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A roundup of new Virginia laws taking effect at the start of July

Gun control, fuel taxes, marijuana decriminalization, Equal Rights Amendment, and more
Hundreds of new laws go into effect on July 1st.
Hundreds of new laws go into effect on July 1st.(WHSV)
Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 6:17 PM EDT
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Each year, many of the bills passed by Virginia’s General Assembly and signed into law by the governor are set to take effect on July 1.

In 2020, Democrats had control of the House of Delegates, Senate, and the governor’s mansion for the first time in decades of Virginia history, and the new Democratic majority wasted little time getting a sweeping array of legislative priorities passed.

Many of those bills, signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam, officially go into effect this coming Wednesday, July 1: the same day Virginia starts Phase 3 of Northam’s ‘Forward Virginia’ reopening plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest that may affect your daily life or the lives of your family and friends:

EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT

Virginia lawmakers made history very early in 2020 by becoming the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The ERA was initially proposed in Congress in 1923 and passed in 1972. Its first section reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Advocates say the measure would enshrine equality for women in the Constitution, offering stronger protections in sex discrimination cases. They also argue the ERA would give Congress firmer ground to pass anti-discrimination laws.

Opponents warn it would erode commonsense protections for women, such as workplace accommodations during pregnancy. They also worry it could be used by abortion-rights supporters to quash abortion restrictions on the grounds they discriminate against women.

Despite Virginia’s passage of the law, the U.S. Justice Department issued a legal memo concluding that because the deadline has expired, it is too late for states to ratify the ERA. The only option for supporters now is to begin the ratification process all over again in Congress, the department said.

But Virginia is working through a process to fight that in court.

GUN CONTROL

The General Assembly passed and Governor Northam approved a set of gun control bills this year, including ones to enact an Extreme Risk Protective Order, require background checks on all gun sales, mandate reporting of lost and stolen firearms, increase the penalty for leaving firearms within the access of children, and reinstate Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month policy.

They include:

  • Senate Bill 70 and House Bill 2, which establish universal background checks in Virginia
  • Senate Bill 240 and House Bill 674, which establish an Extreme Risk Protective Order, allowing authorities to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others
  • Senate Bill 69 and House Bill 812, which reinstate Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law
  • House Bill 9, which requires gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours or face a civil penalty.
  • House Bill 1083, which toughens the penalty for leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm in a reckless manner that endangers a child
  • Senate Bill 35, which gives local governments more authority to ban guns in public spaces, like public buildings, parks, recreation centers, and during permitted events
  • Senate Bill 479, which bars people with protective orders against them from possessing firearms and require them to turn over their guns within 24 hours

Virginia became the epicenter of the nation’s gun debate after Democrats took full control of the General Assembly in 2019 on an aggressive gun control platform, with many campaigning on the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.

Tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from across the country flooded the state Capitol and surrounding area in protest near the start of the General Assembly session, some donning tactical gear and carrying military-style rifles, to rally against proposed gun legislation.

LEE-JACKSON DAY NO LONGER A STATE HOLIDAY

The commonwealth of Virginia will no longer recognize Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday, in favor of making Election Day one instead.

Lee-Jackson Day, established over 100 years ago, was observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday in January, which, in effect, made it the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the past, before the holiday was moved, it shared the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both native Virginians.

The holiday was initially created to celebrate Lee's birthday, which was on January 19.

In the Virginia code, both men were noted as “defenders of causes.”

State offices in Virginia have historically been closed for both holidays. Celebrations include a wreath-laying ceremony, a Civil War themed parade, a gala ball, and in some places, Confederate flags placed on the graves of dead soldiers.

However, Virginia cities such as Richmond, Fredericksburg, Blacksburg, Newport News, Hampton, Winchester, Fairfax and Charlottesville have decided in recent years to not officially observe the holiday.

Officials have defended the day as a celebration of history, while critics view it as a celebration of the state’s slave-holding history that’s offensive to African Americans.

A similar bill to designate Election Day as a state holiday and remove Lee-Jackson Day from Virginia’s state holidays was killed in a Senate committee the previous year. However, at that point, Republicans controlled the Virginia Senate. 

