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.
Among the decisive moves taken by Governor Ralph Northam, also a physician, to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth was the closing of all public schools for the remainder of the school year. There is little or no opportunity for establishing social distancing in crowded school buildings with young people who are naturally inclined to do anything but keep their distance from each other. There have been many humorous references on social media to parents who find themselves unexpectedly having to home school their children. The situation created is another one during this pandemic for which there really are no good options. Classes will not be held, SOL tests will not be administered, traditional social and athletic events will not take place.
Do not make the mistake, however, of believing that learning will not be taking place while with our children and grandchildren we wait out the passing or defeat of the virus. The fact of the matter is that the children of our community as well as we adults are experiencing a lifetime event that we will never forget. Our country will have gone from a time of prosperity to the largest government bail-out ever in the history of our country. Many businesses will fail, and the breadth of our economic inequality will become even more painfully apparent. I am not sure what our social, governmental and business institutions will look like when we can proclaim that the pandemic is over, but I believe there is the potential that they will be improved.
For the children who are not in formal instruction there will be much learning beyond the fact that a virus not visible to the human eye can bring the world to a halt. Children will learn from what is happening in their own surroundings. Just how many children in our community depend on food available through the schools? Did we notice the adults who sprang into action contributing to school pantries to make sure that others are fed? Are we aware as we miss a favorite sports game or school party of the number of classmates who never had an expectation of being able to participate?
That learning on the part of our children will come from their observations of how adults around them in their homes or in the media react to what is happening. Do adults in the community play by the rules or stretch the rules to their personal advantage? Do adults hide behind words that have limited meaning in other situations to limit our response to what is needed? Do the adults in their lives show a selflessness in looking out for others?
Schools are closed for a very real emergency, but learning will continue to take place. No longer is the responsibility for teaching left to the classroom. Now more than ever it is up to us as adults to be role models in a crisis that will teach our children more than they ever would have learned otherwise!
The final advice that might be the hardest for active persons like I am is to stay sane. Wrapping up an amazing and historic session of the General Assembly like this last one has been has kept me busy for several weeks. While I have received more notes of thanks and appreciation than ever after a legislative session, I also want to thank those who have taken the time to send me a note or email. As many have expressed, it was a historic, transformative, and consequential session! I was honored to be part of it.
The session gives us a solid footing upon which we can move forward. Unfortunately, the economic slump we are entering may even be worse than the one in 2008 and may hamper progress in funding very important programs. We must not falter on funding critical health care programs both for physical and mental health. And we must continue our effort to ensure that everyone has access to health insurance. Our current health crisis reminds us that much work needs to be done to provide mandated paid sick leave for everyone.
We got a start on raising the minimum wage, but we need to continue a pathway to $15 per hour. The so-called right-to-work law needs to be repealed to give workers greater protections.
The criminal justice system got attention this past legislative session, but a great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that it is a just system. We need to shut off the classroom to prison pipeline that too often has treated youthful behavior as crimes. Small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized this session, but the entire range of drug crimes and rehabilitation needs review. Likewise, the parole system needs reform with an emphasis on restorative justice. The death penalty that is seldom used needs to be repealed.
A major transportation package that passed needs continuous review. With an increasing number of vehicles using electricity for power, the revenue from the gasoline tax will shrink. We took significant strides in protecting our environment, but there is much work to be done.
Hunkering down gives us time to celebrate our accomplishments, but the time of reflection and contemplation also reminds us that much more is left to be done.
The General Assembly session that adjourned last week was a busy one; 3,001 bills and resolutions were introduced, and 1,351 of those passed. But the historic nature of the session was not in the number of bills introduced: it was in the shift in philosophy governing the state that went from conservative to progressive. The Associated Press termed it “one of the most consequential sessions in Virginia’s history.”
Some of the more noteworthy bills that passed are summarized below. I voted for them unless otherwise noted.
The General Assembly ratified the Equal Right Amendment after about 40 years of refusing to do so. Virginia is the 38th state to ratify the ERA; federal courts will decide if the amendment was ratified within the deadline set for it.
Numerous laws that had been put in place over the last several decades to make it difficult for a woman to have access to an abortion were repealed including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period and ultrasound testing. Dozens of Jim Crow era laws that limited the rights of Black people were removed from the code as they had been declared unconstitutional by federal courts years ago. Local governments were given authority to determine the fate of Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions.
