Virginia lawmakers face tight deadlines on major issues

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers were in a mad scramble Thursday to finalize passage of several top priorities for the new Democratic majority.

Lawmakers have only a few days left to pass legislation before this year's legislative session is set to end but are at an impasse on a number of high-profile bills, including legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and a bill to require universal background checks on gun purchases.

And legislators still need to pass a $135 billion two-year state budget while resolving key differences between competing versions of bills that would legalize casino gambling and undo the state’s existing ban on public sector collective bargaining.

Lawmakers in the House hurriedly crisscrossed the chamber floor Thursday, huddling for quiet conversations. A key energy bill listed near the top of the day's calendar was temporarily passed by.

Leaders in both parties have urged lawmakers to work faster and have warned of possible overtime.

“I just hope if we continue down this path that there’s not a lot of whining and moaning when we come to the realization that we are not getting out of here on Saturday,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment said on the Senate floor earlier this week after lawmakers spent about an hour debating just one bill.

Virginia's short legislative session typically leads to heavy last-minute workloads, but this year there's more than usual. Democrats are in full control of state government for the first time in a generation and have decades of priorities they are looking to pass.

But some moderates in the state Senate are uneasy with the pace at which some of their more liberal colleagues are moving, which could threaten passage of some key Democratic priorities.

“In a citizen legislature your worst fears are the unintended priorities,” said Democratic Sen. Lynwood Lewis. “Some of this stuff, frankly, I think should have been studied.”

Several lawmakers said they are unhappy with the often secretive and hectic way laws are made in Virginia, especially in the final days. Some newer lawmakers have said they are open to changing how the legislature operates, including extending the length of future sessions.

“The legislative calendar was set in the 17th century, when everyone in the legislature was a plantation owner,” said Del. Lee Carter. “It's absurd that it's 2020 and we're still on that same calendar.”

Here's a look at some key outstanding issues:

UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS:

New gun restrictions have been a top priority of Democrats this year, and Virginia has become a key flash point in the national debate over guns and mass shootings.

Several new gun laws have passed, but lawmakers are currently at an impasse over one of their top gun bills, which would mandate universal background checks on gun sales. Democrats are at a disagreement whether it should include certain types of gun transfers, like guns that are given as gifts. The Senate wants a more lenient version, while the House said too broad an exemption could negate the intent of the bill.

MINIMUM WAGE:

The more conservative Senate is at odds with the more liberal House over how quickly to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and whether poorer parts of the state should have lower minimum wages.

Rural lawmakers are argued forcefully for different regional minimum wage increases while black lawmakers have pushed back hard against the idea.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a key campaign plank of Gov. Ralph Northam and many Democratic lawmakers and the debate on the issue has become heated at times.

“We're working on it,” said Del. Jeion Ward, one of the chief negotiators on the bill.

CONFEDERATE MONUMENTS

Differences must also be resolved between the House and Senate version of bills that would give localities the ability to remove Confederate monuments. The Senate’s bill imposes several hurdles not included in the House version that a local government must take before removing a monument.

A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 added new momentum to the long-running debate over whether Confederate monuments should stand in public places. Critics of the monuments say they distastefully glorify Virginia’s history as a slave-holding state, while others say removing them would amount to erasing history.

Many places around the country started taking down the tributes after the 2017 rally, but Virginia localities that wanted to do so were hamstrung by an existing state law that protects them.