Hundreds of new laws went into effect last Wednesday. A total of 1,289 new laws passed the General Assembly in its regular session in January and February and were signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam.
Even more telling than the number of bills passed is the fact that the new laws in total were the most progressive to ever pass the General Assembly reflecting the shift in power to Democrats who now control both houses of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion for the first time in more than two decades. A summary of the new laws can be found at In Due Course.
While it has been fewer than four months since the legislature adjourned sine die, it seems like an eternity with the unfolding of events of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine and the civil and racial unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The impact of the pandemic on the economy necessitates another session of the General Assembly to adjust the biennial budget we just passed months ago to reflect the realities of a plunge downward in revenues. The choices we make will not be easy as we reduce budgets of programs we just recently celebrated. The protests in the streets remind us that we need to get on with significant reforms in policing and criminal justice as I discussed in this column last week.
The Governor is expected to call a special session for probably late August. It will have the broadest agenda of any special session on record. In addition to making tough decisions on the budget, legislators will be asked to enact new laws to further ease access to voting with the challenges COVID-19 makes for voters and to reform policing in very fundamental ways. Already the interested parties are starting their email campaigns to sway legislators on these issues.
None of these issues are over until it is over. One of the highlights of the regular session was the passage of my bill to require a background check for all gun purchases. Already the opponents of gun safety legislation have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction blocking the expanded background checks that they contend are unconstitutional. I believe the courts will support the law as a necessary action of the legislature to keep the public safe
More than 22,000 persons demonstrated at the Capitol on one day during the regular session supporting what they term second amendment rights and opposing any gun safety bills; 16,000 of them were armed with all types of guns. They were not successful in that effort with seven of eight proposed gun safety laws passing. They have already starting an intense email campaign against any bill such as the one that failed to ban assault weapons.
The message in the intense and prolonged protests in the streets that can be summarized as “Black lives matter” must be addressed in the special session. A number of sweeping proposals will be before the legislature with support and opposition. It is not yet over on these issues as well that require our strong voices and advocacy in order to become law.
Back in March, a couple of weeks after the 2020 General Assembly session had adjourned, I wrote in my weekly column that while the annual meeting of the state legislature had been “historic, transformative, and consequential” there was also as I entitled the column “More Work Left to be Done.” At the time it was expected that many of the issues that had not been addressed would be taken up in future legislative sessions. There was no way to know the explosive nature of subsequent events that now make it clear that we must get back to work without delay.
The indelible photo of a policeman choking the life out of a black man without provocation or cause made it clear to me and others that there are injustices in our society that cannot wait to be addressed. The Black Lives Matter movement has made the need crystal clear. The stories of black persons who have come forth to tell what it is like to grow up black in this country make my heart weep. Fellow delegate Don Scott made the case clearly in an opinion piece he wrote last week: “The daily indignities of being black can be burdensome. If we respond to it all, we would have riots daily. Black people, for the most part, have always been tolerant. Even with all of our progress, President Barack Obama and all, we are reminded that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery could have been any of us. That is why we are outraged and, truth be told, very afraid.” We cannot have a just society when so many of our citizens live in very real fear.
I am pleased that leadership of the House of Delegates and Senate have announced that the special session of the General Assembly, expected to be held in late August to deal with budgetary adjustments that must be addressed with the current economic depression, will be expanded to include proposed legislation to address injustices in our criminal justice system and in our policing. The Legislative Black Caucus of the General Assembly has proposed an extensive agenda that includes declaring racism a public health crisis, creating a civilian review board of policing action with subpoena power, ending qualified immunity for police officers, expanding the use of body cameras, defining and restricting excessive use of force including banning the use of chokeholds and restricting the use of tear gas and militarization tactics and weapons against civilians, passing “Breonna’s Law” to end no-knock warrants, reducing police presence in schools and replacing them with mental health professionals, reinstituting parole, passing cash bail reform, and more.
At the beginning of the session earlier this year the Speaker of the House of Delegates changed the name and mission of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee to be the Public Safety Committee. I am pleased to have been named a member of that committee. With the Courts of Justice Committee we will be having three virtual public hearings on a schedule to be announced. In the meantime, your suggestions on getting this work done would be appreciated.
