Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans for the state's Democratic-controlled legislatures on Tuesday in Richmond. Photo courtesy Virginia Governor's Office
Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Virginia opened its legislative session on Wednesday, with a progressive agenda announced by its Democratic governor and supported by both houses that are controlled by Democrats for the first time in two decades.
The ambitious plans unveiled in Richmond Tuesday by Gov. Ralph Northam suggest Virginia could be the focus of national attention prior to the 2020 elections. Lawmakers say they have a mandate to make numerous changes to laws regarding gun control, voting rights, the environment and LGBT issues.
Democrats said they plan to introduce legislation for universal background checks for firearms purchases, a ban on assault-style rifles and a "red flag" law to remove weapons from those regarded as harmful to themselves or others. The gun issue is expected to be the most contentious on the Virginia Assembly's agenda.
Monday, legislators in Virginia Beach declared their city a "Second Amendment sanctuary city," permitting prohibitions against the enforcement of certain gun control measures like universal background checks. A pro-gun rights rally on Jan. 20 in Richmond is expected to draw thousands of activists.
The new Democratic majority has also promised to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It also intends to roll back restrictions on abortion passed in the previous legislative session.
Other bills on the agenda aim to extend absentee voting and allow same-day voter registration, increase state environmental protections and loosen restrictions on renewable energy projects, gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour, decriminalize marijuana possession and outlaw employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
"Virginia is a diverse and welcoming place where we want everyone to be treated fairly," Northam said Tuesday, adding that all laws passed will be constitutional. "We have no intention of calling out the National Guard. We're not going to cut off people's electricity. We're not going to go door-to-door and confiscate individual's weapons."
Chris Saxman, a Republican and former Virginia delegate, said the actions of the state legislature and governor could impact national politics.
"Virginia is always the first legislature that convenes after the new year," he said. "We're less than 30 days away from the Iowa Caucus, so if national voters start seeing what's going on in Virginia and can be inflamed by it on social media, it could set a narrative in place that Democrats don't want nationally."