For those who like to plan where will you will be and what you will be doing in twenty years a complicating factor that has for too long been ignored must be considered: climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought together by the United Nations issued a report earlier this month, written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries and based on a review of more than 6,000 scientific reports, predicting much more dire consequences of climate change much earlier than previously had been expected.
Conditions that have been visibly happening with much more regularity in recent years of intense rains and hurricanes, droughts, excessive heat, flooding, and wildfires will be getting worse. Forget retirement to that beach house you have been fixing up; there is a high probability it may be under water as the beach disappears. Rising costs of living may eat into our retirement savings yielding them inadequate.
What about life for our children and grandchildren? What will it be like? The evidence presented is too compelling to ignore. To sustain a future quality of life for our posterity we must take aggressive action now.
As reported in The New York Times, the authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2040 inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty. The new report shows that many of the most serious changes will come much earlier than expected.
The report said that to prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. The use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to less than 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which makes up about 20 percent of electricity generation, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.
While the report talks about the science involved, the politics of the issue present the greatest challenge. With a federal administration filled with climate-change deniers and with a pledge to bring back coal for greater energy production, there seems to be a great likelihood that the United States will indeed withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. (Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. wouldn’t actually be able to withdraw until November 2020.) The administration also may eliminate more regulations that were put in place to reduce climate change if those regulations stand in the way of greater business profits.
Until sanity returns at the national level, it is important that actions–as small as they may seem–be taken at state, local, community and family levels to preserve our climate and our planet. We have a responsibility to our children and others to live our lives in a way that recognizes the clear and present dangers our planet faces. The warning is too dire to ignore.
Governor Ralph Northam took two significant steps last week related to Virginia’s energy future. In a word, both could be summed up as “conserving.” One action of the Governor was to announce the 2018 Virginia Energy Plan. Later in the week, he announced his signing of an executive order establishing a conservation cabinet.
The Virginia Plan makes recommendations in five areas: solar, onshore and offshore wind, energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicles and advanced transportation. The goals within each of these areas are ambitious, but they are essential in shifting energy use in Virginia to a more environment-friendly direction. In a press release on October 2, the Governor is quoted as saying that “the clean energy sector has the power to create new business opportunities, expand customer access to renewable energy, and spark the high-demand jobs of the 21st century.”
Among the goals of the plan are achieving at least 3,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy by 2022, expanding net metering and community solar programs, and doubling the state’s renewable energy procurement target to 16 percent by 2022. The plan recommends that the state support Dominion Energy’s planned 12-megawatt offshore wind turbine demonstration project with a target of 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2028.
The plan also recommends that the state-sponsored efficiency programs and financing set a 16 percent renewable procurement target and a 20 percent energy efficiency target for state agencies, moving state agencies in the direction of greater efficiencies and the use of renewable energy in a lead-by-example approach. The plan seeks also to increase the annual dollars of investments by utilities in energy efficiency programs. Recommendations also call for action to promote alternative-fuel vehicles with the development of an Advanced Clean Cars program with targets for charging stations and the state’s vehicle fleet.
The Commonwealth and utilities in the state have started efforts in many of these areas as a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The plan reflects an underlying goal that the strategy not unfairly impact low-income and minority communities. Review the plan at Virginia Energy Plan.
In a separate action, Governor Northam issued an Executive Order establishing the Governor’s Conservation Cabinet, a new initiative “to better protect Virginia’s vulnerable natural resources and improve environmental quality across the Commonwealth.” The Governor stated that “this effort will strengthen our inter-agency coordination and allow us to bring all of our resources to bear in addressing environmental threats and ensuring best practices across state-driven conservation initiatives.” The initiative will seek to work with state agencies, localities, nonprofit land trusts, and willing landowners as well as partners in both public and private sectors, according to the press release announcing the Governor’s action.
Members of the Conservation Cabinet include the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Commerce and Trade, Finance, Natural Resources and Transportation. The full text of the Governor’s announcement can be found at Governor’s Conservation Cabinet.
