State lawmakers descended on Richmond on Jan. 8 for a new Virginia General Assembly session that made history before any bills were considered.

Atop the dais in the Virginia State Capitol’s House chamber sat Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41st), who was elected as the 56th Speaker of the House of Delegates shortly after noon by a 99-0 vote that made her the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold the position.

The House vote formalized Filler-Corn’s designation as speaker after she prevailed in a meeting of Virginia House Democrats on Nov. 9, when the caucus nominated party leaders for its first session as the chamber’s majority since 1998.  

Officially nominated by Del. Charniele Herring (D-46th), who is now the first female and black House majority leader, Filler-Corn was soon joined by Gov. Ralph Northam’s deputy chief of staff, Suzette Denslow, who served as staff director on the speaker’s transition team and was unanimously elected on Jan. 8 as Virginia’s first female House clerk.

On the Senate side, Sen. Louise Lucas was voted in as the new president pro tempore, becoming the first woman and first black person elected to the position, which is charged with presiding over the chamber when the lieutenant governor is absent.

While the ascension of women to key leadership positions in the state legislature drew standing ovations, a broad legislative agenda rolled out by Northam and majority party leaders on Jan. 7 suggests Virginia Democrats hope to make an impact beyond symbolic representation, as they seek to advance longtime priorities, including gun violence prevention, climate change, and steps to improve social and economic equity.

“The public expects us to build a safer, more equal, more prosperous, and more inclusive Virginia,” Filler-Corn said in a speech after her election as Speaker. “…We will continue our work to make this vision a reality for everyone, no matter where you come from, the color of your skin, the language you speak, the religion you practice or not, or who you love.”

After years of inaction on the issue of gun safety, including a truncated special session convened last July in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, firearm regulations are expected to take center stage as potentially the most contentious issue lawmakers will tackle during the 2020 General Assembly session.

In addition to allocating $2.6 million to city gun violence intervention and prevention programs in his proposed 2020-2022 budget, Northam reiterated his support for universal background checks, a one-handgun-per-month purchase limit, a red-flag law to authorize the temporary removal of firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves and others, and other gun safety measures in the “Virginia 2020 Plan” unveiled on Jan. 7.

Other gun-related bills under consideration include a ban on carrying loaded shotguns or rifles in public places in some cities and counties, penalties for transporting guns and similar weapons in state-owned or leased buildings, a prohibition on the sale and transport of assault firearms, and an increase in the minimum age for buying a firearm from 18 to 21 years old.

Many new delegates and state senators won election in November with promises to address gun violence, buoyed by generous campaign spending by advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, which invested a record $2.5 million in the hopes of turning the General Assembly blue.

Del. Dan Helmer defeated incumbent Tim Hugo to win the 40th District seat in part by calling for tighter gun laws from his perspective as an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For his first session as delegate, Helmer has filed bills that would ban indoor shooting ranges in private buildings with more than 50 employees, require firearms to be stored in locked containers when in a motor vehicle, and reinstate a law requiring that out-of-state concealed handgun permit holders meet Virginia standards to carry.

“The voters of the 40th District spoke loud and clear last November on the need for gun safety reform,” Helmer said. “It’s time to get to work.”

A statewide poll conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy and released on Jan. 7 found that 53 percent of Virginians believe the state’s gun laws should be stricter with support especially strong for red-flag laws, limits on gun ownership for people with mental health issues, and background check requirements for private and gun show sales.

Still, opponents of gun reform are not ready to cede ground, with the National Rifle Association pledging to continue its “defense of the Second Amendment rights of all Americans” in response to last November’s General Assembly election results.

According to WTOP, about 250 people with “guns save lives” orange stickers packed the Fairfax County Government Center board auditorium during a pre-session public hearing held on Jan. 4 by the county’s General Assembly delegation.

In comparison, the top item on the Virginia 2020 Plan – passage of the Equal Rights Amendment – will likely be a straightforward victory for Democrats, even if the path forward from there is less clear since the deadline for the 38th state to ratify the measure to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in the U.S. Constitution technically expired in 1983.

Bills to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in housing and employment are also on the table, along with an official repeal of Virginia’s statutory ban on marriages and civil unions between people of the same sex, which was rendered invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

In other areas related to social and economic equity, Northam’s Virginia 2020 Plan prioritizes eliminating restrictions and burdens on reproductive healthcare, expanding the accessibility of voting by allowing no-excuse absentee voting and making Election Day a state holiday, raising Virginia’s minimum wage, and implementing criminal justice reforms such as a permanent ban on the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines.

Democratic leaders are also emphasizing education funding, transit and broadband availability, and support for affordable housing.

Legislation proposed by Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-86th) to require all localities to permit two-family residential units on lots zoned for single-family use has drawn heated debate, as local and state lawmakers face competing pressures to add affordable housing and limit density and traffic in suburban neighborhoods.

Samirah argues that single-family zoning has contributed to racial and economic segregation and a blanket upzoning is necessary to provide housing like duplexes and townhomes that is more accessible to low-income people and people of color.

“My bill to legalize middle housing is a rare chance to pursue equity by empowering the market rather than regulating it,” Samirah said. “…Upzoning doesn’t take power away from localities, it gives power to homeowners. Homeowners could rent out their extra space or even build another unit on their property to rent, opening up a new source of potential income.”

When Samirah brought up the topic at a work session for Fairfax County’s General Assembly with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and school board in December, outgoing Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova agreed that “more flexibility would be great.” Jeff McKay, her successor as chair, noted that affordable housing needs to be permitted everywhere in order to work.

At the same time, both county leaders cautioned that any bill to allow upzoning should preserve local authority to address any issues that arise if the proposed change to single-family zoning is implemented.

Another potential source of tension both across and within party lines as the General Assembly session unfolds is energy and environmental legislation, as lawmakers debate how to address climate change.

State Democratic party leaders represented by Northam, Filler-Corn, Herring, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-35th), and Senate Caucus Chair Mamie Locke (D-2nd) listed fighting climate change among their priorities in the Virginia 2020 Plan, calling for measures to advance clean energy, increase funding to clean the Chesapeake Bay, and join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The state budget that Northam signed in 2019 included language restricting the Commonwealth’s ability to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which imposes mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Northam called the provision disappointing but instead directed the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to implement a regulation reducing carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants by 30 percent over the next decade.

However, some lawmakers and environmental advocates believe Northam’s proposals for the 2020 General Assembly session, including $733 million in funding related to the environment and clean energy, fail to acknowledge the urgency of climate change, arguing that more drastic steps are needed.

The Green New Deal Virginia Coalition led by Del. Sam Rasoul (D-11th) and Elizabeth Guzman (D-31st) held a rally outside the state capitol in Richmond on Jan. 8.

Introduced by Rasoul on Dec. 6 as H.B. 77, the Green New Deal Act establishes a moratorium on new fossil-fuel infrastructure starting on Jan. 1, 2021 and aims to have all electricity in the state generated using renewable energy by 2036.

“Our hope is that Governor Northam and the new leadership in the General Assembly will reject halfhearted climate legislation that still promotes fracked gas and nuclear energy,” said Jorge Aguilar, the southern region director for Food and Water Action, one of more than 60 advocacy groups in the Green New Deal Virginia Coalition. “…These are false solutions that fail to protect Virginians in the long run. Only a Green New Deal can usher in a system of clean, renewable energy and provide an equitable transition to all.”

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