Goodbye 2022 regular session. Hello special session!
On Saturday, the General Assembly adjourned Sine Die – meaning the regular session is now over. While we were able to wrap up most of the legislative agenda, the FY2023-2024 budget is still a work in progress. Instead of extending the regular session, we will go back to Richmond once the conferees are able to come to final consensus.
The primary area of disagreement on the budget centers around the extent of tax reductions and rebates – the resolution of which will drive resources available to invest in K-12 education, higher education, teacher/state employee raises, school construction and modernization, transportation, health care, water quality, housing, and economic development. We also have the opportunity to significantly reduce unfunded liabilities to our Virginia Retirement System and stabilize the Virginia Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. All of this is set against the backdrop of whether the increases in revenue we are experiencing are short-term versus sustainable in the long-term.
Comparing versions of the budget (Governor versus House versus Senate) can be difficult since each (not surprisingly) is usually presented in the best or worst light possible. Thanks to the Commonwealth Institute for putting together this great side-by-side comparison of the competing budget policies that will be considered over the next couple of weeks.
Highlighted Issues – Facial Recognition, THC, and Charitable Gaming!
The last week of session is usually when the more complicated bills hit the House floor – since they take more time and effort to get through the legislative process. This year there were several bills fitting that profile.
Facial Recognition (SB741). This bill sets the conditions under which law enforcement can use facial recognition technology. Facial recognition technology involves the use of algorithms to compare an individual’s facial features against pictures aggregated from across a wide range of existing sources. The concept is very similar to technology used by many social media companies. While this can be a powerful tool to identify criminals as well as crime victims (such as victims of human trafficking), it is also an imperfect technology that can be abused without the right guardrails. Ultimately, I think we got it right by ensuring that there is always a human component before law enforcement can act on a potential match and by imposing very stiff penalties for misuse. The bill passed the House 54Y-42N and the Senate 27Y-13N with Democrats and Republicans splitting both ways.
Regulation of THC (SB591). Throughout the debate on legalizing marijuana, there has been strong consensus on the need for consumer safety and keeping these products out of the hands of children. While THC is most often associated with marijuana, different variations can be produced synthetically, including hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD). One of these variations, delta-8 THC, has spread throughout Virginia and has resulted in an alarming spike in poison control calls and hospital visits. Because these products are not technically defined as marijuana, there are no age-restrictions, no labeling requirements, and no required third-party quality control testing. In response, SB591 shifts from regulating marijuana to regulating the amount of THC across the board. The legislation also prohibits THC products from being sold in forms that are attractive to children (such as animal or fruit shapes). Groups profiting from the current loophole worked very hard to kill the legislation. However, thanks to a fascinating coalition of the Virginia Farm Bureau, Family Foundation, Virginia Catholic Conference, and pro-legalization organizations such as NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) the bill passed and is on its way to the Governor’s desk.
Charitable Gaming (HB763). Charitable gaming sponsored by social and fraternal organizations has long played an important role in supporting community charities. The idea is that charitable gaming can occur in the social quarters of these organizations for the enjoyment of members and guests. Unfortunately, several unscrupulous organizations and manufacturers have taken advantage of a loophole that allows them to declare a local bar or similar area to be their “social quarters” and to set up in multiple locations. This has resulted in a proliferation of unregulated gaming that actually undercuts legitimate organizations. In response, the Office of the State Inspector General conducted a study to make recommendations for how to protect legitimate charities while reigning in those taking advantage of the loophole. Through many iterations (and much valued feedback from genuine charities) I supported the final legislation, which closes the loophole and increases enforcement at the state level.
Out of my 24 bills introduced, 14 made it through the Senate and are now awaiting action by the Governor. A couple of highlights include:
Early Childhood Education Delivery (HB389). This bill strengthens Virginia’s early childhood education system by establishing regional entities to help parents better understand their options and connect providers to resources to help them improve overall quality.
Cocktails-to-Go (HB426). This bill extends the ability of restaurants to provide cocktails-to-go, while also tightening up safety requirements designed to ensure that deliveries aren’t made to underage customers.
Public Meetings for State Projects (HB437). This bill ensures that large state capital projects take local concerns into consideration by requiring the state agency in charge of the project to have at least one public meeting at the request of the locality.
Campaign Finance Reform (HB492). This bill enhances oversight of campaign finance disclosure requirements by requiring the Department of Elections to review a certain number of disclosure reports each election cycle. Currently, there is no review of these reports for accuracy after they are filed by a candidate.
Climate/Flood Resiliency (HB516 and HB1309). These bills expand and strengthen Virginia’s resilience planning efforts and create a Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund. Virginia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
In addition, I am pleased that the Governor has signed into law my HB473. This bill was at the request of the Virginia Retirement System and is designed to make the system more efficient and provide employees with greater flexibility in how they invest their retirement funds.
Meeting with Your Organization
My most important job is to engage my constituents – both to ensure that they understand the issues being debated and to gather feedback to help inform my votes. In that spirit, I would be pleased to speak at one of your community meetings or events. My legislative assistant, Rama Van Pelt, is available during the week to help with scheduling. He can be reached at (703) 310-6752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is great to be home! Thank you for the opportunity to represent our community.