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Democrats now control the General Assembly: here’s what to watch for this session

Priorities include protecting abortion, banning assault weapons and raising the minimum wage

<p>The first day for filing bills was Nov. 20, and lawmakers may introduce new legislation until session begins in January.</p>

The first day for filing bills was Nov. 20, and lawmakers may introduce new legislation until session begins in January.

After Democrats retained control of the State Senate and flipped control of the House of Delegates in the 2023 elections, Virginia lawmakers have filed the first bills of the 2024 legislative session. Proposed bills include an assault weapon ban, an attempt to codify abortion rights and a bill to raise the minimum wage.

The first day for filing bills was Nov. 20, and lawmakers may introduce new legislation until session begins in January. Virginia’s General Assembly has a session every year, with 30 day sessions in odd-numbered years and 60 day sessions in even-numbered years. Lawmakers will be called back in July to review any vetoes the governor may have issued and make changes or override a veto.

Last year, Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate. With Democrats now in control of the legislature Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin still retains veto power over anything the assembly passes.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax and the incoming Senate Majority Leader, said Youngkin has shown willingness to work with Democrats since the November election. Since the governor of Virginia cannot run for two consecutive terms, meaning reelection is not on the table, Surovell said this may prove an advantage for passing legislation.

“[Youngkin] would like to get some things accomplished before he leaves office, and the only way he's going to get anything done going forward is by working with us,” Surovell said.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, plans to introduce gun control legislation that he also filed last session, including the bill banning any firearms on college campuses. The bill was created in collaboration with University leaders in response to last year’s Nov. 13 shooting at the University that killed three students and injured two others.

Timothy Longo, chief of the University Police Department and vice president for security and safety worked with Deeds on the bill last year. Longo told The Cavalier Daily he has not spoken to Deeds about the new bill but looks forward to the opportunity to continue working with him on issues impacting the University community.

Senate Bill 2, also filed by Deeds, and concurrent HB-2, filed by Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) would effectively ban the sale, possession, transfer, manufacture, purchase and more of assault weapons, with a Class 1 misdemeanor for violations. 

The ban would only apply to assault weapons that are fully functional and manufactured July 1, 2024 or later. It would also ban high capacity magazines and raise the age to purchase or possess any assault weapon from 18 to 21.

Deeds introduced the same bill in the Senate last year, where it passed but stalled in the Republican House. This term, he says Democrats’ new majority can get the legislation to the Governor’s desk, where he hopes it will be signed.

“Guns like this are used in a lot of mass shootings. I think we will save lives, or very definitely save lives if we get this bill passed and signed,” Deeds said.

Deeds said that Youngkin has not previously expressed a position on this specific bill, one reason he says that the Governor may sign it.

“I think that part of the beauty of the Virginia governor's job is that you don't owe anybody anything,” Deeds said. “You’re not running for reelection. You have the opportunity to do what's right every single day you're in office.” 

Another partisan issue where lawmakers did not pass significant legislation last session was abortion. The right to abortion was thrown into jeopardy after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. 

Fittingly, abortion rights showed up as a campaign issue on both sides in the 2023 legislative elections. Youngkin announced he would pursue a 15-week abortion restriction should Republicans win full control of state government. Voters rejected that attempt by voting in the current Democratic majority.

SJ-1 and HJ-1 would begin the process to create a constitutional right to abortion in Virginia. Together, the resolutions would establish that every individual has the capacity to make decisions about their pregnancy, and those decisions cannot be infringed upon by the Commonwealth.

Placing the constitutional right to abortion on the ballot is a strategy Democrats across the country have utilized post Roe v. Wade.

State constitutional amendments do not require the approval of the governor, but these resolutions must be approved by both chambers of the assembly twice.

The assembly alone does not have the power to amend the Constitution. If the constitutional amendment is approved by both chambers a second time, the initiative will go to the ballot for voters to give approval.

When constitutional amendments regarding abortion access were placed on the ballot in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, California, Vermont and Kansas, voters sided in favor of abortion rights every time, despite three of the six states voting for Trump in 2020.

Surovell said protecting the right to abortion is a priority this session.

“I think a lot of people saw women's right to make their own health care decisions as being

the top issue that drove voters to the polls this year,” Surovell said. “We wanted to make sure that people who voted saw it was a major priority — which is why we introduced it on the first day of filing.”

Surovell also said Youngkin has not taken public stances on some of these bills because they never reached his desk last session. Similarly, another new bill for this session is SB-3, the newly proposed SB-1 bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

In 2020, under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam along with a Democratic assembly, Virginia lawmakers approved a series of gradual minimum wage increases from the national minimum of $7.25 to $12 an hour by Jan. 1, 2023.

That bill passed with the overarching goal of reaching $15 minimum wage — a decision that requires approval by 2026. If this term’s SB-1 or similar legislation fails to pass before that point, minimum wage increases will instead be tied to inflation, a policy used in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

These policies affect all Virginians, and Surovell specifically said students at colleges and universities across the state should continue paying attention to upcoming legislation — particularly for any potential bills regarding higher education.

“I know a lot of the social agenda of the Youngkin administration is not particularly popular on most of our campuses, especially U.Va … so I suspect there'll be plenty for U.Va. students to pay attention to and speak up and make sure we make good decisions on,” Surovell said.

Lawmakers will return to Richmond Jan. 10 to begin the 2024 legislative session.

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