Newly empowered Virginia Democrats promise 'action' on litany of issues

Democrats have laid out an ambitious agenda that includes gun control, criminal justice, abortion, minimum wage and anti-discrimination measures.
Image: Virginia House of Delegates speaker-designate Eileen Filler-Corn, left, speaks during remarks on the legislative agenda at the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 7, 2020.
Virginia House of Delegates speaker-designate Eileen Filler-Corn, left, speaks during remarks on the legislative agenda at the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 7, 2020.Steve Helber / AP

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By Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A historically diverse Virginia General Assembly is set to convene Wednesday, led for the first time in more than two decades by Democrats who are promising to enact a litany of changes.

“Voters demanded action, and they have called for a legislature that works for them. And this session, they will get exactly that," House Speaker-elect Eileen Filler-Corn said at a press conference Tuesday with Gov. Ralph Northam and other legislative leaders.

In the weeks since Democrats retook control of the state House and Senate, they have laid out an ambitious agenda. It includes high-profile issues Republicans thwarted for years, including gun control measures and criminal justice reforms. They also have pledged to ease restrictions on abortion access, raise the minimum wage, prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community and make Virginia the next state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

During the 60-day legislative sessions, lawmakers will also be tasked with passing a two-year state budget.

Northam noted Tuesday that the lawmakers who will convene Wednesday will be a more diverse group than in years past.

“When you look out at our General Assembly members, they will much more reflect our society, and that’s something we should all be proud of," he said.

Mirroring a national trend, women have made significant gains in a chamber dominated for centuries by men. Filler-Corn will be the first woman to serve in the powerful House speaker role.

“What we will do this session ... will not surprise anybody. These are long overdue measures that are supported by a vast majority of Virginians," she said.

Republicans have cast Democrats' agenda as extreme, saying it would bring Virginia in line with liberal California or New York. They've promised to look for ways to hold the majority accountable, keep Virginia business friendly and exercise fiscal restraint.

Here's a look at some top issues legislators will take up this year:

Guns

Likely the most prominent debate this year will be on gun control, an area where Democrats have promised significant changes. Some of the new restrictions they want include universal background checks, banning assault weapons and passing a red-flag law to allow the temporary removal of guns from someone who is deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.

Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance. Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand that officials establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.

Equal Rights Amendment

Virginia is poised to become the decisive 38th state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, a gender equality measure. Amendments are added to the U.S. Constitution if they are approved by three-quarters of state legislatures. The state's anticipated approval of the amendment would put the ERA over that threshold.

But the process is likely to hit some snags. One of the biggest is a measure passed by Congress in 1972, attaching a 1977 ratification deadline to it. That was later extended to 1982.

Criminal justice reform

Northam, a Democrat, is promising sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice reforms that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver’s licenses are suspended.

The proposed criminal justice overhaul is also part of Northam’s bigger push to address longstanding racial disparities in a state that was once capital of the Confederacy. The governor has rebounded after nearly being forced from office last year over a scandal involving blackface and has prioritized efforts to promote racial justice in a number of areas.

Minimum wage

Democrats have pledged to try to more than double the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. But just how fast they will raise it and what kind of businesses and occupations should be exempt from the new wage floor haven't not been worked out.

Business groups have urged lawmakers to tread carefully and not disturb the state's business-friendly image.

Casinos

Gambling-related issues are set to be one of the hottest topics at the state Capitol. Lawmakers will decide whether to legalize online sports betting and regulate betting machines that have proliferated in convenience stores in recent years.

But the biggest focus will be on casinos. Virginia is one of only a handful of states that forbid any type of casinos, but it has been inching toward legalizing them in recent years. Lawmakers will decide whether to not only legalize casinos but also set limits on how many the state will have, where they will go and who will run them.