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New year, new look for General Assembly

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Legislature with a vastly different look kicked off this week. Here’s what you need to know.

Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — The landscape in Richmond is vastly different for the General Assembly session that began Wednesday.

The leaders have changed, and the building where bills get heard in committee is new.

Politics and priorities may change, too.

Here’s a primer on what you need to know.

Balance of Power

Democrats were within striking distance of a 50-50 split in the House but lost the 94th District tiebreaker and the 28th District court battle.

Republicans maintain control of both houses – 21-19 in the Senate and 51-49 in the House.

It’s unclear how the session will shake out with changed numbers and slimmer margins. Some lawmakers have three piles of bills, depending on the makeup of the House.

Last time the House was this close (it was 50-50 in 1998), there were bitter fights and near paranoia – some legislators were cautious about leaving their seats to use the bathroom at inopportune times for fear a bill would get voted on in their absence.

While both sides have sparred over the contested districts’ races, Republican and Democrat leaders, including Gov.-Elect Ralph Northam, have said they are willing to work on bipartisan issues.

New Leadership

• Gov.-elect Ralph Northam takes over for Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Saturday.

• Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, will preside over the Senate, taking over for Northam.

• Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the new speaker of the House, taking over for former Del. Bill Howell, who held the post for 14 years.

New Faces

The House of Delegates is younger, more female and more diverse after 19 new delegates were elected in November. The 16 new Democrats and three Republicans include many firsts: an Asian-American woman, the first Latinas, the first lesbian and the first transgender woman to serve in the legislature.

New Building

The General Assembly Building, where most of the committee hearings were held and legislators’ offices were located, is getting torn down and replaced. In the meantime, those meetings will take place in the renovated Pocahontas Building for the next four years, just south of the Capitol at 10th and Main streets.

The new building is smaller – tinier committee rooms, legislators’ offices, hallways and gathering spaces.

Some committee meetings will happen in the Capitol, too.

It may mean a less-accessible government if everyone can’t squeeze in to hear about or testify on their bills. Groups are being discouraged from bringing large delegations to Richmond.

Livestream

The legislature is streaming committee meetings for the first time. Video stream links will be available on each meeting agenda on the Legislative Information System, at lis.virginia.gov. That should offset some of the crowding.

Subcommittee meetings, where a lot of bills are discussed and killed, will not be officially streamed, although advocacy group Progress Virginia does plan to try to stream them at eyesonrichmond.org.

Priorities

Top issues include the budget, Medicaid expansion, marijuana decriminalization and local control of Confederate monuments.

Democrats and Northam want universal background checks, no-excuse absentee voting, outlawing candidates’ personal use of campaign funds and raising the felony threshold for larceny from $200 to $1,000.

Republicans are focused on cutting taxes and fees, addressing the regulatory climate, streamlining economic development efforts, boosting the state’s workforce development efforts and higher education affordability, among other issues.

Important Dates

• Saturday: Inauguration day includes a ceremony, parade, open house at the Governor’s Mansion and a ball in the evening.

• Jan. 19: Last day to file bills. So far 879 have been submitted.

• Feb. 14: Crossover, when bills passed in one chamber switch to the other.

• Feb. 28: Budget must be finished.

• March 10: Sine die (last day of session).

• April 18: Veto session where legislators attempt to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

• July 1: New laws go into effect.

Resources

• Find your legislator: whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov

• Great places to find, read bills: The state’s official website is lis.virginia.gov. Other good websites to track bills by topic or legislator include vpap.org and richmondsunlight.com.

• General information: virginiageneralassembly.gov