While some will criticize state government for moving too slowly and not being bold enough in the areas of energy and the environment, I am pleased that we are at least moving in the right direction as it relates to Virginia’s energy future.
Beginning on October 1, Virginians will be able to obtain through the local offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles a REAL ID that complies with federal regulations to prove their identity. While having state-issued, federally-approved identification to prove who you are is offensive to many, the practical use of the REAL ID will result in most if not all complying with its requirements.
The REAL ID came about from recommendations of the 9/11 Commission studying ways to improve security to prevent other horrible terrorist acts from happening. Half of the September 11 hijackers had received driver’s licenses in Virginia. Congress passed an act to help prevent terrorist attacks and to reduce the number of licenses issued to undocumented residents. It established the requirements for states to follow in issuing driver’s licenses, and the program is implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. Under the congressionally passed law, states are required to issue licenses only to applicants who provide in-person proof of their identity and legal U.S. residency. The new cards must use the latest counterfeit-resistant security features.
Half the states are now in compliance with the new federal law, and others like Virginia have been working hard to put the new system into place. Beginning in the fall of 2020, persons who want to board a commercial flight must present a REAL ID or an alternative form of acceptable identification. Likewise, persons entering federal facilities must present a REAL ID. The DMV-issued credential will meet the requirement of REAL ID and will allow holders to access federal buildings, including military installations, and board commercial flights.
Obtaining a REAL ID when you renew your driver’s license is voluntary. That is what I intend to do. I do not want to have to remember to make a special trip to the DMV in the future to prove my identity for a REAL ID when I can do it as part of renewing my driver’s license.
To get a REAL ID you must apply in person and provide DMV with physical documentation of identity, such as an unexpired U.S. passport or a U.S. birth certificate and provide your legal presence through the same documentation. And yes, there is an additional one-time fee of $10 to help pay for the new cards. Hopefully you can visit a DMV office when they are not too busy. But you do need to go in person and take the time to meet the requirements.
Important news for those who do not drive and hence do not have a driver’s license: You can get a REAL ID through the same process just described to use for entering federal facilities, boarding commercial flights and voting.
Need more information? The DMV website is filled with full details. Check my interview with Commissioner Rick Holcomb of the DMV on YouTube after October 10 or watch it on Reston Comcast Channel 28 for public service programming or Verizon Channel 1981 at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 23 or at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 24.
Four hundred years ago next year will be the quadricentennial of important events happening in Virginia in 1619. Those events are not the rah-rah kind of happenings that are too often recognized with simple merriment. They are not examined for what we can learn from whence we came to understand how we got to where we are. The English established their first permanent colony in what became America in 1607; they did not “discover” America. There were an estimated 50,000 residents on the North American continent when the English bumped into the continent on their way to the riches of the Far East. The Spanish had visited the mid-Atlantic region decades before the English arrived but did not stick around since they found no gold or fountain of youth.
The indigenous people living in what the English named Virginia had a form of government in a confederation under the Great Chief Powhatan, an agricultural system, environmental protection, and a religion based on the natural spirits. They resented the people showing up in great ships and booming guns and taking land on which their forebears had lived for as many as 15,000 years. There should be no surprise that the indigenous people begrudged these illegal immigrants coming and taking their land and responded with what some people called savagery.
Joining the new settlers at the community they called Jamestowne in 1619 were an essential component of keeping a community thriving into the future — women. Just in time for the 2019 celebration, the Women’s Commission has construction underway for a monument celebrating the contributions of women in making Virginia thrive. Not a bit too soon!
Women were invited to join the men at Jamestowne to help start a new life in a new world. Not invited to join the white men and women were the enslaved Africans who were dropped off at Jamestowne without their consent and with an indentured servant agreement that could never be paid off. The enslaved Africans in 1619 were the first that would be brought to the colony to work in the tobacco fields and to do the hard labors without any of the benefits a new start in life was supposed to bring. The relationship between the white and black populations in Virginia was to dominate so much of the history of the state to the senseless killings of the Civil War and the complexities of race relations today.
