(The Center Square) – Virginia lawmakers in the General Assembly wrapped up a sprint of a 46-day session over the weekend, gaveling out after culling legislative proposals and forwarding off measures to the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers in the politically-divided General Assembly spent weeks this session discussing and debating myriad issues ranging from regulations for electric utilities to proposed tax cuts. While the session was marked by contentious debates on several headline issues, including guns and abortion, lawmakers did find bipartisan consensus on a range of issues.
According to Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears’ office, the General Assembly passed 1,687 bills out of the 2,863 introduced. Here’s a look at a few of the bills sent to Youngkin’s desk this legislative session.
REGULATIONS ON HEMP PRODUCTS
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted in favor of a bill that will set tighter regulations on sales of hemp-derived products, which include THC – the main psychoactive chemical from the cannabis plant that gives users the feeling of “high.”
The bill specifically outlines that anyone who manufactures or sells an “industrial hemp extract” or food containing an industrial hemp extract must obtain a permit from the state. Additionally, the bill limits those products to containing up to 0.3% THC and no more than 2 milligrams per package. A person could be fined up to $10,000 per day for violations.
The proposal also lays out specific labeling and packaging requirements for products or food containing an “industrial hemp extract,” including that the ingredients contained in the product are “in a font no less than 1/16th of an inch.”
The bill does not move the state closer to establishing a retail market for sales of marijuana. While marijuana was legalized in Virginia in 2021, the state still has yet to set up a retail framework for legal sales.
Proponents of the bill to regulate hemp products argued it is a key step to regulating the industrial hemp market and protecting Virginians – particularly children and teens. The bill was introduced following reports of children becoming sick after eating gummies without knowing they were infused with Delta-8 THC.
“I would emphasize that this is an important bill in that we are witnessing a proliferation of these products – primarily these hemp-derived products that are synthetic in nature – that are causing tremendous amounts of increase in emergency hospital visits, particularly from children, from ingesting these edibles,” Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said Friday in support of the measure.
Lawmakers who voted against the measure raised concern about the regulatory structure of the bill, particularly when it came to the departments with authority over regulations. Speaking in opposition to the bill, Sen. Scott Surrovell noted that under the legislation, the Cannabis Control Authority will be regulating marijuana and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulating Delta-8 “even though they have the identical effect on human beings.”
“This is a first step towards a complete mess. That’s what this is,” Surrovell said Friday. “This is like saying we’re going to have ABC regulate liquor and we’re going to have the Department of Health regulate beer.”
Surrovell and a few other Democratic lawmakers raised concern they will have to “undo” the code language in coming legislative sessions.
The bill ultimately passed out of the House in a 85-9 vote and the Senate in a 23-17 vote.
JURY DUTY PAY
On the second-to-last day of the legislative session, lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted to pass measures that will increase Virginia’s per-day jury duty pay from $30 to $50.
Two bills originating in the House and Senate – SB 789 and HB 2317 – initially proposed raising jury duty pay to $100 per day when first introduced, which would have likely made Virginia’s per-day jury pay the highest in the nation. Lawmakers ultimately settled on a $50 per day rate, which puts Virginia in line with a handful of other states who pay this rate as the maximum compensation, according to an analysis by the National Center for State Courts.
Del. Angelia Williams-Graves, D-Norfolk, told The Center Square the compromise on the measures ultimately came down to funding in the budget. The delegate said even though $50 per day jury duty pay “does not keep up with inflation,” it’s “much better” than the current rate.
“Thirty dollars is just unbelievably low,” Williams-Graves said. “We want people to do their civic duty, but we also don’t want to cause any financial harm for doing it.”
“The increase to $50 is not what we wanted, but it was a major move in the right direction to help to make it just a little bit more bearable for jury duty service,” the delegate later added.
Williams-Graves said in the future she would like to see future increases to Virginia’s jury duty pay, noting the ideal situation would be tying the pay to an annual increase.
TAX CREDIT FOR GUN SAFETY PURCHASE
While most gun-related measures proposed during the legislative session were defeated, one measure in particular received bipartisan support.
House Bill 2387 by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, establishes a nonrefundable income tax credit of up to $300 for taxable years 2023 through 2027 for individuals who purchase firearm safety devices, like gun safes or lock boxes. The bill was supported by both the National Rifle Association and gun safety groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords.
In a committee hearing earlier this month, Lopez noted similar tax credits for gun storage devices were passed in both Connecticut and Michigan.
“This bill is not requiring people to do anything. It’s not banning anything,” Lopez said. “This bill simply incentivizes the purchase of a gun safe or a safe gun storage device.”
RETURN TO WORK FOR RETIRED TEACHERS
Virginia lawmakers sent a bill to the governor that would reduce from 12 months to six months the required break in service for a teacher, bus driver or administrator to return to work and continue receiving their retirement allowance under the Virginia Retirement System.
The measure adds specialized student support decisions to the list of employees who can return after the six month break and extends the sunset on the bill through 2028.
In a House subcommittee hearing on the measure last month, the bill’s author Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, said the purpose of the bill was to help “get our experienced teachers back into our workforce” as the state faces a teacher shortage.
Coyner noted that bill was inspired by recommendations in a Joint Legislative Audit and Review report from November 2022, which examined the pandemic’s impact on education in Virginia. The report discovered broadening gaps between the number of teachers leaving the profession versus the number of newly licensed teachers entering the workforce. Specifically, as of 2021 data, 10,900 teachers left the profession compared to 7,200 newly-licensed teachers.
Proponents of the bill, which included the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, argued the bill would give school districts the ability to hire back qualified, veteran teachers to address shortages plaguing school districts across the state.