Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outlined Wednesday evening his top proposals for his final year in office in his annual State of the Commonwealth address.
Calls for unity and generosity amid the coronavirus pandemic were uppermost in Mr. Northam’s speech, as the Democratic governor urged patience and vowed to expedite the state’s roll out of the vaccine.
“While we have just come through a tough year that brought everyone pain and sacrifice, I’ve seen something remarkable over and over again. I have seen you taking care of one another,” he said.
Several of his proposals touched on the Democrats’ focus on criminal justice, including legalizing recreational marijuana, abolishing the death penalty and beginning the state constitutional amendment process to allow automatic restoration of certain civil rights — like voting — to former convicts.
Mr. Northam also proposed a permanent pay raise for teachers by more than 2% and broadband expansion as lessons to take away from the pandemic.
Virginia lawmakers kicked off their legislative session Wednesday by juggling the severity of the coronavirus pandemic with their ambitious goals.
Typically filled with pomp and circumstance, opening day of the General Assembly was subdued as lawmakers reworked how they will govern this session and mourned the loss of the late Sen. Ben Chafin.
His desk, draped in a black cloth and adorned with roses, marked a somber reminder of the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Chafin, 60, died New Year’s Day from COVID-19 complications after being hospitalized.
“Ben was a shining example of a wonderful gentleman who always found the best in anyone he talked to,” said Sen. John Cosgrove, Chesapeake Republican. “I hope that we will all remember Ben as the gentleman and wonderful person he actually was.”
Both chambers are taking steps to follow safety protocols in light of the pandemic: The House is meeting virtually, while the Senate is convening in a conference area at the Science Museum of Virginia, where senators can social distance.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Fairfax County Democrat, acknowledged the impact that coronavirus precautions had on the session and called for unity as lawmakers got to work.
“I know all of us here, wish that we could meet in person. But as COVID-19 infections continue to rise, meeting virtually keeps those of us in this body, and the communities — all of our communities across the Commonwealth — safer,” Ms. Filler-Corn said.
Much of the day involved procedural work, setting up the rules for what is still an undetermined session length.
Typically, odd-numbered years are routinely extended to 45 days, but Republicans moved to restrict the current session to 30 days, arguing it would be enough time to focus on the pandemic and the economy since they met for a special session last year.
The 30-day session stands for now, though Democrats could have Mr. Northam extend their time by calling a special session.
“My colleagues on the other side have their own agenda that goes well beyond the pandemic,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, Page County Republican, noting the Democrats’ push to legalize recreational marijuana.
Democrats slammed the move, saying Republicans were being callous as lawmakers have a long list of items on their agenda.
“Businesses are hurting, and our Republican colleagues want to work less,” said Delegate Alfonso Lopez, Arlington County Democrat. “If Republicans have a better place to be they should let the rest of us do our job.”
House Democrats on Tuesday announced their goals, which include expanding financial aid to families and paid sick leave, investing $200 million for the vaccine roll-out, boosting teacher pay and funds for school counselors, and backing the governor’s marijuana legalization push.
The Virginia Black Caucus released its own agenda Wednesday, highlighting its plans to invest in historically Black colleges and universities, request racial impact statements for new bills and declare racism a public health crisis.
One of the caucus’ top priorities will be social and criminal justice reforms. The list of proposals includes an effort to rein in qualified immunity legal protections for police officers, require the release of body camera footage, end solitary confinement and abolish the death penalty.
Lawmakers are set to clash on voter and election proposals this session as Republicans seek to reinstate voter ID requirements, and Democrats aim to make some virus-related changes easing regulations permanently.