The Virginia Values Act prohibits discrimination in housing and employment for all persons. My bill to bring protections of the hate crime law to all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity passed as did other bills to prohibit LGBTQ discrimination. Conversion therapy on minors is banned under a new law.
Major bills passed to make voting easier. No-excuse absentee voting passed, and election day will now be a holiday. Repeal of the photo ID requirement for voting passed.
The environment received extra attention. The Clean Energy Act sets Virginia on course to be carbon neutral by 2045 as well setting timelines on the move to wind and solar power and the use of more renewables. My bill to clean up the Chesapeake Bay with more nutrient management of agricultural run-off passed as did my bill to manage the menhaden fishery as an important part of the ecology of the Bay.
Seven of the eight bills to end gun violence proposed by Governor Northam passed including my bill to establish universal background checks for all firearm purchases. Other bills to limit handgun purchases to one a month passed as did a bill to limit gun possession for persons who are the subject of a restrictive order for violent behavior.
The biggest step in decades towards transportation improvements passed. The additional gas tax raised by the bill will provide monies necessary to improve the roads in the state as well as provide monies for mass transit and rail. A bill to ban holding a cell phone while driving passed. No longer will driver’s licenses be suspended for unpaid court fees and fines under a bill that passed. Undocumented immigrants will be able to get a driver’s license.
For workers, the minimum wage will be going up from its current $7.25 to $9.50 this year and to $12 in three years. My bill to raise the minimum wage at a greater level was incorporated into the bill that passed. A bill to allow collective bargaining between local governments and their employees passed.
Balance billing for hospital and medical costs are eliminated by another bill that passed. A Virginia health insurance exchange will be established to replace the federal one.
I voted against a bill that passed that allows five cities to have a referendum on casino gambling. I voted for a bill that will ban thousands of slot-machine-like games of skills in restaurants and stores.
Possession of a small amount of marijuana has been decriminalized. As part of legislation to end the school-to-prison pipeline, a bill passed to prohibit students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct for actions in school.
A constitutional amendment to have a 16-member panel of legislators and citizens redraw legislative and congressional district lines passed for a second time and will be on the ballot for voter approval in November.
A $135 billion biennial budget provides more money for pre-school education, raises for teachers and state employees, more school counselors, more developmental disability waiver slots, free community college for certain eligible students, among other improvements.
For more information on bills summarized here and on other legislation passed, go to https://lis.virginia.gov/. Most bills have not been signed by the Governor but are expected to be.
In the closing days of the session that has been marked by historic firsts and transformative changes, the General Assembly took another step that may if approved by the voters put Virginia into the leadership of democratic government. The General Assembly passed for the second time as required for constitutional amendments a proposed amendment establishing a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The proposed amendment will be on the ballot in November for the voters in the Commonwealth to decide if it should be added to the Constitution. The most commonly expressed purpose of the amendment is “to have voters choose their elected representatives rather than to have elected officials choose their voters.” Said another way, its purpose is to get rid of gerrymandering.
I believe it is accurate to say that Virginia will, if the amendment is approved by the voters, be the first state to take such a giant step to get partisan politics out of its redistricting without being required to by court decision or ballot initiative. The partisan grip of one party over the redistricting process has dictated the legislative outcome of so many issues over the decades first by Democrats and more recently in the last two decades by Republicans. This abuse of political power increased in the public mind the need for a change in the process of drawing legislative boundary lines.
The old way of doing business also resulted in overt racial discrimination in the business of government. The new amendment addresses that concern directly: Every electoral district shall be drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, and judicial decisions interpreting such laws. Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.
A unique circumstance brought about what the New York Times described as “a blue-moon step…to largely strip themselves of the power to draw new political maps next year.” When the amendment was first proposed Democrats were in the minority and campaigned aggressively for redistricting reform as it presented a possible avenue for gaining additional legislative seats. Republicans who were suffering decline in political power having lost several elections saw their dominance slipping away. Both parties apparently saw the amendment to their advantage as it passed both houses of the General Assembly overwhelmingly last year. The intervening election resulted in a shift of power as the General Assembly turned from red to blue. No longer do many Democrats feel the need for protection; Republicans no doubt fear Democratically-controlled redistricting when the new census numbers come available. Some in the Democratic majority offered a different approach to the amendment by proposing to redistrict in 2021 with a promise that independent redistricting would be considered for the next decade.
