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Out with plastic straws, up with minimum wage and in with happy-hour ads as new laws take effect in Virginia, Maryland and the District

Plastic drinking straws will be banned in the District starting July 1.
Plastic drinking straws will be banned in the District starting July 1. (Getty Images/iStock)

Virginians will have an easier time hanging on to their driver’s licenses, having children with donated embryos and finding the best happy-hour drink deals come Monday, as a host of new laws take effect in the commonwealth.

In the District, July 1 marks the beginning of new taxes on employers, a higher minimum wage and fines for businesses that continue offering plastic straws. And in Maryland, the state will launch an effort to lower prescription drug costs, ban plastic foam cups and food containers and allow Johns Hopkins University to form its own police force.

The Virginia law with the most sweeping reach — restoring driving privileges to more than 627,000 Virginians — almost did not happen. Bipartisan legislation to stop the state’s practice of suspending licenses for nonpayment of court fines died during the General Assembly session.

But Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who said the practice unfairly punished the poor and kept them from getting work, revived the effort with a budget amendment. As of Monday, the state will no longer make those suspensions. It will also reinstate licenses for more than 627,000 who previously lost them strictly because of nonpayment.

“This practice effectively denied people driver’s licenses simply for being poor and, as often is the case, people of color,” the Rev. Keith Savage, pastor of First Baptist Church of Manassas, said in a statement from Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, which has launched a campaign to alert citizens to the change. “This issue affects thousands of people in our congregations and communities. We see the impact every day.”

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is contacting those affected to advise them how to apply for a new license. Those who still have a license in their possession need not take any action if it has not expired.

Under another new law, Virginia will make it easier for gay, straight or single parents to have children using donated embryos.

How George Allen’s chief of staff inspired legislation to make it easier for gay couples to raise children

The measure updates the state’s 1994 surrogacy statute, with technical changes to streamline and clarify the surrogacy process and encourage would-be parents to use existing embryos. It replaces “husband” and “wife” with gender-neutral “spouse” to reflect the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage. It also eliminates the need for parents to go through the costly adoption process after the birth of a child from a donated embryo.

July 1 will also loosen happy-hour laws in Virginia, which has long kept quiet about booze discounts for fear of promoting excessive drinking. Until just a few years ago, the state did not allow bars or restaurants to promote happy hours outside their doors on signs or in advertising. Four years ago, it budged but limited the words they could use in advertising to “happy hour” or “drink specials.” Prices had to be kept under wraps until patrons came inside.

Faced with a lawsuit from restaurateur Geoff Tracy, the legislature further loosened the rules this year. Now prices can be listed, and any ad language is allowed unless it induces “overconsumption or consumption by minors.”

“You can go out there and say, ‘Pinot Grigio, $5 a glass,’ ” said Tracy, who has two restaurants in Northern Virginia and others in the District and Maryland. “If I open other restaurants in Virginia, I will do so knowing I have the First Amendment on my side.”

I fought for — and won — the right to advertise happy hour in Virginia

At the same time, Virginia will get stricter about tobacco and vaping products, raising the legal age to purchase from 18 to 21. The law makes an exception for active-duty military personnel, who can still buy those products at age 18.

Cigarette, vape buyers in Virginia may soon have to be 21, not 18

In the District, officials will start fining businesses that violate the ban on plastic straws starting July 1. Inspectors have already been visiting businesses and leaving warning letters for those still carrying plastic straws, but they can now levy penalties ranging from $100 to $800 for repeat offenders. Businesses are allowed to keep a small stock of plastic straws for customers with disabilities.

On patrol with the enforcer of D.C.’s plastic straw ban

The District also will start collecting a 0.62 percent payroll tax, paid by employers, to fund a city program to provide private-sector workers with eight weeks of paid time off for new parents, six weeks to care for an ill relative and two weeks of personal sick time. The benefits will not be available until next year.

The hourly minimum wage in the District will rise to $14, and employers would be required to pay tipped workers at least $4.45 an hour and make up the difference if gratuities fall short of the standard minimum wage. The minimum wage will rise to $15 next year and automatically increase with inflation after that.

In Maryland, a statewide ban on plastic foam cups and food containers becomes law, but companies have until July 1, 2020, to adhere to the requirement.

An environmental law championed by the late House speaker Michael E. Busch, who died a day before the Maryland General Assembly adjourned in April, will also go into effect July 1. The law creates oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay, a move environmentalists say will help revive the bay. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the measure — an action that was overridden by the legislature — because he worried it would jeopardize the jobs of watermen.

Johns Hopkins University will be allowed to form its own police force under a controversial measure designed to address rising violence in Baltimore and a spate of gunpoint robberies around the university’s main campus.

Several public universities have armed police, but Hopkins will be the first private institution in Maryland to form its own force, and lawmakers who opposed the bill worried about the precedent it would set. The law allows for as many as 100 officers and restricts where they can patrol.

As of Monday, Maryland will become the first state in the country to create an oversight board charged with lowering prescription drug costs.

Vincent DeMarco, the president of Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, said July 1 marks a “major milestone” in the effort to lower drug costs.

The drug affordability board would cap the costs of certain prescription drugs when purchased by state and local government employers. If successful, it could be expanded to other employers. The board’s decisions to set caps will have to be approved by the Legislative Policy Committee, a panel of top state lawmakers.

In Montgomery County, two bills will go into effect Monday. Large employers will see the minimum wage that they must pay their workers rise to $13 per hour, while midsize and small businesses — those with 50 employees or fewer — will see it rise to $12.50. This annual increase is part of the county’s plan to implement a $15 minimum wage for all employees by 2021. The state of Maryland also has approved a $15 minimum wage, but that does not take effect until 2025.

In addition, starting Monday, all single, two-unit and townhouse residences in Montgomery County will need to have working carbon monoxide alarms — a law that was signed in 2018 following several fatal accidents caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The county’s one-year housing moratorium also goes into effect Monday. The moratorium, part of the local government’s efforts to regulate school capacity, will freeze new residential projects around three high schools: Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein and Walter Johnson. It also applies to elementary schools that feed into James Hubert Blake High School and 13 individual elementary school service areas. Communities affected include Silver Spring, Wheaton and Bethesda.

In Prince George’s County, a new law will allow some movie theaters to begin serving alcohol. To be eligible, the owners of the theaters must have invested at least $5 million in renovating or remodeling, and the average daily sales of food must exceed alcohol sales.

Another law effective July 1 establishes a working group to study the density of liquor stores in the county and report its findings to the legislature on or before Dec. 1.

Rebecca Tan, Patricia Sullivan, Rachel Chason and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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