In 1619 representatives of the plantations in the colony of Virginia met together in the mud-dab constructed church in Jamestowne to form a local government, much like a homeowner’s association, because the real power of governance continued to reside in London. That meeting is celebrated as the first meeting of representative government tracing its beginning in 1619 through the Revolutionary War, with a slight deviation of the Civil War, to today.
The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex has had a long and tortuous history. With the almost daily unfolding stories of abuse of women from lower pay, discrimination in employment, physical and mental abuse and other degradation, it has become obvious that it is about time for the ERA.
Alice Paul of the women’s suffragist movement is credited with writing the first draft of the ERA that was introduced in Congress in 1921. An amendment for submission to the states for ratification as required by Article V of the Constitution did not pass both houses of Congress until 1972 with a deadline of March 22, 1979 for the states to act. That deadline has been extended twice as the required 38 state ratification has never been met.
Currently 37 states have ratified the ERA although several states have sought under questionable legality to rescind their ratification. Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly have never ratified the ERA, but the State Senate has ratified it in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016. The Senate resolutions were never reported from the House Privileges and Elections Committee nor were resolutions introduced by House members ever reported from committee. I have been a supporter of the ERA during my entire tenure in the House of Delegates and co-patron of resolutions to ratify it; I have never had an opportunity to vote on it because the conservative House Privileges and Elections Committee has never had enough favorable votes to report it to the floor.
I am hopeful that the Virginia legislature will step up to be the state to finally ratify the ERA. Even with a favorable vote there are certain to be court challenges to the ratification because of the missed deadlines and because of efforts by some states to rescind their earlier ratifications. Even with these challenges the Virginia General Assembly should take action. The outcome of the 2016 state elections with the increased number of women in the House of Delegates should be enough to nudge Virginia forward. The phenomenal increase in activity by women in various political organizations in Virginia will send a signal to candidates for the House of Delegates in 2019 that they need to support the ERA.
The arguments of the past that women would be drafted into the armed services if the amendment was ratified no longer seem legitimate with women already providing outstanding service in the military. The high-profile stories of women being harassed and abused in work and social situations provide support for the ERA being part of the Constitution.
Virginia’s declaration of rights drafted by George Mason became the model for the Bill of Rights of our federal Constitution. Just as Virginia led in the fight to enumerate our rights, the Virginia General Assembly can lead again albeit a little tardy by being the final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s about time!
While many of us express concern that we do not see as many solar collectors on Virginia roof-tops as we would like, the Commonwealth is showing significant progress on turning sunlight into electrical energy. As with any major change there are some hazy areas that need to be considered as well.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) as reported in the August 2018 issue of Virginia Business magazine, Virginia currently ranks 17th nationally with 631.3 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The ranking is a significant jump from 2016 when the state ranked 29th nationally. Even with the advanced standing, only 0.59 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar. By way of contrast, North Carolina is second in the nation in installed solar capacity with 4,412 megawatts brought about by generous tax incentives. For North Carolina that is nearly five percent of their electricity supply.
Virginia’s future with solar appears bright with 59 notices of intent with the Department of Environmental Quality to install 2,646 megawatts of solar according to the Virginia Business article. Driving the expansion of solar energy is a sharp drop in price from $96 in 1970 to 40 cents per kilowatt this year and an insistence on the part of technology giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, all of whom have a presence in Virginia, that their electric power come from solar systems. The Grid Transformation and Security Act passed by the General Assembly this year requires 5,000 new megawatts of solar and wind energy to be developed. Included in that total is 500 megawatts of small, roof-top panels.
Middlesex County Public Schools opened this year with two of its three schools powered by solar energy. Although a small, rural school system, Middlesex has the largest ground-mounted solar system of any school division in the state and is expected to save over two million dollars per year. Excess electricity generated is sent to the grid for credit for any electricity the schools takes from the grid at night through a net-metering arrangement.