Establishing a fairer way to redistrict has been one of my goals from the time I introduced a bill on the subject in 1982. While my vote to support the amendment in the face of intense lobbying against it has disappointed some people, I remain true to my belief that partisanship needs to be removed as the controlling factor in drawing legislative lines. Ultimately, however, the people will decide the outcome in the election in November.
The General Assembly is in the final week of its scheduled 60-day annual session–scheduled to adjourn sine die on March 7. The session has already made history with the actions that have been taken, and that history will be added to in its last week. Resolution of remaining issues will determine just how historic the session will be and how strong the forces of “we have always done it this way” are.
A majority of both the House and the Senate members agree that the minimum wage should be increased–actually should have been increased years ago. The current minimum of $7.25 is an embarrassment. But discussions continue to be held on how much the increase should be. Should there be incremental increases over time? Should increases be statewide or regional? What jobs should the increase cover?
Almost every member ran for office with a promise to clean up the environment. How should we get to a cleaner economy in the state? What should be the timeline on environmental legislation as experts advise us on the impending climate change crisis? Are consumers willing to pay more to get cleaner electricity?
How strict should background checks be for firearm transfers? A slim majority support my bill to require a background check on all firearm transfers. Others are vehement about having background checks for only firearm purchases. Should compromises be made on gun safety measures designed to reduce gun-related violence?
Should public employees be allowed to bargain with local governments on the conditions and compensation for employment? Or should they only be able to meet and discuss their wages and conditions with local governments with no power to bargain? Should all employees be required to pay dues to unions that are representing their interests?
How often should vehicles have a safety inspection? For many years the requirement was twice annually. Most recently it has been once annually. Most states have dropped the requirement. Would every other year be adequate?
With gasoline tax revenues declining as automobiles get more mileage per gallon, should the gas tax be increased to make up for the loss? Or should cars be taxed on the distance they travel in a year? And what about electric vehicles that do not burn any gas? Should we be making a greater investment in our transportation infrastructure?
Should a constitutional amendment be approved setting up an independent redistricting commission or is there another way to try make sure districts can be drawn fairly without incumbents alone picking their voters?
I have made my views public on these and other issues over the years. In a legislative session all views must be considered: urban, suburban, rural; Democratic, Republican, Socialist (there is one); conservative, moderate, liberal; etc. In most instances a compromise can be reached in conference committees such as those that are now meeting. Other issues will be put off for another year. Regardless of what happens with remaining issues, the 2020 session will go down in history as truly a remarkable one with the many tough issues that have already been resolved.
In contrast to the federal government’s method of budgeting, the budget for the Commonwealth of Virginia is more than balanced. The state Constitution prohibits the borrowing of money for operations, and it requires a “rainy day fund” of reserve monies that can be drawn upon in an economic downturn. That is in part why the state has a perfect AAA bond rating giving it the best terms when monies are borrowed for capital projects.
Both the House and the Senate have completed work on their versions of the budget that was proposed by Governor Ralph Northam earlier this year. The two budgets will be reconciled in a conference committee that will resolve differences between the two. Total spending for the biennium will be about $48 billion in general funds raised through taxes. Individual and corporate income taxes provide three quarters of the revenue with sales tax providing about seventeen percent and additional smaller taxes making up the rest. General funds coming from taxes make up about 36 percent of total revenue. Non-general funds that consist of fees such as motor vehicle and gas taxes, college tuition, federal grants and other fees make up 64 percent of the budget.
Noteworthy features of the House and Senate budgets that are being reconciled and are subject to change before a final budget is adopted include a much needed increase in rates for personal care providers in Medicaid programs, an increase in developmental waiver disability slots by 1,135 in the Governor’s budget to 1,635 in the Senate version of the budget. While the increase will help, the number of persons on the waiting list still number in the thousands. The Governor and the House budgeted for 630 supportive housing slots for persons with serious mental illness while the Senate provided 1,630. Budget language provides for the establishment of a state-based exchange for health insurance.
The budgets of both houses provided for teacher raises as did the Governor’s budget. The amount differs in each with an expected three to four percent over the biennium. The ratio of counselors to students in the public schools will be improved. The Governor proposed a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. The House ratio is 325 and the Senate’s is 300. Likewise, the ratio of teachers for English learners will be improved. A major point of contention among the Governor’s and the House and Senate budgets is that only the House has proposed to restore the cost to compete funding for Northern Virginia schools because of the high cost of living in the region. The average per pupil direct aid for public school students ranges from $6,206 in the Governor’s budget to $6,297 in the House budget.
