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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.

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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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Venture Richmond Offering Up 10k Broad Street Tenant Recruitment Grants

Venture Richmond was awarded a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development to help recruit ten new tenants to Broad Street in Downtown Richmond. Each new tenant will get a $10,000 grant for moving in and opening by May 15, 2022.

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From Venture Richmond

Venture Richmond was awarded a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing & Community Development to help recruit ten new tenants to Broad Street in Downtown Richmond. Each new tenant will get a $10,000 grant for moving in and opening by May 15, 2022. Venture Richmond is partnering with the Metropolitan Business League (MBL) to help recruit existing small, women, and minority (SWaM) and immigrant-owned businesses to ­fill street-level vacancies in the area.

​The new businesses will join many galleries, retailers, restaurants, and small businesses who already call Broad Street home, as well as businesses that attract thousands of out of town visitors annually like Quirk Hotel, Richmond Marriott, the Hilton Hotel, and the Convention Center. Gather, co-working space, has a location in the area. A popular neighborhood happening is RVA First Fridays Artwalk which is a monthly celebration of the arts and galleries along and around Broad St. This section of Broad Street is also a part of Richmond’s Arts District and adjacent to Jackson Ward, near the VCU Monroe Park Campus and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to the west and City and State offices and VCU Health to the east.

THE CRITERIA FOR ELIGIBILITY INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:

  • Eligible once the business has moved into the space and opened for business by May 15, 2022.
  • Veri­fied 1-year minimum lease
  • Lease street-level space on Broad Street between Belvidere and 5th streets
  • New business to Downtown, not the relocation of an existing business in the General District/BID.
  • Existing businesses in the General District, who want to open an additional location on Broad Street.
  • Existing businesses located outside of the General District, who want to open another location/outpost on Broad Street.
  • Types of qualifying businesses include retailers, restaurants, makers, entrepreneurs, startups, and other creative businesses.
  • One $10,000 reimbursement grant per storefront, if a group of small businesses wanted to share space there would only be one grant available for the group.
  • Only eligible once
  • Availability based on ­first come fi­rst served

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR ASSISTANCE, CONTACT:

Micah White

Business Development Manager

The MBL

804-356-9298

[email protected]

Lucy Meade

Director Economic Development & Community Relations

Venture Richmond, Inc.

804-248-8372

[email protected]

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Downtown

Virginia lawmakers propose decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

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By Ned Oliver

Two Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation that would end felony penalties for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, citing the drug’s growing acceptance in medicinal contexts.

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

The legislation would reduce the penalty for possession — currently a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to a $100 civil fine.

Sens. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

The bill would put Virginia at the forefront of a nascent decriminalization movement that has primarily been limited to cities, including Washington, D.C. So far, Oregon is the only state to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin, an active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms.

The bill likely faces long odds, especially in the House of Delegates, where the newly reinstated Republican majority has historically resisted efforts to loosen drug laws. That said, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who leads the chamber’s Courts of Justice Committee, said he is open to hearing arguments in favor of the legislation.

“That is not something we’ve taken up before,” he said. “I’d be interested in hearing what (Adams) has to say.”

Even if the legislation were to pass, the drug would remain illegal, albeit with reduced penalties. That makes it unlikely medical providers in Virginia would embrace psychedelics as a treatment option, but Adams said it would nonetheless be a step in the right direction.

“If we decriminalize it, it allows people to learn,” she said. “It doesn’t egg people on (to use the drug). It tries to open the door for us to continue to study the positive effects on people’s mental health going forward.”

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GRTC Prepares for Downtown Transfer Plaza Update

GRTC will update the Downtown Transfer Plaza with new bus bay locations on 9th, Clay, and 8th Streets to accommodate nearby construction zones and preserve bus rider connections at night and on Sundays.

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Soon GRTC will update the Downtown Transfer Plaza with new bus bay locations on 9th, Clay, and 8th Streets to accommodate nearby construction zones and preserve bus rider connections at night and on Sundays. Several bus stop shelters, benches, and trash cans will be relocated to new bay locations on Clay and 8th St., and wayfinding maps will be posted nearby for riders. New on-board announcements will explain the bay locations and routes serving them when buses approach the Plaza. GRTC expects the updates may be necessary as soon as February 2022.

Four bays will not change at all – A, B, C, and D. However, Bays E and F relocate to Clay and Bays G, H, and I will relocate to 8th St. Bus Stop #2522 at 9th and Marshall will become Bay J. Because of nearby construction, some pedestrian pathways may be closed. Riders should only use marked pedestrian crossings at the Plaza.

GRTC Chief Executive Officer Julie Timm says, “I appreciate the City of Richmond’s support to help us coordinate necessary operational updates at the Downtown Transfer Plaza so that we can continue reliably serving customers and keep everyone safe from nearby construction zones. We were able to ensure essential infrastructure of shelters, benches, and wayfinding signage will be available at the new bus bays on 8th and Clay Streets. Our riders have been dealing with detours and other service adjustments Downtown recently, and we ask them, once again, to please pardon our dust as we work around obstacles to connect them with their jobs, homes, shopping, health care, education, and other community resources.”

This week, GRTC staff will begin installation of new bus bay stop signs, post new wayfinding materials, and coordinate with construction crews on relocation of shelters, benches, and trash cans in advance of sidewalk closures.

The Downtown Transfer Plaza opened in 2014 on 9th St. to ensure bus service could operate during major events on Broad St. in 2014 and 2015 and remained on 9th St. while efforts to secure a permanent transfer site continued. With the network redesign in 2018, the Downtown Transfer Plaza is now primarily used on Sundays and at nights when connecting buses have lower frequencies (longer waits between buses) and need well-timed connections for bus riders to transfer between 30-minute or hourly bus routes.

Another temporary update to the Downtown Transfer Plaza is expected later in 2022 when bays will move within the 8th St. surface parking lot between 8th and 9th Sts., and Leigh and Clay Sts., fully relocating bus bays from on-street to a designated lot out of the flow of general traffic. The City of Richmond and GRTC are collaborating on the updates in 2022 and continue joint efforts with other stakeholders to plan for a permanent Downtown Transfer Center in the future.

GRTC is a public service corporation providing mobility services in the Greater Richmond area. GRTC’s current operational budget (FY22) of $63.2 million primarily funds daily mobility operations and vehicle maintenance. GRTC provided 7.8 million trips during FY21 (July 1, 2020 – July 30, 2021).

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