Legislators Reflect On Hybrid General Assembly Session

By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record 4/23/21
 
It wasn’t the first time Valley lawmakers gathered virtually for the annual bruncheon hosted by Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, but it could be the last.
During Thursday’s post-legislative session breakfast event, more than 40 people signed on to listen to legislators representing Harrisonburg and Rockingham County as they shared their thoughts on the past session and concerns over the legalization of marijuana.
Panelists included state Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Dels. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater.
Before lawmakers dove into the specifics, a friendly face made an appearance that warranted recognition.
It was the official final event retired Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce President Frank Tamberrino attended, and legislators used their allotted time to thank Tamberrino for his work with the chamber and express how he will be missed.
“This is past my retirement date, but my last function,” Tamberrino said.
Runion, Wilt and Obenshain filed a resolution during the 2021 General Assembly session honoring Tamberrino, who spent 11 years with the chamber as its CEO and president.
Tamberrino will be succeeded by Chris Quinn, who will step into the position on April 29 and work remotely until May 24.
During the virtual event, legislators were given time to update attendees on how the session went from their perspective, share updates on bills they sponsored and answer questions from community members.
With senators having the opportunity to meet in person at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond while delegates met behind computer screens, the viewpoints on how work was conducted were not shared among lawmakers.
“Every session is different, but this session was more different than any,” Bell said.
Bell said conducting business online had its advantages and disadvantages. As a perk, he said, more people were able to testify on certain bills without having to travel to Richmond, but how legislators conduct business was lost.
Bell said that while fellow members can be seen on camera, it was impossible to see if anything was happening behind the scenes.
“You couldn’t see anyone huddling in a corner working something out,” he said. “There were interactions you didn’t see and that showed up in the work product. We lost the chance to have a proposal, chew on it and that give-and-take that follows.”
Runion said meeting virtually made it difficult for the public to participate and engage in the legislative process, adding that he thought it was “bad policy.”
Hanger and Obenshain, who conducted business in person, shared a different perspective on how the session went.
Hanger said he was glad the Senate met in person, but the interaction with the House and the exchange of ideas was lost.
Obenshain said meeting in person worked out well, but when it came to presenting bills to the House of Delegates virtually, it was “an interesting experience.”
As lawmakers took time to talk about their own legislation that either passed the General Assembly or failed, nearly all five lawmakers spoke briefly about the legalization of marijuana that will take effect July 1.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill legalizing marijuana Wednesday. The legislation allows adults 21 or older to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana, but it can not be sold or bought.
Obenshain said he was opposed to the legislation due to concerns over the impact legalization will have on adolescents. When the legislation was first introduced, legalization and retail sale was delayed until 2024.
“Sometime between the end of February and the beginning of April, it was decided we can’t wait that long and we scrapped all that,” he said. “It’s still going to be illegal to sell and buy, but legal to possess.”
Obenshain said he didn’t know if the outcome would have changed if the General Assembly was meeting in person at the time of the discussion.
Wilt said legalization will eliminate racial and social injustice and bring an economic boom to the state, but was concerned that between now and 2024, marijuana sales will create a “huge black market.”
“We will see the outcome of that,” he said.
Other changes that came out of the 2021 session included abolishing the death penalty, banning Styrofoam in the next few years and reducing the maximum penalties for robbery.
Between the five lawmakers, 20 bills were signed by Northam. Approved bills ranged from addressing issues faced by those with special needs, creating a tax credit for agricultural best management practices and establishing the Dairy Produce Margin Coverage Premium Assistance Program.
Runion said one bill he was proud to sponsor directed the Department of Medical Assistance Services to study the use of virtual support for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
HB 2197, which received unanimous bipartisan support from the House and Senate, will result in the department developing recommendations on how to promote access to assistive technology and environmental modifications, and the study’s findings will be presented to Northam and the General Assembly by Nov. 1. “I am very proud to have been able to do that,” he said.
Hanger spoke about his Enhanced Nutrient Removal Certainty Program bill that will “help clean up the bay in a timely manner and take off the pressure from the agricultural industry.”
Legislators will meet with the chamber again in December as it will hold a pre- session legislative breakfast prior to the 2022 General Assembly session.