Area’s state legislators paint a mostly gloomy picture of 2021 session

By Eric Gorton, contributor

From the abrupt legalization of marijuana to a plethora of bills they deem bad for business and public safety, the area’s five Republican legislators had little to celebrate as they recapped this year’s General Assembly session Thursday.

Dramatic, pandemic-related changes to the nature of the session didn’t help, they said, during an annual post-session legislative update meeting held by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce and attended by nearly 50 people – virtually, of course.

Del. Rob Bell

“All sessions are different,” said Del. Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), whose 58th district reaches into eastern Rockingham County, “but this one was more different than any.”

There were some positive aspects to the virtual session, Bell said. For one, it was easier for people to watch the delegates work from anywhere in the state.

“Once we all got up to speed, it made it easier to testify,” he said.

Still, Bell said, the negatives outweighed the positives. Gone were the “elevator meetings” that happen when lawmakers are scrambling from one meeting to another.

“What we lost was the chance to have a proposal and then to chew on it for a while, to propose various amendments and then the give and take that follows … that work didn’t happen,” he said.

Del. Chris Runion.

Del. Chris Runion (R-Bridgewater) put it this way: “With all the technology and all the things that are available to us, the world still operates on human relationships.”

As a result, Bell said, the legislature’s work suffered under the mantra of, “we’ll fix it later” – meaning at the governor’s office or in conference with the senate.

“We had an awful lot of bills get further than they should have without being fixed,” said Bell.

Del. Tony Wilt

Del. Tony Wilt (R-Broadway) told attendees, “It really pains me, the Senate had to ride to our rescue because some of the things that came out of the House, there was by-and-large no discussion.”

All three delegates are hoping future sessions can be conducted in person.

Senate meets in-person, at a distance

While the House conducted its business virtually, the Senate operated in person at the Science Museum of Virginia. According to Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), the arrangement worked out well. But presenting bills to the House was an interesting experience, he said.

He echoed the delegates’ desire to get back to normal.

Sen. Mark Obenshain

“I just don’t think that we can deal with 3,000 bills without having the opportunity to look each other in the eye, to huddle in the back of the room to try to figure out how to fix problems in a cooperative, collaborative way,” he said.

Summing up the outcome of 2021 session, Obenshain said some of the laws that passed have potential to cause problems for years to come. Number one on his list was the abrupt legalization of small amounts of marijuana. Obenshain said lots of thought had gone into a long, detailed bill that laid out a path for the state to legalize marijuana and establish regulatory and enforcement frameworks by 2024 or 2025.

“But sometime between the end of February and the beginning of April it was decided that we can’t wait that long. So we scrapped all of that and said it’s going to be legal as of July 1.”

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill Wednesday legalizing simple possession of the drug. The law allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Adults can also grow up to four cannabis plants per household at home, though they must be kept away from public view, tagged with the owner’s name and driver’s license or identification number, and note that they are being grown for personal use.

Wilt said proponents of legalizing marijuana argue it will eliminate racial injustice and social injustice and create an economic boon for the state.

“There are reports out there that neither one of those are particularly true.” he said. “We were supposed to create this whole business model, but we didn’t do that. We were supposed to wait a couple years, but at the last minute, there was an epiphany, which we all know is special interest.”

Sen. Emmett Hanger

Sen. Emmet Hanger (R-Mount Solon) said, “I have joked that this was a session all about gambling, drinking and smoking pot. We were into a lot of vice as ways for supposedly setting the table straight and making money for the Commonwealth.”

Hanger lamented the shelving of a bill he feels will reduce chances of traffic stops going badly. When someone is ticketed for speeding, not wearing a seatbelt or similar infractions, they are required to sign the summons during the stop, essentially saying they will appear in court at the specified time.

“It’s just a promise that you are going to appear in court and that can be enforced by other means,” Hanger said. “It creates a situation when you have to sign that document with the officer standing there.”

The bill was passed by the Senate courts of justice committee but put on hold in the House. “Maybe next year we’ll be able to work that out,” Hanger said.

Ironically, one bright spot, Hanger said, is the state budget. The state could end the fiscal year with $2.1 billion in reserve, he said, mainly due to an infusion of COVID funding from the federal government. He also highlighted a provision in the budget that requires the governor to involve the legislature when making decisions on how to allocate large sums of money from the federal government.

“It’s good policy to have the legislature involved,” Hanger said, adding that Northam also agreed, but not before he doled out billions ahead of the provision.

Bills to continue Virginia’s efforts to clean the Chesapeake Bay and attract plastics recyclers to Virginia were other positives, Hanger said.

In addition to the marijuana bill, Obenshain’s list  of troublesome new laws included abolishing the death penalty, adding cultural competency to the list of evaluation criteria for educators, remedies for renters that “creates a minefield for landlords, including unlimited attorney’s fees,” and an environmental working group that will require state agencies to evaluate environmental justice implications of every action they undertake.

“That is, I predict, going to create some significant new regulatory hurdles for businesses in Virginia,” he said.

Bell listed a number of new laws he sees as threats to public safety, including reducing the maximum penalties for robberies, reducing penalties for people who steal repeatedly and making it harder to hold violent offenders when they try to make bond and more difficult to address their actions after they’re convicted and violate probation.

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