LOCAL POWER TO REMOVE STATUES

As of the start of July, local governments across Virginia will officially have the authority to remove or contextualize Confederate monuments on their town, city, or county property.

The measure signed into law essentially undoes an existing state law that protects Confederate monuments as war memorials and instead lets localities decide the statues’ fates.

The law itself faces a court challenge, as does Governor Ralph Northam’s recent move to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from state property in the city of Richmond.

After white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017, in part to protest the city’s attempt to move a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, many places across the country quickly started taking Confederate monuments down. But Virginia localities that wanted to remove monuments were hamstrung by the existing law.

In the two legislative sessions that followed the rally, Republican lawmakers defeated bills like the one that passed this year.

Virginia, a state that prides itself on its pivotal role in America's early history, is home to more than 220 public memorials to the Confederacy, according to state officials. Among those are some of the nation's most prominent — a collective of five monuments along Richmond's Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark.

Critics say the monuments are offensive to black Virginians because they romanticize the Confederacy and ignore its defense of slavery.

“My family has lived with the trauma of slavery for generations. ... I hope that you understand that this is a situation that’s so deeper than a simple vote on simple war memorials,” Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who presides over the Senate, said.

Others say removing the monuments amounts to erasing history.

Republican Amanda Chase said during the same Senate debate that slavery was evil.

“But it doesn’t mean that we take all of these monuments down,” she continued. “We remember our past and we learn from it.”

LGBTQ PROTECTIONS

The ‘Virginia Values Act’ passed by lawmakers this year makes sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes when it comes to discrimination related to housing, employment and public accommodations.

Essentially, it adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the commonwealth’s anti-discrimination law.

It also gives the attorney general’s office the power to take action against anyone “engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance” to the rights guaranteed by the new law.

CONVERSION THERAPY BAN

Virginia also became the first state in the U.S. South to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Conversion therapy is a practice used to try to change sexual orientation or gender identity. The American Psychological Association says it’s not based in science and is harmful to mental health, and it will no longer be allowed under Virginia law.

Effectively, it bans anyone who is a licensed health professional from attempting this kind of therapy for anyone under the age of 18.

It doesn’t apply to faith communities, however.

OTHER MEASURES FOR LGBTQ PROTECTIONS

  • Senate Bill 657 makes it easier to change a person’s name and gender on a birth certificate.
  • SB 161 makes the Department of Education create and implement policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public schools.

EASING ABORTION RESTRICTIONS

Restrictions on getting an abortion in Virginia, enacted when Republicans controlled the statehouse, were repealed through the “Reproductive Health Protection Act,” which passed through the Virginia Senate on a 20-20 vote and a tie-breaker from Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. It passed the House on a 52-45 vote.

The law rolls back provisions including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling.

The measure also undoes the requirement that abortions be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners to perform them, and does away with strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.

MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION

As of July, criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana will be scrapped in Virginia and replaced with a $25 civil penalty instead.

The law signed by Gov. Northam also creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana and eventually release a report on the matter.

Reducing the penalty for simple possession, which currently sets fines of up to $500, with possible jail time, means no arrest and no criminal record.

The decriminalization bill got bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. But some lawmakers had doubts.

“We see that other states have done varying degrees of changes in their marijuana policy, and I think in those states, we’ve seen varying degrees of success and unintended consequences and problems that have arisen,” said Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert.

One of our local sheriffs told WHSV during the General Assembly’s initial session he thought the bill was “a horrible idea.”

According to data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, more than 15,000 people were convicted for a first or second marijuana possession offense from July 2018 to June 2019.

MEDICAL CANNABIS

Also signed into law this year was Senate Bill 1015, which states that no person may be arrested, prosecuted, or denied any right or privilege for participating in the state’s medical cannabis program.

That program is expected to be operational and dispensing cannabis products to authorized patients by mid-year.

Northam also approved Senate Bill 976 expanding the medical cannabis program.

INSULIN PRICE CAP

This law got less attention than some of the more controversial measures, but has the most direct impact on many Virginians.

As of July 1, insurers will be limited to charging a maximum of $50 a month for insulin in Virginia, giving the commonwealth the fourth lowest cap in the country.

