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The General Assembly, now under Democratic control, is backing sweeping changes on issues ranging from cellphones to cigarettes and from gaming to guns.
Here’s an update on where 30 Virginia issues stand ahead of crossover, the 60-day session’s procedural midpoint. Tuesday is the deadline for the House and Senate to finish work on their own bills so surviving measures can cross over to the other chamber for consideration.
Legislators voted to roll back a number of abortion regulations, including the mandatory 24-hour waiting period, the required ultrasound and the requirement that the woman be given certain printed materials before she could undergo the procedure.
Gov. Ralph Northam wants to end the state’s annual vehicle inspection program to save Virginians money, but the Senate is flatly opposed and the House has proposed to cut back the requirement from annual inspections to every other year.
Democrats will have their first shot at shaping a state budget to take effect July 1 and extend through June 30, 2022. Both chambers also will act on proposed changes to the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Each chamber must act on its own versions of the budgets by Feb. 20.
It’s anyone’s bet what the final bills will look like, but both chambers are moving to legalize casinos in five cities — Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol. Richmond would be able to choose a casino operator, with some preference to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and Colonial Downs Group, as well as consideration of minority investment and ownership.
Colonial Downs would be compensated with up to 2,500 additional gaming terminals — including up to 1,800 in Dumfries in Prince William County — for the potential loss of almost half of its revenue from existing Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums in Richmond, at the company’s reopened horse track in New Kent County, in Hampton and in Roanoke County.
Both chambers have passed bills to ban holding a phone while driving, going further than the current law, which outlaws typing text or numbers into a phone while driving. Legislators have called the current law unenforceable because drivers could still scroll through Facebook or other apps. The newly approved bills carry a $125 fine for a first offense and a $250 fine for a subsequent violation or a violation in a highway work zone.
Northam wants to double the state cigarette tax from 30 to 60 cents a pack and increase the state excise tax on other tobacco products. The proposed tax increases would raise about $250 million in his proposed two-year budget to pay for initiatives to lower health insurance premiums. Separately, bills are going through both chambers to give counties the same powers as cities and towns to impose local taxes on cigarettes, as well as meals, admissions and lodgings. The Senate version would cap all local cigarette taxes at 40 cents a pack, while grandfathering in higher tax rates that cities and towns already impose. The House bill does not include a local cap.
Virginia is one of three states that don’t allow public sector employees to bargain collectively. The House has backed a measure to remove the state from that list and allow public employees to do so, but a different version in the Senate would let each locality decide — leaving the future of the full repeal in question.
The House and Senate are scheduled to vote by Tuesday on allowing localities to decide the fate of Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions, a measure that’s likely to pass. The future of Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol also is yet to be decided.
A Senate panel put off for a year a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Virginia. Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976, only Texas, with more than 500 executions, has put more people to death than Virginia, at 113. No one has received a death sentence in Virginia since 2011.
Driver’s license suspensions
Legislation to permanently end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fines cleared the Senate and House, after a temporary measure last year helped restore thousands of suspended licenses.
The legislature is poised to prohibit students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct for actions in school. Whether the revised Standards of Quality prescribed by the Virginia Board of Education will be fully funded — a major issue for education activists — is to be determined.
In higher education, the House and Senate punted on letting student-athletes earn compensation that results from the use of their name, image or likeness.
Democrats are making a push to boost clean energy in Virginia, backing proposals to widen the door for private and utility-owned solar projects and supporting offshore wind development. Both chambers also are working on measures to boost oversight over the state’s utilities — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. The measures could dictate how quickly the utilities roll out clean-energy projects and how they go about charging customers for electric development.
Amid much fanfare, the House and Senate backed measures to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Virginia is the 38th state to do so. Supporters say that crosses the required ratification threshold — three-fourths of the states — to add it to the U.S. Constitution. The state, under the leadership of Attorney General Mark Herring, will challenge the Trump administration’s assertion that it is too late to ratify the ERA because the congressional deadline passed in 1982.
