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In-state tuition for undocumented students, a bag tax and other overshadowed bits in Va.’s blue revolution

Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) speaks on the Virginia House floor last week.

RICHMOND — Del. Mark D. Sickles was describing a landmark LGBT rights bill on the House floor recently when he noticed a fellow Democrat waving at him — a signal that it was time to wrap it up.

 

“Maybe LGBT rights are boring now,” Sickles (D-Fairfax) later quipped.

 

With Democrats in control of Virginia’s House, Senate and governor’s mansion for the first time in a generation, legislation that is revolutionary by Old Dominion standards has been passing rapid-fire out of both chambers — sometimes with barely a yawn.

 

High-profile bills to tighten restrictions on guns, loosen laws on abortion and voting, boost the minimum wage and decriminalize marijuana have overshadowed a raft of other measures that, in any other year, would have created a stir in Richmond.

 

At the halfway point in the General Assembly’s 60-day session, here is a selection of bills that have largely flown below the radar:

 

In-state tuition for undocumented college students: Anyone who has attended a Virginia high school for at least two years, regardless of citizenship, would be eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities under bills passed by the House and Senate. Each bill must pass in the other chamber before going to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for his consideration. About 1,500 undocumented students are enrolled in the state’s public colleges, out of a total student population of about 400,000.

 

Skilled-gaming machines: Unregulated, untaxed devices akin to slot machines would be outlawed under bills that have passed the House and Senate. Known as “skill games” and “gray machines,” they have popped up in convenience stores throughout the state and put a dent in Virginia Lottery sales, which help fund schools. The machines would be allowed only in “family entertainment centers” offering other coin-operated games.

 

Sentencing: Under a measure passed by the Senate, criminal defendants would have the right to pick judge or jury for sentencing, which currently must be decided by a jury.

 

Guns: Individuals who assemble with firearms with the intent of intimidating others could be charged with unlawful paramilitary activity — a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years and a $2,500 fine — under a bill passed by the Senate.

 

Firearms in licensed home-based day cares would have to be stored — unloaded and locked — under a bill that passed the Senate and House.

 

And under a suicide prevention measure approved by the Senate, people who are mentally ill could put themselves on a list that would prohibit them from buying a firearm.

 

Death penalty: The Senate passed a bill to prohibit the death penalty in cases of severe mental illness. The House had several similar measures that did not advance in that chamber.

 

LGBT protections: Gender identity and sexual orientation would be added to hate-crime law under bills passed by the House and Senate. The state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage would be repealed under legislation that also cleared both chambers.

 

Those measures are separate from the more sweeping LGBT rights bill that Sickles sponsored, which would prohibit discrimination in housing, public and private employment, and public accommodations such as restaurants. A companion bill passed the Senate.

 

Shopping-bag tax: A 5-cent tax would be imposed on plastic shopping bags across the state under a bill passed by the House. The Senate version applies only to Northern Virginia but allows other localities to impose the tax by ordinance.

 

Vaping: A bill to ban flavored vaping products died in the Senate. The House did not have a similar measure.

 

Booker T. Washington statue: The Virginia-born orator and activist would get a statue on Richmond’s Capitol Square under a bill sponsored by Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke). Former governor Harry Byrd, the segregationist Democrat already immortalized in bronze, will stay on the square after Del. Wendell S. Walker (R-Lynchburg) withdrew his bill to remove the statue. Walker had meant the measure as a dare to Democrats, thinking it would deter them from allowing localities to remove Confederate monuments. He had second thoughts after Democrats asked to sign onto his bill.