Council updated on legislative priorities for General Assembly session

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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

During the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session, which commenced on Jan. 8, the city plans to staunchly support state legislation expanding gun control laws, while less firmly supporting legislation that would decriminalize marijuana.

City council received an update on Alexandria’s priorities going into session during Tuesday’s legislative meeting. City Legislative Director Sarah Taylor, fresh off the road from Richmond, said that about 5,500 bills have been proposed by members of the Democrat-majority State Senate and House of Delegates.

Of the proposed bills, the city has expressed support for legislation that would expand gun control laws to prohibit firearms on school and city property, ban unlawful discriminatory housing practices and repeal the statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriages.

Other bills, such as those pertaining to the prohibition of assault weapons, comprehensive background checks for those wishing to purchase firearms and the decriminalization of marijuana, have been designated as “under watch” by the city. This designation is used to note legislation that the city has interest in or supports philosophically but still has practical and implementational concerns with, Taylor said.

Due to the sheer number of bills being proposed, Taylor said all of the city’s previously determined priorities are being addressed.

“There are significant efforts to reform the redistricting process in Virginia, efforts to allow Virginia to take part in regional greenhouse gas initiative, efforts to transition the statewide electricity supply to carbon free sources and bills to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses or driver privileges cards,” Taylor said.

“I do not think … there is a section of our legislative principles that has not been touched, in some way, shape or form, by legislation filed this session,” Taylor continued.

Gun laws have become a dominant issue this General Assembly session, according to Taylor. In anticipation of a pro-gun rights rally in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) declared a temporary emergency ban on all weapons from Capitol Square, while an abundance of legislation has been drafted granting localities the authority to ban firearms in government buildings, local parks and permitted events on public property.

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City council unanimously adopted a resolution in June expressing support for the passage of gun safety legislation during this General Assembly session.

Considering that the Democrats took control of both chambers and the slew of proposed gun control legislation that has followed, Councilor Amy Jackson asked about the response from second amendment advocates in the state.

Taylor attended a Prince William County board meeting in December that drew hundreds of people in response to the board’s decision to overturn a declaration that made Prince William County a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” One of the public speakers thanked the board, claiming the new Democratic members of the board had helped organize a group of people that had previously been aimless.

“It is definitely something that is organizing and turning out people who might not have been organized or turned out before,” Taylor said. “How long it lasts, what it really means, that’s the long-game of how this all plays out.”

Councilor Mo Seifeldein questioned the city’s decision not to outright support legislation that would either decriminalize or legalize marijuana in Virginia.

“I know it’s a big part of the criminal justice reform that’s taking place, especially in Northern Virginia. And given some of the things that have been reported from courts in the beginning of January, I think this will help aid progressive prosecutors,” Seifeldein said.

The city has expressed its support for the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana, Mayor Justin Wilson said. However, specific aspects of the proposed legislation have given city officials pause.

According to Wilson, the commonwealth’s attorney has expressed concern about the language used in the bill regarding expungement. Taylor cited the city’s desire to find a fee schedule that is “deterrent without being punitive” and that better defines rules regarding driving under the influence.

“I think you’re right, that big picture we support this direction. I think that’s why we put it on watch,” Wilson said. “There’s some details about the legislation that need to be sorted out before we say that we support the legislation.”

The first step of decriminalization is likely to pass during this General Assembly session, while, given the broader scope of its impact, legislation regarding legalization will go to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, Taylor said.

The city’s limited ability to move or remove Confederate war memorials and statues has been a point of conversation for years. With a majority Democrat House and Senate, Taylor said the discussion is now moving forward. Half a dozen bills have been proposed, with more coming, that increase local authority over war memorials and statues. Some bills require affirmative votes of local elected bodies; others require a public hearing, Taylor said.

This year’s session also involves action on Northam’s proposed budget.

A proposed increase of At Risk Add-on funding for schools with students of low economic status to $140 million is of particular interest to the city, Taylor said. As is an additional $63 million in funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, which brings the total trust fund to $83 million dispersed over three years. It represents “a significant investment in affordable housing in Virginia,” Taylor said.

Down in Richmond, the city is also expressing support for budget items that would benefit the region as a whole. A proposed $41 million for the Northern Virginia Transit Authority gets the organization closer to full restoration of its original $82 million in funding.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker made a motion, seconded by Councilor John Chapman, to approve the city’s recommended positions. The agenda was approved unanimously.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on March 7. Most of the bills that are passed will go into effect on July 1.

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