As a general rule, the new laws the General Assembly passes during its regular session in January and February take effect on July 1st every year. Some of the big changes we made this year, including increasing the minimum wage, may have delayed effective dates, while others, like all of our gun violence prevention statutes will take effect in just a couple of weeks.
So many big, exciting, historic things made headlines this session, that you could be forgiven for forgetting that we did some things that, in any other year, would have been THE big story out of Richmond.
For instance, you probably knew that Virginia decriminalized simple possession of marijuana, so that it’s now a civil offense punishable by a fine, but did you know that we also legalized sport betting in Virginia? The Virginia State Lottery will be in charge of granting licenses, setting up strong consumer protections (that’s why my bill was incorporated into the new law) and we established a Gambling Treatment and Support Fund.
You probably heard that we granted localities the right to regulate firearms in the buildings and parks they own. You may even have heard recently that localities will have the right to move, remove or contextualize confederate monuments! You may not have heard about some of the other new powers we granted localities, and counties in particular.
Reducing reliance on real property taxes in places like Fairfax County in particular has long been one of my priorities. Now local governments can impose their own cigarette tax and create a plastic bag tax. They can also adopt their own affordable housing ordinances with certain provisions.
Localities now have the authority to enact their own human rights ordinances or non-discrimination policies in housing, employment, public accommodations, credit, and education on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We also updated the Hate Crimes Statute to include gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation to the categories of victims covered. This means that a higher criminal penalty can be sought for the offence and that the crime will be reported to the central information database.
You may have heard about the Clean Economy Act which seeks to transform the grid in Virginia and eventually wean us off of fossil fuels all together, but you probably didn’t know we made it easier for electric vehicle owners to install a charging station in front of their home or within the boundary of their community association’s parking area. For those looking to live greener lives, we’ve also made it easier to obtain residential solar panels with the Solar Freedom Act.
Many folks lauded us for ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people too poor to pay their court fines or fees, but did you know that we also made it easier to report an overdose without having to worry about being arrested? Our Good Samaritan Law passed after being introduced for years without success.
In a year that seems to be a nonstop series of unprecedented bad news headlines, you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard that the General Assembly finally capped interest rates and fees on loans from predatory lenders. The loan companies will also have to make more reasonable attempts to verify a borrower’s income.
Student loan borrowers will also have protections at the state level, including a new Borrower’s Bill of Rights that requires student loan servicing companies to be licensed by the Bureau of Financial Institutions and promise not to lie to borrowers about their repayment options. If the Federal Department of Education won’t reign these companies in, we now can in Virginia.
In fact, we did a lot of things in Virginia that the feds just aren’t doing anymore. Some, they are now finally picking up on. In Virginia we passed a bill to prohibit health insurance companies from charging more than $50 a month for copays. Medicare and Medicaid just announced a similar deal with the pharmaceutical companies. It’s almost like they saw the writing on the wall.
Virginia is finally a leader on many important issues. I look forward to setting an example for the rest of the Country on justice and police reform at our upcoming special session this summer.
If you’ve got a legislative idea for next year, I’m all ears!