A new majority in Virginia’s legislature has meant a new pace of work for many Central Virginia legislators — both for Democratic lawmakers, who have seen many bills successfully pass both chambers, and for Republicans, who have seen their legislation voted down.
Tuesday marked the midpoint of the 2020 General Assembly session, after which each body is only able to consider legislation sent to it by the other house, rendering any bills still left in their respective committees dead.
In past sessions, legislators said, many of their bills died quiet deaths due to inactivity prior to crossover. But this year, a new Democratic majority has inspired a pace of work — and a flurry of votes — unlike many are used to.
Both chambers passed more than 1,400 bills as of Tuesday evening, according to the Virginia Mercury.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who has represented Virginia’s 25th Senatorial District since 2001, said the amount of work this year is unlike anything he’s seen before.
“There has been a lot of work and a lot of responsibility this year,” he said. “In previous sessions, I’ve been able to take walks during lunch breaks, eat supper at a reasonable time, but we’ve been working long days and nights to get impactful legislation passed.”
Deeds, who is chairman of the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee in addition to serving on four other committees, said this year has been a balancing act between committee responsibilities and advocating for his own legislation.
“It’s hard to say one task is more important than the other; bills don’t come from a vacuum, there are a number of local reasons they’re important and it’s important to share those reasons,” he said.
Despite the difficulty this poses, he said this session has been a “refreshing change of pace.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for him, Deeds said, is the importance of bipartisanship in passing legislation.
Deeds and Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, have both introduced bills to amend the town charter for Scottsville, seeking to allow staggered elections for the Town Council; removing the authority of the council to appoint police officers besides the town sergeant; and authorizing the council to appoint a town administration. Both bills have passed their respective chambers and crossed over.
Similarly, companion bills from Deeds and Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, seek to update Charlottesville’s charter in order to “modernize” and “reorganize” various provisions to conform to state and federal law, as well as to current city organization. Both bills have pass their respective bodies.
Some of Deeds’ more high-profile bills, such as legislation allowing localities the ability to remove war monuments and repealing voter identification laws, have been folded into other similar bills, which have passed the Senate.
Hudson, the lone freshman Democratic legislator in Central Virginia, said there has been a “steep learning curve,” but that she is thankful for the mentoring she’s received.
In addition to her statues-related legislation, Hudson’s bills to allow ranked-choice voting and to remove limits on city councilor pay have crossed over.
“So many of the measures we’re passing this session are long overdue: gun safety, workers’ rights, anti-discrimination bills — these proposals have been popular with Virginians for some time, and Democrats have finally secured the seats needed to pass them into law,” she wrote in an email Wednesday.
Most of Bell’s legislation has passed the House and received committee assignments in the Senate.
Some of Bell’s legislation now under consideration by the Senate includes: HB 860, which would authorize school nurses to stock Albuterol inhalers at the school and would authorize them to administer the medication to students in emergencies; and HB 351, which seeks to make it possible for schools to rehire retired employees as bus drivers.
Bell echoed Deeds’ sentiments about the role of bipartisanship.
“There have obviously been differences on the higher-profile issues, but for the majority of bills, they are being considered one-by-one by committees,” he said in an email. “For example, I was happy that the House passed my bills to enable schools to stock asthma inhalers and to enable them to rehire retired school bus drivers.”
Republican legislators have faced a tougher time getting legislation passed than previous sessions, but no legislator appears to have felt the shift in power more than Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper.
None of the delegate’s bills passed the House, including legislation seeking to allow home-schooled students to participate in interscholastic sports — informally known as the “Tebow Bill: — and other school-based programs and legislation that would have allowed college students to request their transcripts once a year for free under the Freedom of Information Act.
The “Tebow Bill” has been a recurring project for Republican legislators, but has been vetoed by former Governor Terry McAuliffe in previous sessions where it was passed by the legislature.
Almost all of the legislation introduced by Del. John McGuire, R-Louisa, also died in house subcommittees, with only HB 446 crossing over to the Senate. HB 446 seeks to allow the Department of General Services to donate surplus computers to tax-exempt organizations.
Other pieces of legislation from Republicans were incorporated into similar bills.
HB 1593 from Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg, which seeks to add the Stanton Family Cemetery in Buckingham County to the list of cemeteries qualified to receive funds from the state Department of Historic Resources, was incorporated into a bill from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, which then crossed over.
Among the more successful Republican legislators this session is Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, who has seen 18 of his bills cross over. Reeves attributes his success to the “non-partisan” nature of his bills.
“I try not to carry legislation with a political swing,” he said. “I work to solve problems that affect the people of this state and I work hard not to bring partisanship into this.”
Several of Reeves’ bills to crossover deal with veterans and children in the foster care system.
Much like Bell, Reeves said, aside from the pace, his ability to work has been unaltered by the change in party majority.