Changes in Virginia: What Democratic lawmakers say they’ll do with control of legislature

Republicans voice concern, question Democrats’ civility

ROANOKE, Va. – Along with the new year, it will also be a new era in Virginia politics in 2020.

Democratic lawmakers will have control of both houses of the commonwealth's General Assembly when the session starts next week.

Senators and delegates are making the final adjustments to their plans ahead of discussions on numerous topics, which include gun rights, taxes, education and transportation funding, health care changes and more.

Virginia Democrats are soaring into the new session, eager to engineer change.

“I’m very excited,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, a longtime leader in the Senate. “I think we can get a lot done. There are a lot of things that need to be done that haven’t been done in a long time.”

Sen. Steve Newman, a Republican Senate leader representing the Lynchburg area, has a warning. He’s worried Democrats won’t cooperate and won’t be civil -- two descriptions that have described Virginia’s Senate for generations in often otherwise combative political times.

“With that control comes enormous responsibility,” Newman said. “I’m very, very concerned. This is the first year that I’m starting to hear some very radical things come out of some of the proposals.”

He’s worried the commonwealth will shift dramatically to the political left.

That includes the gun rights debate, which has been heated, with demonstrations from both pro-gun rights activists and their opponents happening all around the state in the last few months. Nearly 100 Virginia localities have stated formal opposition to potential new gun laws, declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.

Democrats want to pass a number of gun control measures.

“Nobody’s Second Amendment rights will be infringed upon. I can assure you of that,” Edwards said.

Newman disagrees. He said Republicans will look for some Democrats to take their side, as some in the Senate have in the past, and he called out Edwards by name.

“We’re going to be looking to those members, for instance, like John Edwards, is he willing to be reasonable about guns?” Newman said.

10 News brought that question to Edwards.

“Senator Newman knows me and I think he knows I’m reasonable,” Edwards said. “We disagree on some things, but we’ve worked together on a personal basis very well for a long time.”

One clash is over a proposed ban on so-called “assault weapons.”

“I’m very concerned about our state police officers and other law enforcement officers if they’re asked to enforce what could be unconstitutional laws,” Newman said.

Republicans are worried officers would have to go door-to-door to take guns. Democrats say that won’t happen.

“They’ll be grandfathered (in) for one thing. Secondly, nobody’s going to break into somebody’s house,” Edwards said.

The Democrats’ idea is for anyone who has a weapon that falls into that category to be able to keep it if they register it.

On guns and other issues, Democrats say change is needed.

“It’s time to bring Virginia into the 21st century, and I think Democrats are going to do just that,” Edwards said.

For the first time since the early 1990s, Democrats will have control of all three aspects of government in Richmond -- the governor’s mansion, the House of Delegates and the Senate.

They’re also eyeing an increase in tax revenue.

Under Democratic proposals, a higher tobacco tax will go toward a health care initiative, an increased gas tax will be funneled toward road improvements and, overall, there will be more money for education.

Edwards said that while upping taxes might not be popular, it’s necessary.

“I think we do need to raise taxes to make sure they go to the infrastructure of our economy,” he said.

Republican leaders oppose most if not all of the tax increases and say, under the budget outlined by Gov. Ralph Northam, they total about a billion dollars.

“Virginians could see not only the largest tax increase in Virginia’s history but one that would really go after working Virginians,” Newman said.

Gas tax increases have drawn criticism for years. Local Democrats say rural roads need state funding. Local Republicans feel that Virginia needs to find another way to pay for improvements.

On health care, the parties have argued over one specific part of Medicaid expansion, passed last year, requiring recipients to work. Democrats say they want to get rid of that this session.

One spot for agreement could come on the topic of education.

Democrats want to further increase K-12 funding, including raises for teachers. Republican leaders say they’re on board, and Newman says he specifically likes that there’s a focus on low-income areas.

“We will be glad to work with the governor on making sure that our schools are the best that they can be,” he said.

Democratic proposals include more than half a billion dollars more in funding from the state.

“I think there are a lot of things we can work together on. I expect that’ll happen,” Edwards said.

Equal rights is also expected to be a topic for Virginia lawmakers.

Democrats will try again to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which has also been proposed since the 1920s for the U.S. Constitution.

It aims to solidify equality based on gender. Democratic leaders expect it to become law in 2020.

“I think the ERA will pass very quickly. We have the votes in both houses,” Edwards said.

Democratic leaders also hope to pass legislation that would protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination.

The legislative session starts Jan. 8 at the state capitol in Richmond.

10 News will be there to report on what lawmakers are saying about the changes that could be affecting Virginians in 2020.