A major emphasis in the budget is an increased investment in preschool education that was championed by the First Lady. The Governor’s “Get skilled, Get a job, Give back” (G3) funding to provide tuition assistance to low- to moderate-income students who meet certain criteria is receiving significant funding. The Housing Trust Fund will receive a much-needed infusion of cash proposed in all the budgets.
A tradition in the House of Delegates that has come about in recent years is to have a speech at the beginning of each daily session during February about a Black person. Some speeches are about well-known historic figures; most are about lesser-known Black persons who have made contributions to their communities and to the state. After all, the point of Black History Month is to have all of us gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of Black persons’ contributions to our history. The Legislative Black Caucus organizes the event, and I am pleased to have been invited to speak each year at one of the daily sessions. This year I spoke about the late Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour and Washington Week in Review who was the first Black woman to become a national news commentator. I always appreciated receiving the daily news from her in her calm and professional manner. Not all speeches are about historic figures; one delegate spoke this year about his experiences of growing up Black.
I predict that in future years a speech will be made on the floor of the House of Delegates about the 2020 Virginia General Assembly being a transformative event in Black history. Black experience accounts for a major portion of the story in a state that unfortunately has been known for centuries for its racist policies. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, and the slave codes that were enacted to keep them subjected as slaves were inhumane.
When the tobacco fields were no longer productive, Virginia’s chief source of income became the selling of slaves into the deep South. Even the freeing of the slaves with the Civil War did not bring equal rights to Virginia’s Black population. Slave codes were replaced by Jim Crow laws. Voting by Blacks was restricted. Their separate schools and other accommodations were not equal.
Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought about changes that started Black people on the way to greater freedom. A successful lawsuit against gerrymandering in the state along with greater voter participation brought about a record number of Black candidates being elected to the General Assembly. Black legislators took on greater roles of responsibility in the 2020 session of the legislature.
The first Black woman was elected Majority Leader of the House of Delegates, and the first Black woman was elected President of the State Senate. While there had been a few Black committee chairs over the years in the House of Delegates, half of the fourteen committee chairs are now Black. Vestiges of Jim Crow laws that remained in the Code even though they had been over-turned by the courts are being stripped away. Localities are being given permission to deal with Confederate monuments that were the symbols of Jim Crowism.
Laws that were unevenly applied to Black persons are being amended or repealed. Black cemeteries are being cared for as the Confederate cemeteries were for many years. A commission is going to look at the teaching of Black history in our schools to ensure that it tells the whole story. Major strides are being made in this month of Black history!
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president when the entire country was in the midst of what historians term the Great Depression. His solution to the widespread economic and social challenges that existed at the time was the establishment of programs and services that became known as the New Deal.
Virginia had fallen behind in responding to many economic and social challenges until the voters in 2019 signaled with their votes that they were ready for changes. Those changes are coming in what I described in my column last week as “dazzling” speed. This week I will give many more examples. I am highlighting bills that have been passed by the House of Delegates but still must be passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor. I feel certain that there will not be major differences between the actions of the House and Senate.
Virginians supported candidates in the election that wanted to end discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. The House responded last week by passing a bill that ends discrimination in housing, accommodations, employment, and others forms of discrimination. It is the first such bill to pass in a southern state and is one of the most comprehensive of any in the country. I was honored to be a co-patron of the bill and pleased that my bill to extend protections of the hate crime law to all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity also passed.
A bill to raise the minimum wage is making its way through the House with multi-year steps to get to $15 per hour. My minimum wage bill that I have been introducing for many years was incorporated into the bill that is headed for passage. Immigrant workers that need a driver’s permit to get to work will be able to get one under a bill before the House. For the last several decades there have been a series of laws designed to make it more difficult for a woman to have access to an abortion when necessary, but those laws are being repealed. Likewise, a number of laws that have made it more cumbersome and difficult to register and vote have been repealed.
Bills to clean up our environment are passing this year including a bill I introduced to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The Governor’s goal for the state to become carbon neutral by 2050 is being incorporated into energy legislation that makes way for more solar and wind power. Some advocates called their efforts the “Green New Deal.” While the omnibus bill that incorporated their goals into a single piece of legislation did not pass as it was found impossible to determine its fiscal impact, I believe that most if not all of their goals will have been met when the many other bills with a narrower focus that have passed are considered. The advocacy of the Green New Deal members was very important in getting the many other single-purpose bills passed.
