As the Virginia General Assembly session nears the end, various bills from local legislators are primed to pass.
Due to this year’s shorter session, legislators were forced to narrow the number of bills brought before their respective bodies.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, cited HB 2040 as one of the most important pieces of legislation she is shepherding this session. Aimed at fixing various unemployment insurance issues facing residents of the commonwealth, Hudson said the bill was a direct result of constituent feedback.
According to an initial impact statement, the Virginia Employment Commission anticipated a need for $1.2 million in fiscal year 2022 to support an additional 20 deputies or hearing officers and $250,000 in ongoing years to support five deputies or hearing officers.
The most recent impact statement revised that need to only $250,000 for five hearing officers in FY 2022 and a potential maximum cost of $18 million, which was calculated based on the ratio of overpayments and fraud costs in relation to the amount of benefits paid in a year, which is 1.92%.
Now that both the House and Senate have weighed in on the bill and it is being worked on in conference, Hudson said she expects it will pass.
"I think that the House and Senate have both presented their perspective at this point, how they view unemployment insurance reform, and now we're in the conference process, which is where we try to bridge the gap," she said. "I think that all three core provisions of the bill are still very much alive in one form or another."
Most of Hudson’s bills appear likely to pass, with the notable exceptions of HB 1984 and HB 2303
HB 1984 sought to allow the State Corporation Commission to determine fair rates of return for Dominion Energy’s utility generation and distribution. HB 2303 sought to reduce the penalties for various drug possession charges, including reducing the penalty for possession of a Schedule I or II controlled substance from a Class 5 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
As a rate case year, Hudson said she was hopeful that HB 1984 would help set a "clean slate" for fair utility rates in Virginia. Though the bill received more broad bipartisan support than expected, ultimately it did not pass the Senate.
"We won't get another crack at that till 2024, but that gives us two more years to come back and try to do that work," she said.
HB 2303 was one of many bills seeking to address issues with the state's criminal justice system. Hudson said the bill was an attempt to immediately address sentencing issues but she also filed HJ 530, which sought to direct the Virginia State Crime Commission to study alternative approaches to enforcing of controlled substances law.
'It turns out that the legislature wasn't ready to take those steps this year and opted for the study approach, But that will lay the groundwork for serious progress next session," she said.
On the other side of the aisle, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, also saw most of his legislation pass. Several of Bell’s bills were passed by the Senate this past week.
One of those bills, HB 2230, seeks to direct Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to develop a program to educate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and others about supported decision-making agreements.
“I am happy that my bills concerning identification for special needs Virginians, mental health courts and supported decision making look like they are passing,” Bell said.
The bill was inspired in part by Bell’s experience raising a son with special needs and the difficulty Bell and his family have had with navigating the guardianship process following his son’s 18th birthday.
Bell’s HB 2277, which aimed to assist people with special needs and their families, was tabled earlier this month.
The bill proposed that high school students with special needs who are set to graduate in the 2021 school year and who are 22 years old after Sept. 30, 2020, be allowed to take an extra year and graduate in 2022. Students who are younger than 22 are automatically eligible for another year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
“I was disappointed that my bill concerning mental health services for students was tabled and sent to the Joint Oversight Committee. I am hopeful they will find a way to address the fact that Virginia schools were having these services denied at unprecedented rates even before COVID,” Bell said.
The bill’s passage would have required an additional 1,000 students to be served at a cost of $5 million during the 2022 fiscal year, according to the legislation’s financial impact statement.
Bell introduced an amendment to the state budget that adds $5 million to public education, according to Capital News Service. The money would provide free public education as deemed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The proposed budget for state education assistance in 2022 is $7.8 billion.
Most of Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, crossed over to the House of Delegates and subsequently received approval from that chamber, though mostly via bloc vote. However, one of Deeds’ bills aimed at preventing gun violence did not make it out of the Senate.
SB 1250 sought to require a state background check before an individual can rent a firearm. According to committee testimony, the bill was prompted by the recent deaths of two men by their own hand at a firing range.
“Neither of these young men would have been able to buy a weapon because of their mental health backgrounds, but they were able to rent a weapon and they were able to end their lives,” Deeds said during a January Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
The bill eventually was left in committee, effectively killing it.
Two Deeds bills to improve and expand absentee ballot options look like they will meet different fates this session.
SB 1245, which would require the establishment of a drop-off location for the return of marked absentee ballots at the office of the general registrar and each voter satellite office, appears likely to pass the House before the end of session.
However, SB 1246, was left on the table during a Tuesday meeting of a House subcommittee.
The bill would have required certain actions to be taken to process absentee ballots that are returned by mail before Election Day, including requiring the general registrar to examine the ballot envelopes to verify completion, mark the pollbook and direct election officers to insert the ballots in optical scan counting equipment or other secure ballot container without initiating any ballot count totals.