RICHMOND, Va. -- The much last 47-days in Virginia government have been cloaked in scandal, but shortly before noon Sunday, both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates completed work on amendments to the bi-annual state budget and adjourned "sine die," marking the end of a tumultuous 2019 General Assembly session.
Session was scheduled to end Saturday, but a dispute over whether the House would agree to budget amendments signed off on by a group of negotiators from both bodies extended the session by one day. Sunday, both chambers quickly signed off on the "conference report" to amend Virginia's two year budget totaling more than $100 billion.
Those amendments included language to give Virginia public school teachers a five-percent pay raise starting in September, more money to hire school counselors statewide, and a $87 million increase in funding for K-12 schools, officials said.
The 2019 legislative session has been mired in controversy involved all three top elected officials in Virginia.
Governor Ralph Northam continues to face calls for his resignation after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced and his subsequent handling of the situation. Two woman have accused Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, and lawmakers have said they plan public hearings on the allegations. Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to once wearing black face as a part of a costume for a party when he was in college.
Despite the cloud of controversy, state lawmakers said they made progress that will impact the daily lives of Virginians.
"I am proud of the work and accomplishments of the 2019 General Assembly Session,” said Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R - Colonial Heights). “The General Assembly brought stable leadership and delivered results on the issues that matter most at a time when the Commonwealth needed it most. Four-hundred years ago, Virginia set in motion an experiment in representative democracy. I consider it a high honor to have led this institution through its 400th year and am immensely proud of the work we accomplished."
“As the General Assembly adjourns, I am pleased by the progress we were able to make in important areas like eviction prevention and reduction, school safety, protecting our environment, and economic development," Northam said in a statement. "I am also heartened that the budget reflects a number of our administration’s priorities including K-12 education and teacher salaries, higher education, affordable housing, and broadband. I want to thank the legislators for their hard work and focus on serving Virginians this session.”
Republicans lawmakers, who control the majority in both chambers, celebrated legislative wins in tax conformity, school safety initiatives based off work done by the House Select Committee on Safety, and a package of bills dealing with health care costs. Democrats counted work on increased funding for public schools, bi-partisan measures on coal ash recycling, and legislation to address eviction rates as a few legislative successes in 2019 despite being the minority party.
Several pieces of legislation made quite a stir in 2019 after passing both chambers. Virginia increased the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, stiffened the penalty for drivers who fail to move over for emergency vehicles stopped on roadways, and rolled back what's known as the "King's Dominion Law," which will now allow school districts to begin the school year before Labor Day.
Governor Northam has approved the smoking age change, but has not yet acted on the "Move Over" bill or the "King's Dominion Law" repeal.
Virginia will soon establish an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative maps. After years of court battles over legislative maps drawn by the General Assembly, state lawmakers approved a plan that would establish a panel of eight legislators and eight citizens to draw Virginia's maps. Anti-gerrymandering groups championed the legislation as a step in the right direct to limit partisan map drawing in the Commonwealth.
Casino gambling took a step closer to becoming a realty in Virginia. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) will review key components of allowing gaming in Virginia and report by to lawmakers by November. If given the final thumbs up, cities that qualify would ask residents whether or not to allow a casinos.
Like most years, the 2019 General Assembly will also be defined by what was not accomplished. Although it passed the Senate, ratification of the equal rights amendment failed once again in the House of Delegates. Passage by the legislature would have made Virginia the 38th state to do so, reaching the threshold for enshrining equal protection under the law regardless of sex in the U.S. Constitution.
Although versions passed both chambers, Virginia lawmakers could not come to final agreement on a "Hands Free Driving Law," which would have outlawed driving while holding a phone, so any efforts to change the distracted driving statute in Virginia will wait until 2020 at the earliest.
Democrats said Republicans once again blocked gun control efforts from meaningful votes in either chamber, to which Republicans said they are protecting Second Amendment rights. Efforts to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and increase the minimum wage in Virginia were defeated again in 2019.
Both Democrats and Republicans said that while many will remember 2019 for scandals that rocked the executive branch, their work has made changes that many people may not have heard about.
"Virginia just became the first state in the nation to acknowledge with profound regret the existence of racial terror lynchings," Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said. "That’s a huge deal."
"We did great work on tax reform, in particular, getting people’s money back to them. We’ve had major legislation just today on redistricting reform," said Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover
"We’re about to vote on a budget that increases teacher pay," Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, said. "We’re about to vote on a budget to increase the student-counselor ratio."
Looking ahead, state lawmakers return to Richmond in April to consider amendments and vetoes submitted by Governor Northam. Many of the hot button issues debated in the 2019 session will be used by both parties ahead of November elections, when every member of both the House of Delegates and the Senate are up for re-election.