RICHMOND, VA – Virginia lawmakers are kicking off a 60-day legislative session with Democrats in full control for the first time in more than two decades. Here's a look at some top issues legislators will take up this year:
Likely the most prominent debate this year will be on gun control, an area where Democrats have promised significant changes. Some of the new restrictions they want include universal background checks, banning assault weapons and passing a red flag law to allow the temporary removal of guns from someone who is deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance. Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand that officials establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.
EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
Virginia is poised to become the decisive 38th state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment, a gender equality measure. Amendments are added to the U.S. Constitution if they are approved by three-quarters of state legislatures. The state's anticipated approval of the amendment would put the ERA over that threshold.
But the process is likely to hit some snags. One of the biggest is a measure passed by Congress in 1972, attaching a 1977 ratification deadline to it. That was later extended to 1982.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is promising sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice reforms that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver’s licenses are suspended.
The proposed criminal justice overhaul is also part of Northam’s bigger push to address long-standing racial disparities in a state that was once capital of the Confederacy. The governor has rebounded after nearly being forced from office last year over a scandal involving blackface and has prioritized efforts to promote racial justice in a number of areas.
Democrats have pledged to try to more than double the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. But just how fast they will raise it and what kind of businesses and occupations should be exempt from the new wage floor haven't not been worked out.
Business groups have urged lawmakers to tread carefully and not disturb the state's business-friendly image.
Gambling-related issues are set to be one of the hottest topics at the state Capitol when lawmakers return to the Richmond next month to kick off the 2020 legislative session. Lawmakers will decide whether to legalize online sports betting and whether to regulate betting machines that have proliferated in convenience stores in recent years.
But the biggest focus will be on casinos. Virginia is one of only a handful of states that forbid any type of casinos, but it has been inching toward legalizing them in recent years. Lawmakers will decide whether to not only legalize casinos but also set limits on how many the state will have, where they will go and who will run them.