Some shadows along the way can be expected with such a massive shift in the way electricity is produced. It takes about eight acres of land for each megawatt produced. Solar farms take up large amounts of land. Just last week the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors voted to deny a conditional-use permit for a 178-acre utility scale solar facility in the County. The supervisors indicated that they had questions about the project for which they did not receive adequate answers. One factor is likely to have been the results of a study by the American Battlefield Trust that indicated the project would be visible from some of the half-dozen signal stations around Culpeper County that were used during the Civil War to detect troop movement. The County depends on a high level of tourism based on its Civil War battlefields and apparently does not want to jeopardize its attraction to Civil War buffs.
The clouds will pass, and Virginia is on its way to a bright future with solar energy.
Sorry, but this is yet another column on the continuing effort to de-gerrymander House of Delegates districts in Virginia as directed by the federal courts. In this instance, it was the Republican Party who in the majority after the 2010 census drew district lines that were designed to keep them in the majority until the next census in 2020 when lines must be drawn again. They ran into trouble when to dilute the votes of African Americans who traditionally vote Democratic they packed them into eleven districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions. A panel of federal judges found the practice violated the constitutional rights of the individuals involved and ordered the districts to be redrawn. The Governor called the General Assembly into special session last week to carry out the court’s directive. The legislature went home without success after one day of effort.
Why is the Republican majority failing to do as the court directed? The reason is quite simple. If it took an unconstitutional drawing of district lines to maintain their majority in the House of Delegates, an undoing of those lines would likely take away their majority. Is the court favoring Democrats in what they are doing? No, the court is protecting the constitutional rights of individuals. The court does not take into account partisan outcomes. You simply cannot deny equal representation in the legislature of a class of people without running afoul of their constitutional protections.
When the court found Virginia’s Congressional districts to be unconstitutional several years ago, the remedy of that situation was new districts that resulted in the election of an additional African American congressman from the state that up to that point had only one. Both happen also to be Democrats.
The court has denied an appeal from the Republicans of their directive to resolve the unconstitutional districts. If the General Assembly fails to carry out the court’s mandate, the court will redraw the districts themselves. Presumably there would be special elections held right away in the new districts.
In the meantime, House Democrats have proposed a redrawing of the legislative lines to make the districts constitutional which unsurprisingly could result in the election of as many as five new Democrats. The authors of the new maps insist that they did what needed to be done to follow the court’s directive and not what would give them more seats. The day of the special session was spent with the Republicans picking apart the proposed map in an attempt to show that it was too partisan.
Republicans called the map hypocritical, and one of my Democratic colleagues, Delegate Steve Heretick, called it a “self-serving political power grab.” I draw two conclusions from the last several months: The court needs to take immediate remedial action to correct the constitutional problems with the current districts, and the General Assembly at its next legislative session must pass a constitutional amendment establishing a truly independent commission to do redistricting. The amendment would need to pass a second session of the General Assembly and a referendum of the people. Legislative bodies simply cannot rise above their own self-interests to do the job fairly.
On August 30, I and my colleagues in the General Assembly will return to the State Capitol in Richmond at the request of Governor Ralph Northam to un-gerrymander eleven House of Delegates districts that have been found by a panel of federal judges to be unconstitutional. The court’s action was based on a finding that the districts as drawn violated the equal protection of the law afforded to everyone by the United States Constitution.
In the redistricting of 2011, the Republicans who had a majority in the House of Delegates packed African Americans in the Richmond-Hampton Roads regions into the eleven districts that have been found unconstitutional. From a partisan perspective the packing resulted in African Americans who historically vote Democratic to be limited in their influence over voting outcomes throughout the region. From a legal perspective African Americans were denied their constitutional protection from the gerrymandering that put them into fewer districts over which they might have an influence.
The requirement to un-gerrymander legislative districts in Virginia is not new. Most recently and earlier this year the congressional districts in the Richmond-Hampton Roads region were found to be unconstitutional. When the districts were redrawn Democrats won an additional congressional seat with an African American candidate.
Unraveling a partisan gerrymander is not easy. With the congressional districts, the courts had to redraw them because the General Assembly could not come to an agreement as to how it should be done. There is serious concern as to whether the General Assembly will be able to redraw the district lines for the House of Delegates or whether it will revert to the courts for correction. With any of these revisions there are likely to be winners and losers, and legislative bodies have not shown the ability to draw lines that will disadvantage a member(s) in re-election. With the congressional redistricting, for example, one member of Congress lost a seat to the African American candidate who ran in a newly redrawn district.
