All that remained undone was action on the state’s two-year, $135 billion budget. Lawmakers plan to come back Thursday and finish that task.
The Senate and the House of Delegates have agreed on key components of the budget, including overcoming Senate objections to a House plan to freeze college tuition for the coming year. That deal, reached shortly before midnight on Saturday, helped prevent a legislative meltdown that might have seen the clock run out on some of the big goals of the new Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Holding both the legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in a generation, Democratic leaders pushed an agenda they said focused on everyday people.
“This is our most diverse General Assembly membership ever. . . . It actually looks like Virginia,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the first woman and first Jew to lead the House in its 401-year history. “We had a unique opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of Virginians,” she said, citing new laws that would protect gender and racial equality and improve conditions for workers.
Republicans warned that the flood of legislation, much of which had been thwarted by years of GOP control, came at the expense of Virginia’s thriving business community.
“I do not think you can legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating business out of prosperity,” Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said, citing the effort to raise the minimum wage as an example of a bill that will increase burdens on business owners.
Under bills passed Sunday, the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would increase incrementally until it hits $15 in 2026. Though many Democrats ran for election last year on promises to increase the minimum wage, members of the House had clashed with the more conservative Senate over how to do it.
Senators had favored carving the state into regions with higher wages in more-affluent areas, but the bill now headed to Gov. Ralph Northam for signature sets statewide standards.
Another measure passed on Sunday will give local governments broader powers to levy taxes, loosening Virginia’s tradition of concentrating taxing authority at the state level.
Under the bill, which also goes to Northam for signature, counties will have citylike powers to impose taxes on cigarettes, tourism and events.
Both the House and the Senate also approved complex legislation legalizing casino gambling for five economically distressed cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond. Each city can hold a public referendum this fall on whether to build a casino and can choose its own developer without state competition for the gambling license.
Lawmakers estimate the casinos could generate thousands of jobs and put some $150 million in tax revenue into the state treasury. In addition, the deal would allow the expansion of slot-machine-like gambling devices based on historical horse racing, opening the door to a possible gaming center in the town of Dumfries in Prince William County with as many as 1,650 of the devices.
In addition, the House and the Senate both approved bills allowing online sales of lottery tickets and legalizing sports wagering, although betting on Virginia colleges and universities is prohibited.
Both chambers agreed on a plan to decriminalize marijuana, setting a $25 civil penalty for a first offense. The bill, which drew bipartisan support, also sets out a mechanism for expunging a charge from someone’s record if the case is dismissed in court.
Lawmakers also approved a bill requesting a study on the issue of legalizing marijuana.
One of the more emotional issues of the session was the question of whether to give localities the power to remove or destroy Confederate statues. Both the House and Senate approved such a measure on Sunday after hashing out a mechanism for local governments to issue public notice and receive input before taking action.
The House and the Senate also approved a measure creating a commission to study whether to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that represents Virginia in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall and to recommend a replacement.
In a further expansion of local authority, lawmakers voted to let local governments decide whether to permit collective bargaining among public employees. The bill heading to Northam’s desk would allow teachers to unionize but carves out an exception for constitutional officers such as sheriffs and treasurers.
Northam, who has already signed more than 150 bills and now has scores more to consider, issued a statement thanking the legislature. “Virginians asked for a new direction in 2020, and together, we are delivering,” he said.
As the cascade of bills wound down on Sunday afternoon, Democrats who had been tense and jittery under deadline the night before loosened up. They led an off-key chorus of “Happy Birthday” for an assistant clerk in the House and watched college basketball on the electronic voting board.
“I came here to fight for a Virginia for all of us, and I think that that is truly what we’ve done,” Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) said.
Republicans said they were still adjusting to life in the minority.
“This was a session of recognizing that there is now a significant Democratic majority that [has] more progressive political ideas than Republicans have traditionally embraced,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said. When all the new laws take effect on July 1, Norment said, “I believe Virginia businesses are going to wake up . . . and go, ‘Oh my gosh, how did this happen?’”
Lawmakers rushed to leave the Capitol when the session adjourned at 5 p.m., one hour earlier than the agreed-on time — or 17 hours late, depending on your perspective. “I won’t miss any of you,” one delegate joked as he headed to the exit.
The session won’t officially end until work wraps up on the budget, which takes place Thursday to satisfy rules that require the lengthy document to be available for public scrutiny before action.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.