Words have meanings defined in the dictionary that can take on other meaning within the context in which they are being used. Never has it been more important that we understand the meaning and use of words than in present day politics.
Last week I wrote about “Black lives matter” and the importance that we hear the message that is being conveyed with that sentence. It is a group of words whose meaning has been ignored for too long. The current demonstrations literally around the world are intended to place an exclamation point at the end to emphasize that they must finally be heard and understood. I believe with each demonstration of thousands of people and with each statue that comes down the message that black lives matter is finally coming through. We need to get on with the changes that are needed in society and in our laws that show that we understand that black lives do matter. There is no turning back now.
When the grossly disproportionate number of black persons killed by white policemen that videos have made totally clear, the need for major and immediate changes to our policing system have become obvious. We need to make sure that the words we use to bring out those changes are not used against us. The societal needs for which our current police forces have been given responsibility in recent years are too broad and need to be reimagined and redefined. We cannot allow those who view societal challenges in law and order terms to use the term “defund the police” against those who understand that policing policies need to change. While some people mean a total defunding of police departments when they use the slogan, “defund the police,” many of us believe police departments will continue to need to exist but be demilitarized and not be the sole responders to community incidents. We need to define a role for public safety and community personnel who can keep our communities safe without confrontation and expand the availability of mental health workers in our communities. You can be sure that there will be a war of words over public safety and policing in the next several elections, and we must work hard to get our message clear.
In 1993 the first woman attorney general of Virginia was up by 20 points in a race to be the first woman governor of Virginia by defeating the Republican candidate, George Allen Jr. An incident of a person committing a crime while on parole from a Virginia prison during the political campaign led to Allen adopting an “end parole” theme to keep Virginians safe that led to his upset victory. The resulting end parole policy led to filling the jails and prisons, a massive prison building program, and lengthy prison terms for persons who were no longer a threat to society. We have only recently begun to undo the damage done by that simple bumper-strip term “end parole” that led to many lives–disproportionately black–being destroyed by a terrible public policy.
Words do have meaning, but we need to be clear what those words truly mean as they impact public policy.
Black lives matter. Period. No further explanation or expansion of the phrase is needed. Do not try to switch the subject by wanting to suggest that all lives matter. For more than four centuries the lives of black people have been degraded. There have been numerous instances during that time when events would have suggested that there might finally be a recognition that black lives do matter. With the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that all men are created equal one might have concluded that black Americans might finally achieve some semblance of equality, but they did not. With a constitution for the new country, blacks were counted as worth only three-fifths of a person. Virginia and the Southern states seceded from the Union and fought a civil war to be able to keep black people in bondage. After more than 250 years of slavery black people were given a hollow promise with the Emancipation Proclamation. Jim Crow laws replaced slave codes. Many ingenious ways were contrived to keep black people from voting. Lynching was among the ways used to instill fear in black people to keep them “in their place.” Police too often became less public safety protectors and more keepers of a divided society where black lives have less value than that of others.
With all this history and more is there any wonder why leaders who are willing to take a stand are insistent that we keep the message clear: Black Lives Do Matter! Too much has happened to turn our backs on much-needed changes in so many aspects of our society and our governance. When a cop feels that he can grind his knee in the back of the neck of a black man until he dies while three other cops look on, we know that the time has arrived for change. No excuses. Enough is enough.
The General Assembly will take up significant reforms to our policing and criminal justice system when it meets in August. I look forward to cosponsoring and voting for meaningful bills that will redefine policing, shift resources from policing to community and social services, and reform our criminal justice system. The needs are so extensive that one legislative session will not be adequate to deal with all the needed reforms, but there can be no delay in taking the first very big step forward.
Make no mistake thinking that all that is talked about will be popular. Some will think that if black lives matter their lives and their security will somehow be lessened. Politicians will jump on the divisions that exist in our society and suggest that everyone will somehow be less safe if changes are made. They will twist the meaning of the movement to reform policing, referred to as “defund police” by some, as leaving communities unsafe. The white supremacists among us, and they are more numerous than we might like to realize, will be marching and protesting any changes.
Black lives matter. We are on the verge of making the statement a reality. We cannot falter in our resolve to make it true!
