They ran on making Virginia safer and more equitable.
Now, the bills that the Democrats who gained control of the General Assembly last year passed during this winter’s legislative session are set to take effect Wednesday, and the new laws are sure to make the state more progressive.
Aside from the slate of gun control measures that were at the top of the Democratic majority’s list, the group — younger and more diverse than past Virginia legislatures — had the votes they needed to make big changes to the state’s voting, criminal justice and anti-discrimination laws, to name a few. They also had the support of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Most of the hundreds of new laws are opposed by Republicans in the minority, who have said the measures will be costly for businesses and taxpayers and will make Virginia less safe.
“Democrats like to say that elections have consequences. They’re right, and unfortunately for businesses and families, those consequences are about to become crystal clear,” Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said at the end of session in March.
Nearly 1,300 bills were approved by Northam after lawmakers’ short time in Richmond earlier this year, but Democrats say they’re far from done. They’ll have more largely liberal legislation — which includes bills related to police accountability — when they meet in August for the special session.
For now, here are a few laws affecting Virgnians that’ll be in place starting Wednesday:
Virginians won’t need a photo ID to cast a ballot starting at the November election, just a document that confirms identity, which can include a utility bill, bank statement or other documents specified in the law. And they won’t need an excuse to vote absentee. People will automatically be registered to vote when they do a transaction at the DMV, and Election Day in November will be a state holiday. Democrats say these measures will make it easier to vote, and Republicans believe it’ll lead to widespread voter fraud, despite no evidence of that happening.
The requirement that women get an ultrasound before an abortion to determine the fetus’ gestational age is disappearing, as is the requirement that a woman wait 24 hours after the ultrasound to get the abortion. A woman will also no longer be required to be offered an ultrasound image and the opportunity to hear the fetal heartbeat. Backers of such laws say these measures are critical for a woman’s health, but abortion-rights advocates say they make it harder for women to get abortions.
A new bill prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in the areas of housing, public and private employment, public accommodations and access to credit. Another bill bans conversion therapy — a controversial practice that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — and another clarifies that racial discrimination includes any bias due to hair texture or hair type. School boards must also create policies about the treatment of transgender students. And workers have new protections against pregnancy discrimination.
Getting caught with an ounce or less of marijuana will no longer land you in jail. Lawmakers made the penalty a $25 civil fine, akin to a parking ticket. The amount that makes a theft a felony has increased from $500 to $1,000. People will no longer have their driver’s license taken away if they can’t pay court fines. And lawmakers increased the age at which a juvenile is automatically tried as an adult for murder, from 14 to 16.
Online sports betting will be legal starting Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean you can make a wager right away: The platforms on which to do the betting still have to be approved by the Virginia Lottery Board. The board estimates sports betting will be available in December. And there will be a tax on so-called “games of skill” — slot-like machines found in convenience stores, bars and truck stops — for a year, with most of the revenue going to a statewide COVID-19 relief fund for businesses.
Localities will get to decide what they want to do with their war memorials. Local governments must hold a public hearing before moving one. Several localities, including Virginia Beach and Portsmouth, are already having discussions and scheduling public hearings. Norfolk was planning a hearing, but after some gatherings at monuments elsewhere turned violent, the city decided to move its monument before the new law took effect.
In-state tuition will be offered to undocumented students with the passage of Del. Alfonso Lopez’ Dream Act. School principals will no longer be required to report to police students who commit misdemeanors on school property. Students can also no longer be charged for disorderly conduct if it occurred on school property.
Energy and environment
The Virginia Clean Economy Act outlines a way for the state to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2045, and requires Dominion Energy and American Electric Power to retire their fossil fuel plants and replace them with solar or wind-powered energy, and creates a new program to reduce the energy burden on low-income customers. A Division of Offshore Wind will also be created to help Hampton Roads become an offshore wind hub. And a 27-member Council on Environmental Justice was formed to recommend environmental policies that focus on equality and equity.
The statewide gas tax is going up by five cents, but vehicle registration fees are going down by $10. The $64 annual fee for all-electric and alternative fuel vehicles is going away, but there’s a new highway use fee that is tiered based on the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, and that’s expected to be $19 in the first year for most vehicles.
The tax on tobacco products is doubling, from 30 cents per pack to 60 cents. And for the first time, liquid nicotine products will be taxed at a rate of 6.6 cents per milliliter of liquid nicotine.
Marie Albiges, 757-247-4962, firstname.lastname@example.org