RICHMOND — State lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Sunday because they had to extend the General Assembly session to get their work done on major issues like collective bargaining, casino gaming and marijuana decriminalization as well as the budget.
Newly empowered Democrats passed hundreds of bills this session, but it took until Sunday to pass some of the more significant ones subject to a lot of discussion and compromise.
The General Assembly passed a major transportation funding package, decriminalized marijuana and approved sports betting and casinos in certain cities. It allowed local governments to authorize collective bargaining with their employees. Lawmakers also gave permission to localities to remove war memorials, including Confederate statues, as long as they follow certain requirements.
Lawmakers approved a bill to create a Commission on School Construction and Modernization to study and develop ways to help localities struggling to fix their crumbling public schools.
Legislators will return to Richmond on Thursday to vote on the budget and elect judges. Roanoke’s circuit court still has a vacant seat because of gridlock among the Roanoke Valley delegation over different candidates. The General Assembly may elect someone on Thursday.
“Virginians asked for a new direction in 2020, and together, we are delivering,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. “I am grateful to legislators for their work thus far, and look forward to a final budget that builds on Virginians’ priorities, protects our economic growth, and invests in our longterm future.”
The General Assembly met on Sunday following a contentious Saturday night, which was when the legislature was scheduled to conclude its 60-day session.
Tensions had been simmering between the House of Delegates and Senate — both of which Democrats control — all session as both chambers had conflicting views of how to proceed on certain policies and run the legislature. That finally came to a head Saturday.
Legislators took note of the fact that House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, had not transmitted the constitutional amendment on redistricting back to the Senate as the final step to complete the General Assembly process. Amendment supporters worried by not transmitting it, House leadership would try to bring it back up for reconsideration and find a way for it to die.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said there were concerns about potential “mischief” if the amendment stayed in the House, like trying to bring it up for another vote to put more attention on the nine “brave” House Democrats who voted for it.
The Senate overwhelmingly supported the amendment, which would establish a bipartisan commission to draw political maps after the 2020 census. Voters will have to provide the final approval for the amendment in the November elections.
However, the amendment fractured House Democrats, with nearly all members of the Legislative Black Caucus objecting to the amendment on the grounds it doesn’t do enough to protect minorities. After weeks of delay, the House narrowly approved it on Thursday.
When it became clear Filler-Corn wasn’t releasing it back to the Senate, senators started coming up with bargaining chips to force Filler-Corn’s hand.
“Oh, we can play that game,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who supported the amendment. “We’ve got a lot of their stuff over here.”
Thus began eight hours of Democrats rushing back and forth across the halls of the Capitol to make demands and threaten to kill legislation. It first started with the proposal to increase the minimum wage. As the House took up its version, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, halted debate on the Senate version. Both chambers need to agree to legislation for it to go to the governor.
“I’m getting tired of dealing with her,” Saslaw told Senate Democrats on the floor, referring to Filler-Corn.
Senators rattled off bills they would shoot down if Filler-Corn didn’t transmit the constitutional amendment: minimum wage, collective bargaining and even the major transportation funding package Filler-Corn carried on Northam’s behalf. Meanwhile, the House didn’t take action on bills to allow casinos in Virginia to hold over the Senate.
“You think I’m bluffing?” Saslaw told House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “Try me.”
Filler-Corn’s spokesman said it was “appalling” that Senate Democrats would suggest sacrificing minimum wage and collective bargaining.
Lawmakers had until midnight to complete action on their bills, or else they would all die once the legislative session was over.
Senate Democrats cheered on a small group of their colleagues that hurried across the hall. Republicans, powerless to do anything but who would have welcomed the defeat of a bunch of bills they didn’t like, sat back in their chairs. Some lawmakers walked out into the hallway to watch and take pictures of the House and Senate Democratic leaders arguing.
Eventually, Filler-Corn sent over the constitutional amendment.
The Senate securing the constitutional amendment was valuable for getting the necessary votes from Republicans to extend the legislative session because they favored the amendment.