Insulin prices have tripled over the last decade as the drug’s four main manufacturers have raised the baseline cost. Virginia is the latest state to pass its own controls amid nationwide reports of patients dying after rationing the vital medication.

The legislation prohibits Virginia insurers from setting a patient’s cost-sharing payment for insulin above $50 a month — including deductibles and copays. The bill was supported by the Medical Society of Virginia and the American Association of Retired Persons, but, unsurprisingly, not by the Virginia Association of Health Plans, which argued that the cap on cost-sharing payments would be offset by a rise in premiums.

NO MORE PHOTO ID REQUIREMENT FOR VOTING

Virginians will no longer need to show a photo ID in order to vote by this November.

It means that voting requirements in Virginia, essentially, will revert to a similar standard as in the years before the photo ID law was signed by former Governor Bob McDonnell.

Voters will be able to show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Voters who do not show valid identification when signing in to vote would be required to sign a sworn affidavit stating that they they are who they claim to be. The signed statement subjects the person to Class 5 felony penalties if the statement is false.

A voter who doesn't show photo ID or sign the statement can be given a provisional ballot.

Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.

Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.

“Before the photo ID requirement, voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.

In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”

ABSENTEE VOTING AND EXCUSES

Voters will no longer need to provide an excuse from a pre-approved list to cast an absentee ballot in Virginia.

Virginia currently requires voters who wish to vote absentee to provide a reason as to why they can't vote on Election Day, choosing from a list of pre-approved excuses.

But House Bill 1 “permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote,” according to its bill summary.

It passed the Senate on 25-15 vote and the House of Delegates on a 65-35 vote.

William Ney, Vice Chair of the Harrisonburg City’s Electoral Board, said he thinks the change in absentee voting gives more of an opportunity for anyone to vote ahead.

“This will definitely make it a lot easier,” Ney said. “When North Carolina started their no excuse absentee voting, supposedly more than 30 percent of the people voted before the election – that’s more people than we would have at any one of our precincts.”

IN-STATE TUITION REGARDLESS OF CITIZENSHIP STATUS

Students living in the U.S. without documentation but who still meet Virginia residency standards, will be eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia colleges and universities as of July 1.

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, requires a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college.

“Virginia has made history as the first southern state to implement this law, joining twenty states that offer in-state tuition to students who are undocumented. In these states, students, employers, and the entire society have realized tremendous economic and social benefits,” said Kim Bobo, Executive Director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP).

Yanet Limon-Amado, an organizer at VICPP said, “This win is for all undocumented students in Virginia. They have spent countless days participating in rallies and testifying in committee hearings at the General Assembly. This was a movement created by undocumented students. It’s beautiful to finally see this positive outcome after eight years of fighting. "

The organization says many immigrants have completed their entire educational careers in Virginia whether or not they have documentation and benefit the economy by paying taxes, spending money, and creating jobs.

Research shows a college education amounts to an increased $2.7 million in lifetime earnings, which is double the earnings of those with only high school diplomas, so they say investing in undocumented students will ultimately benefit all Virginians.

NO MORE LICENSE SUSPENSIONS FOR NONPAYMENT OF FINES

As of July 1, the requirement that an individual’s driver’s license be suspended if they don’t pay court dues will be repealed from Virginia state law.

“License suspensions in Virginia for court debt is really Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit based in Virginia that litigates on behalf of low-income individuals.

A 2017 report released by the Legal Aid Justice Center found that nearly 1 million Virginians’ licenses had been suspended due to court debt.

Last year, the General Assembly voted to approve a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that reinstated driver’s licenses to over 600,000 Virginians who had their licenses suspended. Because this policy went into effect via a budget amendment, the policy is only in place until the budget expires in July 2020.

MINIMUM WAGE

Virginia’s increase of the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour will not take effect until May 1, 2021, after it was delayed by lawmakers at an April special session because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wage will then increase to $11 in 2022, $12 in 2023 and by another $1.50 in 2025 and 2026. Every subsequent year the bill is to be re-amended to adjust the minimum wage to reflect the consumer price index.

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