To correct the clear racial discrimination in the eleven districts that have been found to be unconstitutional, it will be necessary to redraw more than thirty district lines as currently constituted. As the redrawing takes place some voters will find themselves in new districts as will some incumbent legislators. The election outcomes are likely to be different as the racial bias of how the districts have been drawn is removed.
The courts have not taken up cases of gerrymandering when allegations of partisan discrimination are alleged. The courts are interested in issues of constitutional protections most often found when racial discrimination can be shown. Issues of removing partisanship from the redistricting process, as some have expressed it–to have the people choose their elected representatives instead of legislators choosing their constituents–have been resolved in other places by having an independent, nonpartisan commission draw the lines. I first introduced a bill to establish such a commission in Virginia in 1982 and have introduced such a bill many times.
The General Assembly must carry out its responsibility to undo the racially discriminating districts that currently exist. Additionally, it should take the next step to put an independent non-partisan commission in place.
The federal administration policy of breaking up families as an intentional strategy aimed at refugee families has shocked the conscience of most Americans. Taking innocent children out of the arms of their mothers or fathers and shuffling them off to a “facility” without any explanation or known plans for their future has to be one of the cruelest acts of the federal government ever and is completely abhorrent to the moral standards of most Americans.
At the same time we condemn these evil acts of a misdirected federal agency and work in every way in the courts and through the ballot box to get these policies changed, it is important that the subject of isolating children be viewed in its larger context. As more is learned about the traumatic effects separation and isolation can have on the future emotional stability, mental health, and behavior of children, the necessity of reforming the way that our juvenile justice system functions becomes obvious.
Information gathered by The Commonwealth Institute shows that almost three-quarters of youth who have been held in the state’s juvenile prisons are convicted of another crime within three years of release. Data shows the longer a child is held in a facility the more likely it is they will commit a crime.
I recently talked with Valerie Slater who heads RISE for Youth: United Families, Safe Communities on my television show “Virginia Report.” Listen to that conversation on YouTube. She points out that racial disparities in Virginia’s juvenile system are higher than the national average. In Virginia, black youth are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, and youth of Latino heritage are 2½ times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Likewise, the higher the rate of poverty in their community the more likely children are to be sent to youth prisons. As Valerie wrote recently, “we must dismantle, once and for all, the systems that allow the institutionalization of children. The best way to protect and rehabilitate children is to ensure their parents are the foundation of their support, whether in their homes, communities or suitable community-based environments. There are community-based alternatives to youth prisons that work better, cost less, and help young people get the support they need to get back on track.”
At the recent meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) I learned of the important work being done by a committee in NCSL to identify the principles that states should adhere to in reforming their juvenile justice systems. It is being demonstrated in states that it is possible to reform the system to reduce crime and recidivism, enhance public safety, and produce good citizens from those who in the past may have been referred to as criminals. I am pleased that Virginia is making improvements, but we must stay vigilant to continue progress.
As a nation of high moral standards, we must insist that the youngest and most vulnerable among us have an opportunity to succeed even if they are in our poorest communities or seeking asylum for their safety among us.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of my grandsons’ school, and I was genuinely impressed. Parents were invited to come by last week to meet the teachers because his school started on August 15. It was one of the friendliest environments I have experienced–smiles everywhere, genuinely warm greetings for all, and an obvious feeling of caring for all children and parents and grandparents coming into the school. My grandson was clearly eager to get back to school and to see his teachers. He has some special needs that require additional understanding and assistance, and he is clearly getting it in his school setting.
The teachers and administrators wore the school’s special tee shirt and were giving high-fives all around. As one who taught in the classroom for several years, many old memories came back to me. I remember the need to always be “on” in the school day for students who needed help or attention. In most careers we can coast on a bad day and make up for it later; not so with teaching. You are always the center of attention and must be appropriately responsive to student needs whenever they occur. Students can learn as much about life from your body language and attitude as they can from the subject you are teaching them.
