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Northam takes action on controversial bills
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Northam takes action on controversial bills

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RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam announced over the weekend that he had signed new laws related to gun safety, reproductive rights, protections for the LGBTQ community, Confederate monuments, access to voting, and criminal justice reform.

During Northam’s Friday press briefing on the state’s COVID-19 status, he said that he had until midnight on Saturday, April 11 to take action on the 1,291 bills passed by the General Assembly this session. Over the weekend, the governor’s office highlighted dozens of the bills he had signed into law.

Gun control

On Friday, Northam had already announced five gun violence prevention measures he had signed into law. One law will require background checks on all firearm sales in Virginia to prevent guns from ending up in dangerous hands. Another establishes an Extreme Risk Protective Order, which creates a legal mechanism for law enforcement to temporarily separate a person from their firearms when they represent a danger to themselves or others.

Other laws will reinstate Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month rule to help curtail stockpiling of firearms and trafficking; require gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours or face a civil penalty, and prevents children from accessing firearms by increasing the penalty for recklessly leaving firearms in their presence.

Northam proposed amendments to two bills. On a bill that allows localities to regulate firearms in public buildings, parks, recreation centers, and during permitted events, he proposed amendments to clarify the exemption for institutions of higher education.

Another proposed bill would prohibit individuals subject to protective orders from possessing firearms, require them to turn over their firearms within 24 hours, and certify to the court that they have turned over their weapons. Northam amended the legislation to enhance safety for victims by allowing judges to hold the respondent in contempt of court if they fail to comply with the certification requirements.

Abortion

Also on Friday, Northam announced he had signed the Reproductive Health Protection Act to repeal medically-unnecessary restrictions on women’s health care.

Senate Bill 183 and House Bill 1537 both expand who can perform first trimester abortions to include any person jointly licensed by the Board of Medicine and Nursing as a nurse practitioner acting within such person's scope of practice. The bill eliminates all of the procedures and processes, including the performance of an ultrasound, required to effect a pregnant woman's informed written consent to the performance of an abortion; however, the bill does not change the requirement that a pregnant woman's informed written consent first be obtained. The bill removes language classifying facilities that perform five or more first trimester abortions per month as hospitals for the purpose of complying with regulations establishing minimum standards for hospitals.

Confederate monuments

On Saturday, the governor signed bills that overturn the Commonwealth’s prohibition on the removal of Confederate war memorials. Starting July 1, localities will have the ability to remove, relocate, or contextualize the monuments on the locality’s public property, not including a monument or memorial located in a publicly-owned cemetery. Virginia is home to more than 220 public memorials to the Confederacy.

He also passed bills that create a commission to determine whether the Robert E. Lee statue in the United States Capitol should be replaced. To date, eight statues in the National Statuary Hall have been replaced, and seven additional states are working through a similar process to replace statues.

Northam also signed a bill establishing a commission to study slavery in Virginia and subsequent racial and economic discrimination.

Clean energy

Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which incorporates clean energy directions that he issued in Executive Order 43 in September 2019. The law requires new measures to promote energy efficiency, sets a schedule for closing old fossil fuel power plants, and requires electricity to come from 100 percent renewable sources such as solar or wind. Energy companies must pay penalties for not meeting their targets, and part of that revenue would fund job training and renewable energy programs in historically disadvantaged communities.

Voter access

The governor passed a law that allows for no-excuse absentee voting starting 45 days prior to an election. Virginia currently requires voters who wish to vote absentee to provide the state with a reason, from an approved list, why they are unable to vote on Election Day.

He signed bills that remove the requirement that voters show a photo ID prior to casting a ballot. The law provides alternative forms of identification a voter can provide, including voter registration confirmation documents; a student university ID; a valid employee identification card with a photograph; or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Another law he signed makes Election Day (the Tuesday after the first Monday in November) a state holiday. In order to maintain the same number of state holidays, this measure repeals the current Lee-Jackson Day holiday, established over 100 years ago to honor Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Other voting-related bills he signed will implement automatic voter registration for individuals accessing service at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office or the DMV website; expand absentee voting timelines to ensure access to the polls, and extends in-person polling hours from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Protections for LGBTQ

The Virginia Values Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, public and private employment, credit, and housing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill also codifies for state and local government employment the current prohibitions on discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, or status as a veteran.

Criminal justice reform

Northam signed several laws dealing with criminal justice reform. Included in the new laws are ones that: increase the felony grand larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000; repeal the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment of fines or costs be suspended; raise the age when a commonwealth’s attorney can transfer a juvenile to be tried as an adult without court approval from 14 to 16; end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving related offenses, including drug offenses and theft of motor fuel; allow inmates to earn credits against fines and court costs by performing community service, as opposed to only before or after imprisonment, and modify the current standards for writs of actual innocence.

The governor proposed an amendment to a bill that decriminalizes simple possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. The bill seals the records of convictions and prohibits employers from inquiring about past convictions. It creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana, and Northam proposes to require that report by Nov. 30, 2021.

The “Fishback” bills make individuals sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000 eligible for parole consideration. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, however juries were not instructed of this change until 2000 following a court ruling. The governor proposes adding an “emergency clause” to the measure.

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