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6 big issues Virginia lawmakers will take up in January General Assembly session

Going into the upcoming session, Republicans have a 52-seat majority in the House of Delegates, while Democrats have a 21-seat majority in the Virginia Senate.

NORFOLK, Va. — Virginia lawmakers will reconvene in January for the 2023 General Assembly session, where several hot-button issues affecting the lives of Virginians are on the table.

The session starts on Jan. 11 and is expected to last 30 days, unless lawmakers agree to extend the duration. Republicans have a 52-seat majority in the House of Delegates, while Democrats have a 21-seat majority in the Virginia Senate. 

The parties have different, and oftentimes clashing, priorities for what they want to become law. But at the end of the day, they'll either work out their differences to send legislation to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's desk or let certain priorities wither.

Here's a look at six big issues that will come up in the 2023 session:

Budget amendments

Earlier this year, Democratic and Republican lawmakers came together to pass a biennial budget to fund Virginia's state government from 2022 to 2024, which Youngkin signed.

The budget included a series of tax cuts; raises for teachers, law enforcement and state employees; and a variety of investments in projects, ranging from economic development to infrastructure.

In a series of proposed amendments, Youngkin wants further tax cuts and more funding for education, behavioral health, economic and workforce development, public safety and the environment. It includes:

  • $450 million for business-ready sites.
  • An additional $427.7 million in funding for K-12 education in Virginia to close learning gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Funding for Operation Bold Blue Line to reduce crime across the Commonwealth.
  • $230 million in behavioral health programs.
  • An increased standard deduction, eliminating taxes on military and veteran retirement pay and a quarter-point reduction on individual income tax rates.
  • Recruitment programs and expanded career pathways and bonuses for teachers, nurses and law enforcement.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly applauded Youngkin's proposals, while Democrats had reservations, arguing that the investments didn't go far in addressing the needs of Virginians.

Any changes to the state's budget will go through a process of negotiations between both parties.

RELATED | Youngkin budget proposal: another $1 billion in business, income tax cuts

New abortion restrictions

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, which provided constitutional protections for abortion nationwide, several states enacted new restrictions on the procedure.

Youngkin has made it known he wants the state to take action.

Just hours following the Supreme Court's decision, Youngkin said he asked several Virginia lawmakers to come up with legislation to restrict abortion, calling on them to be ready by the time the General Assembly session starts.

RELATED | Soon after Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Youngkin calls for changes to Virginia's abortion laws

Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert echoed Youngkin's call, saying the Supreme Court decision "places an enormous responsibility back into the hands of the General Assembly."

While the Republican-controlled House of Delegates may be able to pass legislation to restrict abortion, leaders of the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate have vowed to thwart any new restrictions.

Another Republican, Del. Marie March, introduced a House bill to define life as beginning at conception and repeal Virginia laws that allow abortion procedures. Notably, the bill defines conception as happening at the fertilization stage of pregnancy.

Repealing Virginia's defunct same-sex marriage ban

The Supreme Court's abortion decision also led to concerns that protections for same-sex marriage could be overturned eventually, considering that Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should reconsider its past rulings on the matter.

If the court overturned the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which allows same-sex couples to marry, it could reactivate a ban within the Virginia Constitution. The currently-defunct ban requires the state and localities to recognize marriage as "a union between one man and one woman."

RELATED | Gov. Youngkin says Virginia law protects same-sex marriage. But there's a defunct ban in the state constitution.

Before Republicans took back the House in 2022, the then-Democratic-controlled General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to remove the marriage ban and establish a right to marry regardless of sex or gender.

The proposal would have needed to pass both the House and Senate -- twice -- before going to a public vote, the Washington Post reported. A Virginia House subcommittee ultimately voted against the amendment on its second go-around, though.

For the upcoming session, Republican Del. Tim Anderson pre-filed a bill that would solely repeal the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, without the language establishing a right to marry.

Any kind of legislative action would come after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, a law protecting same-sex marriage that Congress passed with bipartisan support.

Streamlining coastal resiliency efforts

One of Virginia's top priorities has been protecting coastal areas from the threats of sea-level rise and increased rainfall stemming from climate change.

Hampton Roads is especially prone to sea-level rise due to the already low-lying land's subsidence, and the slow sinking of land resulting from removing large amounts of groundwater.

RELATED | Think tidal flooding is bad now? Norfolk could see at least 85 high tide flood days a year by 2050.

While the state has a Coastal Resilience Master Plan, overseen by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, a proposed House bill would establish the Virginia Resiliency Authority to coordinate efforts.

The bill would establish a workgroup of officials across the state government, nonprofit organizations, local governments, tribal nations, different industries, higher education institutions and other stakeholders.

The bill was originally introduced at the beginning of the 2022 General Assembly session and passed the House 58 to 42. A Senate committee opted to push the bill to the 2023 session.

In his slate of budget amendment proposals, Youngkin advocated investment in conservation and preservation, including $685 million for resiliency and the Chesapeake Bay.

Repealing low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards 

Many Republicans want to untangle Virginia from California's vehicle standards after the latter state passed regulations in August phasing out sales of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. 

Virginia passed a law in 2021 requiring the state's Air Pollution Control Board to implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program matching California regulations for vehicles with the model year 2025 and later.

RELATED | Virginia may follow California's 2035 ban on new gas vehicles due to state law

The state did so under the federal Clean Air Act, which allows states to adopt either federal standards or California standards. 

Youngkin and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares strongly criticized the 2021 law, claiming it took away the will of Virginians to decide what regulations they want. 

Several bills tackling this issue are on the table, including:

Since Democrats were the ones who passed the 2021 law, it may be difficult for Republicans to get the legislation to pass in the Virginia Senate.

Environmental and automobile representatives have expressed their support for the regulations, saying electric vehicles represent the future of driving.

In August, Tripp Pollard with the Southern Environmental Law Center said cleaner vehicles offer environmental, economic and health benefits for Virginians. 

Don Hall, the president and CEO of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, said auto manufacturers and dealers were committed to electric vehicles, regardless of what regulations are in place.

Legalized sales of marijuana

In 2021, Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Virginians over the age of 21 can legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana without fear of criminal or civil penalties.

Despite this, it's illegal to distribute or sell marijuana, and to possess any amount of marijuana with the intent to distribute or sell it. The law that legalized marijuana also created a pathway for legalized sales to begin in 2024.

Lawmakers will need to set up a market framework for marijuana in Virginia, which entails taxes, regulations and licenses. The fate of this sort of legislative action is uncertain under a Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

A bill to establish the framework for a marijuana market passed the Virginia Senate 21 to 18 in the 2022 General Assembly but stalled in a House committee.

The legislation was continued to the 2023 General Assembly, but it's unknown if Republicans will agree to send it to Youngkin's desk.

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