While teachers are assigned a grade level or a subject area, ultimately teachers are teaching children more than just content. I am convinced my son who teaches students in automotive technology is teaching as much about attitude, work habits, developing confidence and being a good citizen as he is about an automobile. Our daughter who teaches multiply challenged children at the elementary level is demonstrating for parents, the school, and the community the inherent value and potential for every student regardless of the challenges they might face. My wife who was a preschool teacher and director demonstrated how important it is that young children get off to a good start and is now teaching other teachers to do the same.
Increasingly school divisions are getting an exception to the “Kings Dominion Law” requiring that schools begin after Labor Day. Fairfax County Public Schools is one district now starting before Labor Day. I have always opposed the current law and have voted to repeal it many times. A bill carried over from the past session for further consideration would leave the decision of the starting date for schools up to the local school division based on the unique circumstances of the community.
The legislature can do much more to support the education of our children than dabble in the starting date for schools. Pay for Virginia teachers lags below the national average by about $4,000. Clearly, teachers do not stay in the profession for the money, but they should not have to suffer with low pay because they chose to educate our children. At least in the community, we can express appreciation and offer our thank you to our teachers for the important work they do!
Regardless of the old adage, it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks. In fact, if old dogs are to survive in a modern world characterized by rapid change they must adopt many new tricks of survival and adaptation. Those who do not are headed to the scrap pile of history to serve as examples for those who follow.
As I have mentioned in this column many times, the forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly met first in 1619 making it the oldest continuous legislative body in this hemisphere. Sometimes our current General Assembly meets serious challenges as the leader in change for the good, but too often it acts as a barrier to change that was needed.
I was reminded of this in my recent attendance at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NCSL describes the states as the laboratories of democracy where different histories, culture, and geography define each of the 50 states with similar challenges for which various approaches to governance are tried. As I explained last week, we can learn a great deal from each other as we meet together. I will share several examples that I think make my point.
All states are struggling with making higher education more accessible, affordable and relevant. Most state higher education systems are based on models that date back centuries. Most agree that those models are not meeting the needs of the students of today. I attended a session at NCSL where the president of the University of Arizona spoke on the changes he has brought about at his school in increasing enrollment, raising the graduation rate, reducing student debt, and increasing research dollars all while decreasing the per student costs.
His story is a very impressive one that can be most easily explained by his setting aside the usual model of university organization and operation and the adoption of an enterprise model that combines good educational policies with successful business practices. We need to take a hard look at adopting some of these successful practices in Virginia.
The conference was in California that is suffering through historically high temperatures, a very serious drought and wildfires that are devouring thousands of acres. My cell phone was set to alert me of happenings back home in Virginia. I got regular alerts of heavy rains, lightning, flash flooding and road closures. It is obvious that the federal government is not going to provide leadership on climate change that is at the root of these issues, and the states must take on the responsibility.
A final example of the need for the old dogs of state legislatures to step up and provide leadership is in juvenile justice reform. We must reduce the classroom to prison pipeline by intervening early with young people in need of services and assistance to keep kids out of prisons that increase rather than resolve their problems. It is less expensive and more humane. Virginia is doing a much better job in this area, but I was also impressed with what I heard is going on in Kentucky and California.
Old and new legislative leaders must learn new solutions!
The only common requirement for holding elective office is that one be a registered voter in the state meaning then of course that you must be at least 18 years of age.
You do not need to be a resident of the district you hope to represent although you will have to move into the district if you win. The concept of a citizen legislature is that it is made up of people from all walks of life in the community who can collectively speak for the community at large.
Supposedly there would be no professional politicians–just regular every-day folks. Such an approach should work out well to have the community broadly represented.
In the past, because of laws and practices, most legislatures have been filled mostly with old white men. Recent years have seen a shift including in Virginia as more women are running for office and getting elected. This year has more women, young people, and people of color running than ever before.