I have not exhausted the list of good bills that are passing. What is happening in Richmond this session is a really good new deal for people in the Commonwealth!
Dazzling is the only word I could think of to describe the amazing work that is going on in the Virginia General Assembly this legislative session. The annual meeting of the legislature is just approaching half-time of its annual session, but already significant policy changes are being debated and adopted. There is little new to the policies that are being adopted; many are in place in other states already. But in Richmond they seem revolutionary!
I have already written about the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early days of the session. The movement to ratify the ERA began in the early 1970s but was not successful in Virginia until nearly 50 years later! Since two ratification deadlines have already passed, the fate of the amendment with Virginia being the needed 38th state to ratify is uncertain. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is among the leaders seeking a judicial decision to validate the amendment’s ratification. Although the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in 1920 and added to the Constitution, Virginia did not add its support to ratification until 1952!
While legislation must be passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor to become law, here is a run-down on what has been approved so far by at least one house. By the time the legislature adjourns in early March this legislation is expected to be approved by both houses and sent to the governor. Numerous bills have been passed to ban discrimination against persons because of their sex; bills to protect LGBTQ+ persons would not have made it out of committee last year. Bills to ban discrimination in housing, public accommodations, employment and credit applications have passed as has a bill to ban conversion therapy.
Likewise, bills to protect public safety from the misuse of guns that would never have made it out of committee previously have passed in both houses of the Assembly. My bill to require universal background checks has passed as well as bills granting localities the right to ban guns in public spaces, increasing the penalties for leaving guns unsecured around children, and requiring people to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours. A “red flag” law that allows authorities to remove guns from individuals who have shown themselves to be a danger to themselves and to others has passed.
This week action is expected on bills that will open up the state to more solar and wind power and that will establish standards for the increased use of renewables in generating electricity. Plastic bags may be eliminated or taxed to reduce plastic pollution. I am sponsoring the Governor’s bill to advance the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay that is getting some push-back from the farming community that would be affected by regulations to clean up stream run-off. Numerous bills have already passed to make it easier to register to vote and to vote on election day, including no-excuse absentee voting.
There is more to come. Tune in next week or follow the sessions on live-streaming at House Chamber Live Stream for more dazzling action!
The General Assembly has shifted into high gear to get through its agenda of thousands of bills in sixty days. The old saying that you cannot be in two places at one time is disproven every day as the 140 members of the House and Senate scurry among sub-committees and standing committees on which they serve and the subcommittees and committees before which they have to present their bills. By strategically placing an assistant or intern in one meeting while the member moves quickly among several meetings, it may even appear that a member is in more than even two places at one time. The legislature is not a place for lengthy contemplation but rather is a place for action. After all, we ran on a platform of what we promised we were going to do, and the legislative session is the time of action to deliver on our promises.
With such a “meat grinder” approach can we trust the outcome of a legislative session? Consider that in order for a bill to become a law it must meet the approval of a subcommittee and full committee, passage twice in the full house on two different days, the same process in the other house of the legislature, and the signature of the governor. All that time there are hundreds of advocates, constituents, lobbyists and others looking over your shoulder and providing comments on what you are doing. Bills get intense scrutiny before they are passed. It is easier to describe how a bill does not make it than it is to tell how a bill becomes a law. Fewer than half the bills introduced become law.
Election outcomes do matter for to change the outcome of debate on important issues it may be easier to change the people in the legislature through the ballot box than it is to change the minds of incumbent legislators. A case in point is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that was debated for decades but approved within a week in a General Assembly made up of new members supporting the rights of women. Those same new members, joining the progressives who were already there, have even now approved sweeping new common-sense gun safety laws such as my universal background check bill that had been defeated for two decades by previous members of a subcommittee of the House. Laws that put barriers in the way of women in making choices concerning their own reproductive health are being repealed. Laws that disproportionally affected people of color are being repealed. The criminal justice system is undergoing a major shift to make it work more fairly for all people. Challenges to the environment are being met with meaningful legislation.
It is impossible to list in a short column the thousands of bills before the legislature. You can however review the full list with descriptions and status at lis.virginia.gov and for the first time this year you can see livestreaming of most full and subcommittee meetings at House Chamber Stream and Senate Chamber Stream. And you can visit the Capitol in Richmond; all meetings are open to the public. Some say the process is like making sausage. The important thing is it is doing the people’s business.
