RICHMOND, Va. – Democratic legislators in Virginia have dramatically reshaped the state in two months, sweeping aside many of the state’s old business-friendly and socially conservative laws and replacing them with a broad, progressive policy agenda.
Lawmakers wrapped up this year's session Sunday — apart from passing the state budget — after advancing the South's strictest gun laws, broadest LGBTQ protections and some of its loosest abortion restrictions. Democrats had not had full control of the legislature for more than two decades, and their years of pent-up frustrations yielded one of the most consequential sessions in Virginia's history.
“In November, voters called for swift, impactful action to make their communities safer and more prosperous. We have delivered,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said.
But many Republicans said Democrats had advanced a liberal agenda beyond what the average voter supports while trampling on Virginia's pro-business reputation.
“I think it’s been a fairly devastating year for people that are in rural Virginia,” said Sen. Steve Newman, a Republican who has served in the legislature since the early 1990's. “It’s not just the high-profile items, but it’s just how deep the far left has reached into the code of Virginia.”
An astonishingly large list of topics were covered, with high-profile legislation advancing to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's desk almost daily. Marijuana was decriminalized, insulin prices capped, and voter ID requirements repealed.
One immediate priority of Democrats, making Virginia the critical 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was quickly dispatched in January to the delight of women's rights advocates, some of whom had worked on the issue for decades.
Virginia briefly became the epicenter of the nation's gun debate, as tens of thousands of gun owners from around the country took over Capitol Square in January to protest Democrats' aggressive gun-control push.
Long disproportionately made up of white men, the legislature was led by Filler-Corn, the first female House speaker, and had the highest number of African Americans in leadership positions in Virginia's 400-year history.
Black lawmakers sponsored measures that raise the minimum wage, make it easier to vote, repeal decades-old racist language in state code, cap the interest rates on payday loans and make it easier for struggling tenants to avoid evictions.
“We've never had this kind of success,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “We haven't had as many bills. And we haven't had this many significantly important bills.”
On criminal justice reform, lawmakers succeeded in raising the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000 and ending the suspension of driver’s licenses over court fines and fees. But several other measures died, including a proposal to legalize marijuana.
Lawmakers tackled several issues of statewide impact.
State regulators have said a sweeping renewable energy bill that will make Virginia a national leader on addressing climate change is expected to significantly increase the average customer's electricity bills. And lawmakers agreed to increase the gas tax to help alleviate some of Virginia's notorious traffic problems.
Lawmakers also passed several measures to expand gambling in Virginia, including legalizing casinos, after special interests spent heavily on campaign contributions and lobbyists.
Democrats had plenty of growing pains in their first year in charge, and deep divisions within the party were exposed. Moderate senators complained the more liberal House was rushing through too many big-ticket items. But some House members and others said the new Democratic majority hadn't lived up to its campaign promises.
“When push comes to shove, they give us, like, crumbs,” said Reuben Chavez, a delivery driver from northern Virginia.
He was escorted out of the Senate gallery by police Saturday for yelling “shame” when lawmakers voted not to allow undocumented immigrants to get normal driver's licenses, but instead created a special new category of IDs called a driver privilege card.
The Senate won out in several fights, insisting on more moderate versions of high-profile legislation. A plan to hike the minimum wage to $15 an hour is more gradual and has broader exemptions than what the House wanted, and a public sector collective bargaining measure is far more limited than what the House initially passed.
The Senate also watered down almost all of Northam's package of gun-control laws and outright rejected his proposed ban on the sale of assault weapons.
A fight over redistricting reform was particularly caustic in the House Democratic caucus. Black lawmakers pleaded unsuccessfully with their colleagues not to support a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission, saying it could hurt minority influence in drawing future legislative and Congressional lines.
Lawmakers delayed action on passing a $135 billion two-year state budget in large part over a fight about whether to fund a college tuition freeze. They planned to pass a final budget on Thursday and then return in April to take up the governor's proposed amendments and vetoes.