With the diversification of who sits in the legislature the challenge becomes taking people of many different backgrounds, perspectives and constituencies and bringing them together to work for consensus on legislation to get a majority vote. While skills acquired in business and civic activities teach many of the soft skills of interpersonal relationships and team building that are transferable to a legislative body, there are unique differences that are important to recognize.
Most legislatures with whom I am familiar have orientation programs to acquaint new members with where the bathrooms are, rules of order in committee meetings and on the floor, and operating procedures around the capitol. Putting legislation together, developing a strategy for its passage, and keeping constituents back home happy are most often handled by the political party caucuses or helpful mentors.
Another source of in-service training I have found invaluable are conferences put together by professional associations, specifically the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). I am at their national conference this week. NCSL keeps up with what is happening in state capitols around the country and through publications, conferences and consultancy keeps legislators informed. The association is truly non-partisan, although its leadership–chosen from among state legislators across the country–maintain their party allegiance while the staff is able to stay out of the partisanship.
Virginia of course had the first representative legislature in the western world beginning in 1619. Not everyone followed the Virginia model however in writing their constitution of organizing their legislatures. I continue to be amazed as I work with colleagues from around the country as to the number of different ways that legislative bodies can organize themselves and do their business. No one has a corner on the best way to do the people’s business, but we can learn from taking a look at how other states conduct their business.
NCSL refers to the states as the laboratories of democracy. The description is appropriate as we all face mostly the same challenges. Our responses are different, however. By getting together for what some would call a conference, but what I think is more appropriately called in-service training, we can do a better job for the people we represent.
This past week was horrible for our country! How much longer can we sustain the decline of our liberties and way of governing? I feel a sense of despair.
But, at the same time, good things are happening. I am going to focus on them in this column but with the assurance to you that I am not giving up on helping to turn our country around.
I shook hands with Bryce Harper last week! My grandson assures me that is a very big deal. Harper was in our community for the dedication of the Bryce Harper Sports Complex at the Fred Crabtree Park by Crossfield Elementary School. I know that the late Fred Crabtree who was a friend of mine would have been elated as he spent his life working to ensure that children have a place to play ball. I was impressed with Harper’s message to the young people who were there to be the best they can be whether it is playing baseball, soccer, piano or dancing. Harper went on that evening to win the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby.
Two weeks ago, my two sons who are now in their fifties (!) invited me to go with them to visit the area near Shenandoah, Virginia, where I grew up and that they remember visiting as young children. Nothing stays the same. The home that my Mom and Dad kept immaculate with the grass mowed and a garden full of vegetables is now a shambles for lack of maintenance and the accumulation of junk. Regardless, we had a good time sharing stories about their grandparents and their growing up.
President Obama gave a speech last week in South Africa, and it was marvelous! His understanding of the broad course of history, appreciation of human struggles and their outcomes, and his dedication to our institutions and moral values continue to give me a sense of hope. I have listened to his speech twice so far and will no doubt listen to it more times in the future. It is available online through several sources.
Special Olympics celebrated its 50th anniversary. How inspiring to hear the story of its founding, its amazing success, and the tireless effort of so many volunteers who make possible the activities for some of the most challenged among us. Thanks to all who are so unselfishly a part of such a wonderful program to help others.
Herndon-Reston Indivisibles, who organized soon after the last election, went to Lafayette Park at least three evenings in a row in addition to many other vigils and marches to publicly express their displeasure at the policies of the current administration and the need for citizens to stand up to the damage being done. They are inspiring to me and will ultimately be an important part of getting our country back on track.
I have to remind myself of all that is going on in our families and our communities that is really good and that demands protecting. After this inspiring break to remember the good things I need now to get back to work saving our governmental institutions and moral values! Thanks to all who provide the good news and the inspiration.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
Newspaper headlines last week declared “State posts surplus of more than $500 million.” Such headlines about a “surplus” in Virginia’s budget appear with some regularity. I checked the meaning of “surplus” the old-fashioned way–in Webster’s Dictionary: “an amount or quantity in excess of what is needed.”
Hardly is the term surplus applicable to Virginia’s current situation. More accurately the excess cash the state had on the day it finalized its books should be termed an unappropriated balance or an amount of revenues received beyond the forecasted amount.