Thousands of electronic “skill games” could disappear from restaurants and stores across the state under legislation in both chambers to ban the devices, which have been operating without regulation or taxation. The assembly also is poised to legalize sports betting and allow the Virginia Lottery to sell its game tickets over the internet, while giving more freedom to charitable gaming operations.
A bill aimed at strengthening the rights of family and friends to visit their loved ones under guardianship died in a House subcommittee. A Senate bill that would prohibit a court from appointing the attorney representing the person or entity bringing a guardianship petition from also being appointed that person’s guardian — unless for a good cause — passed out of committee. The Senate bill was introduced in response to a Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation that revealed that three attorneys who represented VCU Health System in guardianship cases were also routinely being appointed the guardians for the hospital’s incapacitated patients.
Following a rally that brought an estimated 22,000 gun-rights supporters to the state Capitol, both chambers have passed most of the eight gun control measures that Northam is backing. These include universal background checks, a “red flag” law to allow temporary removal of firearms from someone who poses a danger to himself or others, and restoration of the one-handgun-a-month law.
The House and a Senate panel have backed measures that would require a gun owner to swiftly report to authorities that the weapon has been lost or stolen.
A Senate panel rejected its version of a Northam-backed bill to raise the penalty for “recklessly” leaving a firearm near a minor, while the House passed a similar bill.
A House panel on Friday backed perhaps the most controversial of Northam’s gun bills, a revised ban on assault-style weapons. It would no longer require people who currently own such weapons to register them with state police. There is no Senate version of the assault weapons bill.
More than a decade after adoption of the Affordable Care Act, Virginia is poised to create its own health insurance exchange instead of relying on the federal marketplace for people to buy health insurance with federal subsidies for monthly premiums and out-of-pocket costs, depending on their income. The Senate has already passed its version of legislation to establish the health exchange at the State Corporation Commission Bureau of Insurance.
Bills to ban housing discrimination based on gender identity and to protect low-income residents in precarious housing situations are moving through the General Assembly. Notably, the Senate passed a bill backed by Richmond advocates that would require that public housing residents be notified 12 months before the demolition of their neighborhoods.
Virginia is set to become the first Southern state with comprehensive laws outlawing LGBTQ discrimination. Both bodies passed the Virginia Values Act, which would prohibit discrimination in public and private employment, and housing, among other things, based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Northam has expressed support for the legislation.
Democratic lawmakers are moving ahead with Northam-backed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Marijuana would remain an illegal substance, but possession of small amounts soon could no longer result in jail time. Instead, the state would levy a civil fine of under $50. Lawmakers also are moving ahead with plans to study legalization.
The House and Senate are working through proposals that aim to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour. Democrats are beginning to align behind legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, and to tie it to inflation thereafter. How quickly depends on the proposal, but one House bill would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by the end of the year.
A bill to help the financing of the Navy Hill project in Richmond, which centers on a new arena, was killed, revived and killed again, striking another blow to a redevelopment plan the City Council is expected to vote down Monday.
A bill capping the interest rate for short-term loans, such as payday loans and title lending, has cleared the House. It is among a number of measures meant to hamper an industry many consumer advocates see as predatory on low-income people.
As newly empowered Democrats debate how to redraw legislative and congressional districts in 2021, a proposed constitutional amendment that was widely supported by Democrats last year now has waning support among some House Democrats.
While the amendment has broad support in the Senate, the House is considering two different approaches to create a bipartisan 16-member commission of eight legislators and eight private individuals. One would do so via the constitutional amendment. The other would do so not via an amendment, but through a bill that includes language to ensure that the commission reflects the state’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.
Right to work
A proposed repeal of the state’s right-to-work law, under which employees can work in unionized workplaces without joining the union or paying regular union dues, is still on the table. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership, however, estimates that the state would lose $9 million to $25 million in state general fund revenue per year just from business projects the agency is working on. Northam has signaled his opposition to repeal.
Northam wants to require all passengers to wear seat belts and to let law enforcement enforce the mandatory seat belt law as a primary offense, meaning an officer could pull over a driver for that reason alone. So far, the Senate doesn’t like the idea of making it a primary offense, but the House does.