Last Sunday I made my annual winter trek south to Richmond for the General Assembly session. My two-hour trip is not far enough to get me to sunny weather, but it is far enough for me to be in some hot debates. I stay in a hotel with such proximity to my office that my daily commute is just a walk of a couple of minutes. Going south in the winter may be a vacation for some, but for the next 60 days it is the most intense period of work that one can imagine. Fortunately, I get home most weekends for a brief reprieve.
This trip south has been one filled with great anticipation. For the first time in two decades I am not in the minority! I chair a committee now, the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, that will be acting on many environmental bills. I can expect that bills I introduce will get a fair hearing and most of them will pass. My colleagues and I reflect the population of the Commonwealth more than any previous General Assembly session ever. Not only do we have more women in the legislature, but we have the first ever woman Speaker of the House!
Being a member of the majority party brings enormous responsibility. As the party “in power,” we must exercise our duties in ways that are judicious and fair. There is no time for political pay-back. We must shift from campaigning mode to governing mode. Although it may be tempting to do otherwise, we must conduct ourselves in ways towards the minority party members that would be the way we want to be treated in the distant future when we may find ourselves the minority again. Yes, the golden rule should apply even in the legislature.
How exciting it is to realize that in a few short months we will be able to add Virginia to the list of states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment even if we are the last needed for ratification. We will strengthen our existing antidiscrimination laws and add to them. We will make our communities safer from gun violence. We will add essential funding increases to our educational and human service programs. We will make critical decisions on protecting our environment and responding to climate change. And more. When all this work is done we have a governor who has pledged to sign our bills into law!
Last Saturday’s public hearing by the Fairfax General Assembly delegation reminded us that there is not total accord on what we will be doing. About half the audience of around 300 people in attendance seemed to be there to shout down those with whom they disagreed. Their efforts to show support for what they define as their second amendment rights was to violate the first amendment rights of others. The lack of civility in public discourse across the country has found its way to Virginia. What a shame!
I am honored to be here, and I am going to do my best to fairly represent your interests. Make a trip south to see me and the legislative process over the next couple of months. To live-stream the legislative sessions, go to House of Delegates and to Senate. To follow the progress of bills, visit lis.virginia.gov.
With the outcomes of the elections in 2019 Virginia may be considered by some to be in an altered state. While the flipping of the legislature from red to blue will have consequences, actual proposed changes will not be known until campaign rhetoric is translated into legislative languages, a multitude of interest groups and individuals have weighed in, and the level of political will for significant change can be measured by votes in legislative committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. Readers of this column will be getting steady reports over the next weeks and months following the beginning of the next 400 years of the Commonwealth.
In the meantime, it is helpful to step back as much as that is possible and to closely examine where we are today as a baseline in moving forward. The Commonwealth is a wealthy state–twelfth wealthiest among the states. That is not common wealth however. Three regions of Virginia that make up the Golden Crescent from Northern Virginia through Tidewater exceed U.S. per capita income. Northern Virginia jurisdictions have a per capita income level greater than Connecticut which is the highest in the nation. At the same time, three regions of Virginia in Southwest and Southside have per capita income less than Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. Parts of Virginia are the wealthiest while other parts are the poorest in the United States. Even with its great diversity in income Virginia continues to have the lowest state minimum wage in the country at $7.25 which had it simply kept up with inflation would be $10.54.
Virginia is certainly not unique among the states in having broad differences in growth rates and wealth within its boundaries. There are many factors that create differences. From a public policy perspective, it is important that Virginia be viewed in its uncommon aspects as well as generalized as a state on the whole. One size seldom fits all, and certainly the diversity of Virginia requires that its unique regions be considered in any statewide policies and programs.
Unfortunately, the regional differences seen in per capita income are reflected in the growth rate, educational level, life span and many other measures of the health of the state. Northern Virginia grew by about 12 percent in population between 2010 and 2017, central Virginia by about 7 percent while Southside declined by 2.5 percent and Southwest by 4 percent.
A recent national America’s Health Ranking report shows Virginia moving up from 20th to 15th among the states in health rankings. A big drop in persons smoking–29 percent to about 15 percent of adults–helped. At the same time there has been a significant increase in drug-related deaths over the past three years, from 10.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 15.4.
