Gov. Ralph Northam announced Sunday that he has signed far-reaching legislation to spur renewable energy, ease access to voting and to enact criminal justice reforms.
Northam's actions on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the voting bills and criminal justice measures underscore the political transformation in Virginia since Democrats won control of the General Assembly in the 2019 legislative elections. Northam signed a number of bills that Democrats had proposed for years but that were defeated when Republicans controlled the legislature.
For example, Northam said he has signed measures to repeal the photo ID requirement for voting, to make Election Day a state holiday - canceling the century-old holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson - and to allow no-excuse absentee voting.
Earlier Sunday, Northam announced that he has proposed an amendment to a marijuana decriminalization bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, calling for a work group to report the results of a study on the potential legalization of marijuana in November 2021.
He also said he has signed measures sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, to permanently halt the suspension of driver's licenses for unpaid fines or court costs.
In addition, Northam said he has signed bills sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, to raise the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000.
Northam faced a midnight Saturday deadline to act on bills the legislature passed during the winter session. On Easter Sunday his administration rolled out a list of his actions on key measures. Lawmakers will return to Richmond April 22 to take up Northam's proposed amendments to legislation, including his proposed changes to the state budget stemming from the COVID-19 crisis.
Clean Economy Act
The Virginia Clean Economy Act, sponsored by McClellan and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, requires that by 2045, all of the energy sold by the state’s electric utilities come from renewable sources like wind and solar.
The measure had the backing of a broad coalition of environmental groups, the state’s utilities and the renewable energy industry.
The package also will expand the private solar market in Virginia and boost the state’s energy efficiency standard.
The measure also will make it easier for Dominion Energy to obtain regulatory approval for its massive offshore wind project planned off the coast of Virginia Beach, estimated to cost nearly $7.8 billion.
“This is the most significant clean energy law in Virginia’s history,” McClellan said in a statement the Northam administration distributed. “The bill that the governor signed will make Virginia the first Southern state with a 100 percent clean energy standard."
Citing the financial wreckage from the pandemic, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, asserted that the Clean Economy Act will lead to "a 25 percent hike in power bills" that would be "tough in a great economy," and "potentially devastating as Virginia looks to rebuild."
Northam also is seeking technical amendments to the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, sponsored by Herring and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, that requires Virginia to join the multistate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“These new clean energy laws propel Virginia to leadership among the states in fighting climate change,” Northam said.
The governor signed bills sponsored by Lindsey and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, to remove the requirement that voters show a photo ID before voting. Democrats say voter ID laws make it harder for low-income people and minorities to vote. Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, signed Virginia's photo ID law in 2013, terming it a protection against potential voter fraud.
Northam also signed bills sponsored by Lindsey and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, to make Election Day a state holiday. The measures repeal the state Lee-Jackson holiday.
Virginia has marked a state holiday for Lee’s birthday since 1889. It added Jackson to the Lee holiday in the early 1900s.
In the mid-1980s, the state began marking the federal holiday to civil rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, as Lee-Jackson-King Day. In 2000, Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican, called for splitting them into separate holidays.
Northam has put a particular emphasis on racial inequities since the blackface scandal erupted in February 2019 and prompted many Democratic lawmakers to call for him to resign.
The governor also signed bills sponsored by Herring and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, to allow early voting 45 days before an election without requiring an excuse. Virginia currently requires voters to give the state a reason why they cannot vote in person on Election Day, such as a work, family or school obligation or a trip out of town.
The governor also signed: a bill sponsored by Lindsey that extends the close of polling hours on Election Day from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.; measures sponsored by Del. Josh Cole, D-Fredericksburg and Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, to implement automatic voter registration for people accessing service at a Department of Motor Vehicles office or the DMV website; and bills sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, that expand the timelines for obtaining absentee voting applications and returning absentee ballots.
Herring's bill would decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and create a $25 civil penalty. Northam supports the bill, under which simple possession would no longer carry the threat of a criminal conviction and potential jail time.
The bill creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana. Northam proposes to require that report by November 30, 2021.
Current law imposes a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum 30-day jail sentence for a first offense, and subsequent offenses are a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Criminal justice advocates argued that the legislation does not address the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement that exists across the state.
The ACLU of Virginia and other groups have opposed Herring's legislation, favoring bills to legalize simple possession. Those efforts were shut down by the House Courts of Justice Committee, which did not back proposals from lawmakers like Dels. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth.
Herring's bill would seal the records of convictions and prohibit employers from inquiring about past convictions.
Northam's move to sign the increase of the felony larceny threshold brings Virginia in line with a majority of other states and the District of Columbia, many of which have raised their thresholds even higher, according to research from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts.
Northam proposed to add an emergency clause - meaning the measures would take effect upon his signature and not on July 1 - to bills sponsored by McClellan and Lindsey that would make people sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000 eligible for parole consideration.
Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but juries were not instructed of the change until 2000 following a court ruling.
“Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said. “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance.”