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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

February 12, 2018

Week 6 General Assembly Update

State / Issue

Virginia Capitol Building

The Wason Center has been following the 2018 Virginia General Assembly session and the legislation that has been debated. In the past week, the General Assembly has considered issues such as utility regulation, marijuana oil regulations, and equal pay.

Governor Ralph Northam has endorsed a utility package that would allow the state to regulate electric utility rates. In 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow electric companies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to freeze base rates and prohibit the State Corporation Commission (SCC) from issuing customer refunds in the case of excess profits. As a result, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest energy provider, was able to profit millions from the freeze.  Senate Bill 966, introduced by Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), would allow the SCC to review company rates every three years and if the companies were found overcharging ratepayers, the excess money would be used for renewable energy investments such as wind and solar power. Mark Webb, a senior vice president at Dominion Energy, states that the package “gives a pathway to transform the grid and build renewables in a way that lessens impact on customer rates.” Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) supports the legislation and argues that it “restores oversight” by requiring the SCC to approve Dominion’s spending in advance and reviews the earning every three years. There has been notable pushback from both sides of the aisle regarding the package. Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford) states, “I can’t get past that we’re not giving money back to ratepayers and not giving the SCC the oversight they should have”. Furthermore, he states that he regrets voting in favor of the rate freeze in 2015 and wants to “correct that mistake.” Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is chiefly concerned with the problem that the money would not be 100% returned to ratepayers. Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, states that Herring’s concern is that the bill would allow energy companies to “double dip,” and charge customers for the same investment twice. On Friday, February 9, the Senate voted 26-13 in favor of the utility reform package.

In other action, Senate Bill 419, introduced by Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), proposed to establish equal pay regardless of gender. Additionally, if employees could prove that they were not receiving equal pay due to gender, attorney costs and fees would be recovered. On January 22, the bill was passed in a 15-0 vote in the Senate Commerce Committee and on February 7, the bill was passed in an 11-5 vote in the Senate Finance Committee. However, after reviewing the bill more closely, several Republicans have changed their minds and voted to kill the bill for the 2018 session. Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, believes that by recovering attorney fees, small businesses would be more likely to face costly lawsuits. Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford) states that he missed the legal provision in his first reading of the bill and has now decided to vote against the continuation of SB 419 in the 2018 session. “The litigation aspect of it gives me a great deal of concern. That’s what I do for a living and I know the mischief that can be caused by that,” said Stuart. The bill is on the docket to be heard in the 2019 session.

In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and required ratification by 38 of the 50 states by 1982. However, in 1982, only 35 states had ratified the amendment so it was never fully adopted into the United States Constitution. Today, the amendment is still being pushed for ratification in Virginia even though the ratification time period has expired. GOP members in the House of Delegates have stated that they will “not consider the legislation because the congressional deadline to ratify the amendment expired 36 years ago.” Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), the chairman of the Privileges and Elections committee, has failed to assign any bills relating to the ERA to a House subcommittee and argues that “the bills are not lawfully before us”. On February 9, a Senate panel voted against the ratification in a 9-5 vote.

One of the most controversial topics before the Assembly is the legalization of marijuana. California and Colorado are among the two states that have 100% adopted the legalization of recreational marijuana while 29 states (including D.C.) currently allows the use of medical marijuana. House Bill 1251, introduced by Del. Benjamin Cline (R-Rockbridge), would allow cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil, both non-hallucinogenic, to be dispensed at the discretion of a practitioner if their patient was diagnosed with a condition or disease whose symptoms could be alleviated by the use of these oils. Currently, a practitioner may only issue these oils to provide treatment for the symptoms of intractable epilepsy. On Friday, February 2, the bill was passed in a unanimous 98-0 vote in the House. The bill is continuing on to the Senate Committee on Education and Health. Cline has argued that the bill “allows another option for residents of Virginia, and does provide some assistance for pain management and may give people an alternative to…opioids.” Cline is very optimistic of the bill’s chances in the House especially at a time where Virginia citizens are extremely focused and concerned with the current opioid crisis facing the nation and the state. If HB 1251 becomes law, recreational marijuana would remain illegal.

Support for Marijuana legalization in the Commonwealth is robust and transcends traditional political lines such as partisanship. The latest Wason Center survey finds that overall support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana is 76% and nearly 60% of Republicans support that proposal. Given the bipartisan support of this issue, the likelihood of the General Assembly taking action seems high.

A bill that sought to allow people to bring guns into churches was tabled and will not be considered further this session. Currently, Virginia law prohibits guns, knives, and other weapons from churches without “good and sufficient reason” for having the weapon during religious meetings. House Bill 1180, sponsored by Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun) sought to repeal this law. Guns in public places, such as churches, are hazy in terms of legality. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Republicans in favor of the proposal say current law is unclear and creates confusion on whether weapons are permissible or not. Despite receiving enough to support to move out of the Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee, the House passed over the bill and sent to the Courts of Justice Committee where it was tabled. Many GOP members of the House are currently against the bill because they believe it is not fully ready to be voted on. Even LaRock has admitted that the bill may have better chances if it was voted on in 2019. “I would rather have a little more time on it, try to better inform the general public and the rest of the delegates that would be voting on this as to where the repeal of this would leave faith leaders,” said LaRock.

The General Assembly still has a full month left in the 2018 session. The Wason Center will post later this week about bills that survive Crossover Day, which is tomorrow February 13th.

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