The diversity of the state will impact the business of the legislature. I will discuss these and further aspects of the Commonwealth at a State of the Commonwealth Breakfast this Friday, the 3rd of January, at the Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston at 8 am. RSVP to secure.actblue.com.
Since many of her friends had told her there was no Santa, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon had no idea when she wrote to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus that his editorial response to her would become the most quoted newspaper editorial ever. The editor’s response to her question was “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
For residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia the question has arisen with the announcement of every biennial budget, Is there a Santa Claus who can provide the resources for making progress in the state? The answer last week was clearly, “Yes!” and his name is Governor Ralph Northam. The Governor presented a budget for the next two years that will warm many hearts and respond to many unmet needs.
Among the many improvements in programs and services, Governor Northam observed “But perhaps the smartest investment we can make is in our children and their education.” His budget proposals include an additional $1.2 billion for public education, one of the largest investments the Commonwealth has ever made in education from early childhood through high school. Beyond that investment the Governor has proposed free community college for those with a financial need who are enrolled in programs leading to jobs. More school counselors and teacher raises are also included in his proposed budget.
The affordable housing program will receive an additional $63 million in funding under the Governor’s budget. Community Services Boards will receive much needed additional funding to respond to the people who are having mental health crises. The Governor has also proposed a state-based marketplace for the nearly 400,000 Virginians who buy health insurance on their own rather than through an employer. A state system can help keep premiums down.
The Governor is proposing to raise the cigarette tax which I have also proposed several times over the years. Even with an increase Virginia will have the lowest tax on cigarettes except for North Carolina. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Virginia, and it directly causes more than $3 billion in yearly health care costs.
On transportation the Governor proposes an increase in the gas tax to raise money for improvements. To offset the increases, the Governor has proposed to save drivers $150 million per year by eliminating annual vehicle inspections that have not been shown to increase public safety. One of the greatest advancements in transportation improvements for Northern Virginia was announced days after his speech on the budget. Expansion of the Long Bridge across the Potomac River between Arlington and D.C. will take place over the next several years greatly expanding rail transit in the region.
With whatever holidays you celebrate, may they be filled with happiness, good health and joy! I look forward to serving you in the new year.
In the oddities of the Virginia government calendar, the one-term limited governor spends the first two years of the term implementing a biennial budget proposed by the previous governor and passed by the General Assembly in the first two months of his term.
It is only after serving nearly two years that the governor has the opportunity to propose a budget reflecting the priorities on which he was elected. The governor then has two years to implement his budget before proposing a budget that will be implemented by his successor.
The complexities of changing the calendar are more than is likely to be undertaken at this time. Some like the system for it slows down the process of change for certainly the “Virginia Way” has never been to bring about any change too swiftly!
A fix that would take care of part of the snail pace of doing business in the Commonwealth would be to allow the governor to run for a successive term. I support such a change for it would allow the voters to decide if an individual should be granted a second term.
One area in which there is a need for haste in taking action is related to the environment and the role the state will take in reducing carbon emissions and responding to climate change and all of its ramifications.
Gov. Ralph Northam ran on a platform promising more protection for the environment. He and his staff worked busily on his new budget that was announced yesterday before this column was written. In the weeks leading up to his announcement, the governor held press conferences around the state on various parts of the budget including one on his environmental proposals.
The budget and legislative proposals he announced on environmental protection are the strongest ever proposed by a Virginia governor. He said of his proposals that “these significant investments in environmental protection, environmental justice, clean energy, and clean water will combat climate change and ensure we maintain our high quality of life here in Virginia.”
To reduce carbon pollution the governor recommends removing budget language added by the Republican legislature two years ago prohibiting Virginia from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). He instead proposes legislation making Virginia a part of the regional effort to reduce carbon emissions by requiring the purchase of credits that through the marketplace will make fossil fuels more expensive than solar and wind sources of energy. The proposal is already being attacked as a “carbon tax.”
The governor’s proposals include $400 million for the Chesapeake Bay clean up that will keep that effort on track. Significant new investments in state agencies with environmental responsibilities will provide the staffing and resources for doing a more effective job in enforcing environmental regulations, improving public engagement, and ensuring environmental justice.
An investment of up to $40 million to upgrade the Portsmouth Marine Terminal will support the offshore wind supply chain and the development of offshore wind energy generating capacity to achieve 2,500 megawatts by 2026. Additional funding will also be provided for land conservation. This additional focus on the environment is sorely needed in Virginia.