The term of State Corporation Commission Judge Patricia West expired on Jan. 31 without the General Assembly electing a replacement. That’s likely to change after crossover, when the Democratic majority will be able to fill the seat vacated by West, a politically well-connected former Virginia Beach judge and former chief deputy attorney general whom Republicans elected last year.
The Senate passed a bill to create a 17-member commission on school construction and modernization as school facilities across the state continue to age. Other efforts — notably one to have a statewide referendum on whether the state should take out $3 billion in bonds in the name of improving school facilities — were killed.
Northam supports a 12-cent increase in the state gas tax over the next three years and to then peg the price to the Consumer Price Index. The governor says the tax increase is necessary to stabilize dwindling fuel tax revenues that are tied to the wholesale price of fuel.
The new revenues would pay for a sweeping plan to improve passenger rail and public transit, as well as highway construction and maintenance. Separately, the House has approved legislation to create a central Virginia transportation authority and impose regional fuel and sales taxes on nine localities in the Richmond area to pay for priority transportation projects in the region.
Election Day is set to become a state holiday as both chambers approved scrapping Lee-Jackson Day in favor of Election Day on the state calendar. The legislature also has backed no-excuse absentee voting and a repeal of the state’s photo ID law.
After nearly five years of discussion and study, legislation to legalize and regulate Airbnb and other short-term rentals in Richmond heads to the City Council on Monday, but a group of the rental operators in the city is hoping to delay the vote.
The core issue is an amendment requiring Airbnb operators to live in their short-term rental property at least 185 days a year, or just over half the year. The amendment would effectively prohibit anyone offering more than one property for short-term rentals.
“The primary point we take issue with is that the city has created what we feel is an arbitrary rule that the property be a principle property,” said Tyler Rackley, a Richmond-based real estate broker whose company manages eight short-term rental properties. “We do want regulations. We don’t want improperly run short-term rentals.”
Rackley has become the de facto spokesman for a group of short-term rental operators who have been organizing via email in the weeks leading up the council vote. Rackley said his group represents about 200 short-term rental operators in Richmond, the majority of whom do not live in the properties they list on websites like Airbnb.
According to Airbnb, there are about 1,200 short-term rentals in the city of Richmond on its website, though Rackley estimates the active listings on any platform to be closer to 800.
All of them are illegal in the city. City code prohibits residential rentals for fewer than 30 days, effectively outlawing short-term rentals. But their existence and proliferation isn’t a secret to anyone — including city leaders and the departments tasked with enforcement.
“We are not going out looking for short-term rentals,” Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director, said last year, adding the city investigates only in the rare cases that it receives a complaint.
Airbnb listings in Richmond have been around for years. There were 434 listed five years ago, according to a city report from 2015, which is when Richmond first began studying the issue.
City officials — including then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones and council members — championed the idea of making them legal ahead of the UCI Road World Championships, which took place in Richmond in September 2015. But the city failed to complete its official report until a month after the international bike race concluded.
For two years after that, Virginia localities waited to pass regulation while the General Assembly debated the issue, only for lawmakers to kick it back to the localities in 2017 to decide for themselves.
Another two years went by with no movement in Richmond, until the city drafted short-term zoning regulations — a sort of rough draft — in early 2019 and held a series of public meetings to hear what people thought of them.
Rackley said he and members of his group participated in the meetings and were vocal about their opposition and concern over owner-occupancy rules as part of the legislation.
Rackley said short-term rental operators didn’t learn that a 185-day occupancy rule was part of the final draft of the proposed ordinance until it was posted to the city’s website in December. The ordinance was initially scheduled to go before the council on Jan. 13, with a review by the Richmond Planning Commission scheduled the week before.
Laura Lee Garrett, an Airbnb host who is an attorney with Hirschler Fleischer specializing in commercial real estate law, said it was clear at the planning commission meeting that some city officials who didn’t understand the nuances of the regulations or short-term rentals in general.
“The planning meeting lasted six hours. There was obvious confusion,” Garrett said.
