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Virginia lawmakers hustle ahead of legislative deadline

The politically divided Virginia General Assembly churned through hundreds of bills Feb. 7 as it approached a key deadline for the year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers debated topics ranging from accommodations for transgender students to abortion restrictions to energy policy ahead of what’s known as “crossover,” the point by which all legislation but the budget bills must clear its originating chamber.

Moving forward, the GOP-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate will begin making their way through the other chamber’s measures — likely voting down many of the other’s priorities — and sending more bills to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Traditionally, when you have a divided legislature, there’s a lot of carnage after crossover,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell said.

Many issues remain unresolved at this legislative midpoint and will have to be tackled in the coming weeks ahead of the scheduled Feb. 25 adjournment. Among them: a debate about whether to further reduce taxes and a question about whether the city of Petersburg will get a shot an opening the state’s fifth casino.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert said he is hopeful that the two chambers can reach agreement in areas such as education, mental health and tax relief, “things that will have a tangible impact on people’s lives.”

“I still think there are things we can work on,” Gilbert said.

Here’s a look at a where things stand on a number of key issues:

ABORTION

Lawmakers have been debating how Virginia should regulate abortion for the first time since the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. So far, it looks unlikely that the state’s laws will be significantly altered this year.

Senate Democrats have defeated several measures that would have restricted the procedure and are likely to do so again when House-passed measures cross over. Conversely, the House has voted down a Democratic priority, a resolution that would start a yearslong process of enshrining abortion protections into the state constitution.

House Republicans have passed a bill mandating certain counseling before an abortion and a measure that aims to protect any infant born alive after an attempted abortion. Other more restrictive abortion measures have not received a hearing in that chamber.

House Democrats have repeatedly argued that by bottling up the bills, the GOP is trying to protect its members in swing districts from taking a difficult vote.

FOREIGN LAND OWNERSHIP

In a win for Youngkin, a Republican senator’s bill that would prohibit foreign adversaries, including China, from purchasing or otherwise acquiring agricultural land in the state cleared that chamber on a bipartisan basis. Youngkin, who has been increasingly outspoken against the threat China poses, asked for such a bill in his State of the Commonwealth speech last month.

The measure passed Monday on a 23-16 vote.

GUN LAWS

Advocates on both sides of the issue expect little movement on gun laws. Several Senate priorities have already died in the House. The House has advanced gun-rights bills likely to be defeated, along with a bill toughening penalties for firearms-related offenses, but such measures also usually receive a chilly reception in the Senate.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Senate Democrats have defeated GOP-sponsored efforts to decouple Virginia from California’s stringent rules for vehicle emissions. They have also voted down a Republican senator’s bill that would withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade program.

Both issues are priorities for environmental groups and opposed by Youngkin, who has pledged to find another way to leave RGGI if lawmakers won’t come along.

Now awaiting a vote in the Senate is a measure from GOP Del. Israel O’Quinn that aims to protect the availability of natural gas at a time when some local governments around the U.S. are moving in the opposite direction. O’Quinn’s bill would also prohibit public entities from denying building permits solely based on a proposed utility provider. A similar effort was unsuccessful last year.

GAMBLING

Virginia lawmakers opened the door for a wide range of gambling interests in recent years and have taken up a variety of relevant bills this session.

Still unsettled is a question about whether Petersburg will get a chance to open the state’s fifth casino after Richmond voters previously rejected a proposal to host one. The issue could ultimately come down to budget language, as it did last year.

Another measure, which aimed to legalize and regulate so-called skill games, electronic games similar to slot machines that have proliferated in retail establishments, has been defeated.

GAY MARRIAGE

Virginia’s U.S senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are among those urging lawmakers to act this year to repeal a now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.

In a bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a resolution Monday that would start that process. A similar GOP-sponsored resolution in the House never received a hearing. Gilbert said his chamber wanted to see what emerged from the Senate.

“We had a lot of people with a lot of ideas about how we should change the constitution, and we just decided to wait and see,” Gilbert said.

TRANSGENDER RIGHTS

The House of Delegates passed two measures Tuesday dealing with transgender students. One would require that athletics participation be based on a student’s biological sex as indicated on paperwork from a physical by a medical practitioner. The other would require parental notification if a child sought to identify by a gender other than their biological sex.

Del. Danica Roem, who is transgender, raised concerns during a debate Monday that the measure would lead to the forced outing of children to parents who may not be supportive, something she argued could lead to abuse or homelessness.

“You have no idea the harm you’re causing,” she said.

The bill’s sponsor, Dave LaRock, said the bill was intended to protect children and keep parents informed, not to take a position on whether or not a child should go through a gender transition.

The measures now go to the Senate, which has already voted down similar athletics bills.


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