Why is the distinction I am making important? To suggest that the state has a surplus of money over what it needs is to totally discount unmet needs in the state that do not even make their way into budget consideration. It would be nice to have more money than needed allowing all taxpayers to get a refund. It is also important that the state not have to go into debt to meet current obligations.
A full assessment of the cost of government if the state met its clear obligations has never been made to my knowledge. Such an assessment would allow for an honest discussion of whether the state has a temporary receipt of cash beyond what it expected or has a surplus of cash beyond what it needs. I have ranted in this space before about my concern with the misleading way the state handles its budgeting.
I believe one example will make my point that there is no reasonable way the state could be considered to have a surplus when there are such outstanding unmet needs in the areas for which the state has a responsibility–that example is funding for public schools. On the same day that the half-billion dollar “surplus” was announced, The Commonwealth Institute issued a report, “State K-12 Funding in Virginia: Incremental Progress and Opportunities for Long-Term Solutions,” that found that if public schools were funded today at the same level they were in 2009 an additional three-quarter billion dollars would have been provided–all the surplus and about half that amount more.
Instead, school staffing in Virginia has declined by 1,242 positions while enrollment has increased by more than 50,000 students since 2009. A promise by the state to fund fifty-five percent of the cost of public schools with localities picking up the remaining forty-five percent has been flipped with localities having to pick up a much greater amount since the recession. Virginia ranks forty among the fifty states in the state funding it provides for public schools.
This example focuses on the inadequacy of the level of public school funding, but other examples could be given in the areas of mental health services and public health and safety. The conservative approach of forecasting revenue and the tight limitation on spending will keep Virginia with a more than balanced budget. If realistic state responsibilities were factored in, we could have a realistic balanced budget. Instead, we have underfunded programs and services with persons scratching their heads wondering how we could have a surplus with so much more left to do.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
On the fourth of July last week I rode on a float in the Fairfax City Independence Day Parade, one of the largest in the state, with local Democrats promoting the candidacies of Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Gerry Connelly for re-election and the election of Jennifer Wexton for Congress in the Tenth District. It brought back some pleasant old memories. When I first ran for elective office in the mid-1970s, I was running for the House of Delegates in what was then the 18th District.
It was represented by five at-large delegates. After the courts declared the Virginia redistricting unconstitutional after the 1970 census because it short-changed Northern Virginia in representation, the legislature simply divided Fairfax County into two halves with each half having five at-large members.
When I was first elected in 1978 I was part of a five-person delegation of three Democrats and two Republicans who represented the northern half of Fairfax County from Herndon to Baileys Crossroads including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. These large districts were declared unconstitutional in 1982, and single-member districts including District 36 were put into place and have been adjusted each census to reflect the changing population and a bit of gerrymandering of some districts to protect incumbents.
Except for Fourth of July celebrations political campaigns largely got underway after Labor Day. It seems that now they are perpetual. Door knocking on hot summer weekends was questionable when your body was dripping in sweat. Now there are regularly scheduled canvasses each weekend regardless of the heat. There is no better formula for success than direct contact with voters. In the fall the days get shorter and there is less opportunity to knock on doors in the evenings. Ringing doorbells after dark may lose as many votes as gained. Regardless of the heat, candidates need to be out and about to see voters.
At the parade and at neighborhood canvassing I have visited I have been impressed at the dedication of people who are volunteering to help identify, register and persuade voters. While I am overwhelmingly anxious about the direction of our country, I am encouraged and reassured by the volunteers I meet. They are determined to save our democratic institutions and to put us back on the path of a caring and open society.
When a volunteer comes to your door, please thank them for their work on behalf of our democracy. When volunteers from the other persuasion come by be polite and civil. Have faith that they will eventually see the light and join us. I am sure that we will win the vote in November, and we will go back to living together after that.
Thankfully I rode on a float in the parade because the heat was exhausting. It felt good to hear the cheers and see the friendly waves. Nothing like a parade to cheer you up. When the heat of the election season is past, I am confident that our country will have sent a message that we are returning to the moral values we share.