From the planning commission video summary, it seemed dozens of Airbnb operators showed up at the meeting to express their concern over the 185-day rule, as did a few residents who support the stipulation. Richmond’s Planning Commission passed the ordinance with the 185-day rule and sent it to the council, which deferred it and sent it to the Land Use Committee. That committee sent it back to the council to be considered Monday.
Last weekend, Rackley’s group hired Garrett to lobby city officials on their behalf.
“Immediately, [Rackley’s group] wants to have the paper deferred Monday night so they can work with [planning and development review staff] to get it right,” Garrett said. “If you’re trying to make sure the property is well-maintained, [the 185-day rule] is not the way.”
Garrett said her Airbnb wouldn’t be affected by the rule since hers is a duplex and she lives in the other half. The owner-occupancy rule applies only to the property, not the structure. So short-term rental operators who rent out part of a duplex or a converted garage on their property — or an enclosed treehouse — wouldn’t have any requirements to live there.
Short-term rental operators have a litany of reasons why they oppose the owner-occupancy restriction: their rights as property owners, ability to control their property, pride in being a host, and circumstances where the homeowner is traveling for work for more than half the year.
But the primary one is money.
“It does, overall, make people a little more money,” Rackley said. “Typically, you might make 10 to 30% more if it’s a short-term rental.”
Garrett puts the estimate closer to 30% and offered specifics on her property, saying she charged $2,500 a month when her duplex was a long-term, year-around rental.
On Airbnb, Garrett said the duplex brings in $6,000 a month.
The average rent in Richmond is around $1,142 a month, or $38 a night, according to rental industry websites. The average rental in Richmond is more than twice that on Airbnb, or $85 a night, according to the website. Some rent for as much as $300 to $600 a night.
During the summer, Airbnb hosts operating in Richmond made $3.8 million in collective income from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, according to data shared last year by Airbnb.
But the lure of making 30% to 50% more money and the prospect of property owners turning long-term rentals for city residents into Airbnb rentals for visitors is one of the reasons the city added the 185-day rule.
“Staff is concerned that properties are being purchased in areas where presently not permitted by zoning that could have a negative effect on the availability of long-term rental properties in the city,” Olinger, the city planning director, wrote in an emailed statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Garrett argues that the housing issues facing the city don’t have anything to do with someone making their property a short-term rental.
“There are new apartments coming online daily that are market rate,” she said. “There are not affordable units coming on the market.”
Affordable housing shortages are an issue, Garrett said, but that won’t be solved by barring property owners from turning a $2,200-a-month rental into a $200-a-night Airbnb.
Still, Olinger said Richmond’s proposed ordinance is in line with other cities.
“We have reviewed primary residency in other cities/communities in the Commonwealth of Virginia — and elsewhere — and we are not an outlier. There are other locales in the country that have a longer period of primary residency than what’s in the Ordinance before Council,” he wrote.
If passed, the ordinance would require operators to pay a $300 registration fee every two years.
“Most people support regulations. The issue with the proposed legislation is that we think it will be difficult for the city to administer and impossible to enforce,” Garrett said.
Over 1,700 people have signed an online petition asking the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond to move The War Horse statue back to Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
“Civil War Horse” came to the museum in 1997 as a commissioned gift from philanthropist and horse breeder Paul Mellon. It memorializes the 1.5 million horses and mules killed or wounded, or those that died from disease, on both sides during the Civil War.
Since its arrival, it’s been in front of the building, near the 1912 entrance that is no longer the main entrance.
In May 2019, the horse was moved to a new platform near the museum’s current main entrance, near the parking lot off Sheppard Street. The horse statue is near the steps that connect visitors to the neighboring Virginia Museum of Fine Arts property.
“We wanted to put it where more people could see it,” said Jamie Bosket, president and CEO of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. “We moved it to our main entrance. 85% of our guests enter from the back, not the front.”
But many Richmonders weren’t pleased with the new location.
