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Virginia lawmakers wind down this year’s session

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – The Democratic-led Virginia General Assembly finished much of its work for the year Saturday, passing the state budget, and approving a marijuana legalization bill and dozens of other pieces of legislation.

Lawmakers worked into the night, putting the final touches on bills and hashing out last-minute compromises in conference committees. The part-time legislature was effectively wrapping up a busy session that was reshaped due to the coronavirus pandemic, though they will convene briefly Monday for parliamentary reasons.

With Democrats in full control of the state government for a second straight year, the session saw the passage of legislation that brings more sweeping policy changes to Virginia. Lawmakers have also voted this session to abolish the death penalty, expand job-training at community colleges, get more electric vehicles on the road and tighten gun laws.

Marijuana legalization was a top priority for Democrats and Gov. Ralph Northam, though it had looked to be in trouble toward the end of the week. After days of difficult negotiations between members of the House and Senate, lawmakers sent a measure to Northam that would legalize up to an ounce of marijuana in 2024, at the same time retail sales would begin.

Lawmakers also gave final approval Saturday to a budget that funds key legislative priorities and pandemic-relief efforts, boosts the state’s reserve fund and gives state workers and state-supported employees a raise.

They also plowed through a calendar of dozens more bills. Among those that won final passage:

– Measures that would make it easier for first responders and certain health care workers who contract COVID-19 to get workers’ compensation pay.

– A Freedom of Information Act reform bill that would make criminal investigative files in cases that are no longer ongoing publicly available, with limited exceptions.

– A measure that would ban firearms within the state Capitol and the surrounding area.

As work continued Saturday night, lawmakers were expected to take up a measure to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and another to add judges to Virginia’s Court of Appeals.

The House of Delegates has done its work virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, a setup that led to concerns from the Republican minority and some transparency advocates. The smaller Senate has been meeting at a science museum where the larger space allowed for social distancing.

After Monday’s pro forma meeting, lawmakers will reconvene briefly in April to consider bills the governor returns with recommended changes.

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