activity, the report found.

The full economic impact report can be found here.

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Community

Venture Richmond Spruces Up Downtown

There are 126 new hanging baskets installed along Broad Street from Belvidere to 12th Street in the Arts District and in the Shockoe neighborhood. Just one of the new beautification projects from Venture Richmond recently completed.

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Venture Richmond just completed efforts to enhance the downtown area including Canal Walk and Brown’s Island.

They’ve been funding beautification projects in the downtown area since 2013. Over the years they’ve worked with

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Capital One volunteers, and Virginia BioTech Park volunteers.

“Beautification projects are critically important to Downtown and its gateway neighborhoods. They help to inspire civic pride, create a sense of place and enhance the environment for businesses, residents and visitors, as well as attracting bees and butterflies to our urban areas,” said Lucy Meade, Director of Economic Development and Community Relations.

This year’s beautification projects included:

  • 126 hanging baskets installed along Broad Street from Belvidere to 12th Street in the Arts District and in the Shockoe neighborhood
  • 24 planters on Broad Street, 3rd Street, and 5th Street
  • 13 planting beds in the 400 block of East Grace Street
  • 5 medians including two blocks of Broad St. from Foushee to 1st Street, 3rd Street and I-95 ramp; 12th and Canal streets, and 14th and Dock streets (last two complete in early July)
  • 300+ annuals planted along the Canal Walk and around the Headman Statue on Brown’s Island

In addition to items above, the Clean & Safe Program’s contractor, Community Business Group (CBG), a local minority-owned firm, has been providing the “essential service” of sidewalk cleaning seven days a week throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, they have collected 269,000 gallons of trash and leaves.

​Following damages that occurred to businesses during recent protests, Venture Richmond and CBG launched a new Graffiti Cleaning Pilot Program as part of Clean & Safe. Property owners and businesses in the Downtown Service District area can request help removing graffiti by emailing [email protected].

Another item you’ll see soon is social-distancing circles on Brown’s Island to help visitors mantain social distancing.

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Business

Venture Richmond teams up with city for “Picnic in a Parklet” program to assist businesses during reopening phases

“We acknowledge the difficulty Richmond businesses face when trying to safely reopen and want to do what we can to make that easier on them,” said Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Riverfront and Downtown Placemaking for Venture Richmond. “Parklets have the potential to offer an attractive, comfortable space for customers to physically-distance adjacent to the business, which may be needed for a smoother reopening. We look forward to working with any business in the city that submits a request.”

RVAHub Staff

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Venture Richmond has announced a new initiative, “Picnic in a Parklet,” a program designed to assist Richmond restaurants and other businesses with Phase 2 and 3 of Forward Virginia. Through this new partnership with the City of Richmond, business owners can receive design and permitting assistance for their requests for more outdoor space, particularly parklets.

Parklets are outdoor patio spaces constructed in the on-street parking lane of the street in front of a business that can function as an area for customers to gather and/or take to-go orders and eat outside in a physically-distanced environment. Parklets are, by definition, public space; but, restaurants can offer lightly packaged to-go orders for people who simply want to dine in the parklet in front of the restaurant.

“Transforming our use of public space innovatively and sustainably requires partnerships just like this one,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “By linking the business and design communities, this program will expand the city’s growing network of creatively designed public spaces.”

Business-owners who are interested in temporarily converting an on-street parking space adjacent to their storefront into a parklet will be connected with Venture Richmond to better assess their needs. If a parklet will be helpful and appropriate, Venture Richmond will work with the American Institute of Architects Richmond Chapter (AIA Richmond) to connect businesses with a certified architect for pro-bono parklet design services. Venture Richmond will assist the applicant through the steps needed to obtain a permit from the City of Richmond.

“We acknowledge the difficulty Richmond businesses face when trying to safely reopen and want to do what we can to make that easier on them,” said Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Riverfront and Downtown Placemaking for Venture Richmond. “Parklets have the potential to offer an attractive, comfortable space for customers to physically-distance adjacent to the business, which may be needed for a smoother reopening. We look forward to working with any business in the city that submits a request.”

Unless otherwise specified or revoked, parklet permits are valid for three years. All requests within Richmond City limits will be considered.

Requests for parklets can be submitted through the RVA Strong website. General information about parklets can be found here, and more information about the City of Richmond’s Parklet Program can be found here.

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