Richmond resident Rebecca D’Angelo posted a petition to Change.org in mid-December, shortly after attending the unveiling of Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” at the nearby VMFA, calling for the museum to move “Civil War Horse” back to Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
“[T]his spectacularly beautiful, bitter sweet, and well-lit horse has been moved to the parking lot as an after-thought,” D’Angelo wrote in the petition. “He has been caught in the cross-fires of yet more human drama. While it is good and high time the nation is addressing the wounds of the Civil War and Racism: this horse, though a monument to [C]ivil [W]ar horses, is truly a monument to all the beasts of burden that die doing the human race’s ugly work of war.”
Richmond developer Charlie Diradour, president of Lion’s Paw Development, attended the statue’s unveiling in 1997. A horse lover and equestrian himself, Diradour was one of the many people who signed the petition.
“As a resident of the area nearby — and as someone who believes we need more statuary not less — and as someone who believes that the Jefferson Davis monument needs to come down the day before yesterday, I think moving The War Horse statue was a huge mistake. I don’t see how it could’ve offended anyone; it honored the equine,” he said.
D’Angelo said many people believe the statue may have been moved for political reasons or due to the controversy surrounding many of the monuments in Richmond.
Bosket said that was not the case. He said moving the statue was part of the museum’s strategic plan and had been in discussion for several years.
He said there were several issues with the statue’s previous location. First off, the museum wanted to repurpose the front terrace for public programming, such as its annual BrewHaHa Craft Beer Festival and the citizenship naturalization ceremony on the Fourth of July.
Another problem was vandalism. Over the years, people had tried crawling on it, there was paint sprayed at some point and someone had broken off a piece of it, Bosket said. The museum had to erect fencing around the statue to protect it. Also, in its previous location on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, it was located in a blind spot for the museum and its security.
With the move, the museum was able to remove the fencing around the statue so that viewers can get closer to it, see its emaciated ribs and interact with it, Bosket said.
Will Lowery, a local animal rights attorney, misses how The War Horse was dramatically lit at night when it was in front of the museum on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
“I’ve admired The War Horse for many years,” said Lowery, who lives nearby and often rode his bike past the front of the museum. He especially enjoyed viewing it at night, when it would cast a long, majestic shadow on the museum.
“I would often stop and take a picture,” he said.
“The shadow that the horse cast on the building at night was just tremendous,” Diradour added.
Lowery wanted to know more about why The War Horse was moved and thought perhaps the move could have been connected to the “Rumors of War” statue.
“I wanted to see what the rationale was,” he said. “From my perspective, there is so much tension in Richmond regarding the statues.”
Because the Virginia Museum of History & Culture is a private entity and not subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Lowery requested records from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through a FOIA request.
Shortly before the statue was moved, Bosket had reached out to the VMFA, asking if it would be interested in relocating The War Horse behind the Robinson House, connecting the green space between the history museum and the art museum.
But the VMFA declined.
In a phone interview, Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director for art and education, said a statue like The War Horse “belongs in a history museum and not an art museum.”
“It was commissioned by Paul Mellon [a frequent contributor to the VMFA]. He could have given it to us, but he chose the [VMHC, formerly known as the] Virginia Historical Society,” Taylor said. “It’s about the ugliness of war. The horse is emaciated. It’s reflecting disease and death in combat. That’s the kind of message a historical society can address.”
In contrast, he said, “we have a vision for our campus and our grounds with the sculpture garden. We have the lifting, majestic beauty of Chloe, Chihuly’s Red Reeds and now Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Rumors of War.’
“There’s a monumentality, a beauty and an accessibility. It just didn’t fit our narrative and where we’re going.”
D’Angelo said she thinks The War Horse will make an even more powerful statement on Arthur Ashe Boulevard with the addition of “Rumors of War.”
“Imagine ... how stunning to lie eyes on The War Horse and his sacrifices, then drive by Rumors of War by Kehinde Wiley, that honors the sacrifices of the enslaved Africans,” she wrote in the petition.
She is hoping to reach 5,000 signatures before submitting the petition to the VMHC.
Bosket said the museum does not have any plans to move The War Horse.
“Nothing is ever off the table,” Bosket added. “But I think if people knew the full story, they’d feel far more comfortable with the move.”