Finding the words to describe the period of history in which Virginia finds itself is challenging. Readers of this column know that over the past several months I have been using adjectives indicating increasing significance of events that started with the historic (I have used this adjective many times) outcomes of the elections of 2019 to the transformative (future events will prove that this is the correct adjective) legislative session of 2020. Events of the past week add another descriptor of the changes that are taking place in the Old Dominion: monumental. Yes, the word applies to the monuments of which Virginia is home to many, but it applies also to what is happening to these monuments.
Governor Ralph Northam announced last week that the 60-foot high equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue is coming down right away! The Mayor and City Council of Richmond agree that the remaining five other grandiose Confederacy-related statues come down as well. The grand boulevard that was named in 2007 as being one of the “10 Great Streets in America” and was in the early 1900’s a significant part of the Lost Cause movement to glorify and justify the South’s position in the Civil War will be left with one statue–that of Arthur Ashe, the Black Richmond native who was an international tennis star. A bill is being introduced to remove the statue of former governor and U.S. senator Harry Byrd from Capitol Grounds. Byrd is notable as the head of a political machine that maintained its power by keeping Black citizens from voting. He also led the “massive resistance” movement that delayed school desegregation in Virginia by a decade. There will be other monuments coming down in other locations as has already happened in Alexandria City.
Monumental but not relating to the statues is the work done by the General Assembly in its 2020 session to remove from the Code “explicitly racist language and segregationist policies.” While no longer in effect, these parts of the Code nonetheless stood as a reminder of the racist history of the Commonwealth. The changes came from recommendations made by a commission appointed by Governor Ralph Northam to remove laws that “were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity.”
The “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity” that banned interracial marriage was repealed as was the Code provision “no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.” Other state laws to require segregation of the races in transportation and health care facilities were no longer in effect but remained on the books.
While removing statues of people from the past and repealing laws that were previously replaced by other laws or over-ruled by court decisions may be called symbolism by some, the symbols they represent are important. Virginia leaders along with its citizens must make it clear that the divisions of people of the past are over. We need through our words and actions to demonstrate a monument to openness and acceptance of all people.
The image of a man in a uniform pressing his knee down on the neck of a hand-cuffed black man while being protected by three other uniformed individuals is so revolting and repulsive that I cannot get it out of my mind. The picture joins those in my mind of black persons being shot in the back by uniformed individuals without just cause, photos of black persons hanging by ropes around their necks while white persons hidden by white sheets and masks cheered, photos of the backs of black slaves scarred by whip lashes to keep them in their places, and others.
How loud does a black man have to cry out for his already dead momma or for his being able to breathe before the message of racial justice is heard? How many black parents must bury their children before we say that enough is enough? How long can a civilized society be tolerant of such blatant injustices?
Is there any wonder that when these basic questions cannot be answered that people take to the streets with demonstrations to have their voices heard? While some few seek to turn demonstrations into opportunities to loot and burn, we cannot lose sight of the basic message that is being conveyed by the persons in the streets–that it is way past time for change in America.
For those who have been involved in the civil rights movement throughout our lifetime, the incidents of brutality by persons who are supposed to protect us and the hate actions and speech of those who see themselves in some kind of superior position to others are deeply distressing. We can continue to strengthen our laws that protect minorities even as the laws have clear limitations to deter violence. We can support educational programs since so many of the offensive actions come about because of ignorance. We can continue our work to ensure that our laws reflect the kind of justice and fairness that we expect of others. We can speak out in public places to make it clear to all that we stand for justice and fairness for all and that we reject racial superiority. We can join demonstrators who stand for these principles.
Before the brutality in Minneapolis occurred, the pandemic had already pulled off a scab on American society showing economic and racial injustice. The economic injustices that exist in our society have become more obvious, and the inequities of our economic system are becoming more severe. We clearly want the threat to our health from the COVID-19 crisis to pass, but we need to think twice before we seek a return to the unfair system that has developed in our country. We can learn a lot from the observations of our society during a quarantine to seek to improve it as we leave our period of isolation.
With destructive leadership at the national level, we must all step up to fill the breach. We need to work together to stamp out racial injustice in our country.
The outpouring of generosity in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredible. I continue to learn of people who have responded in remarkable ways to the needs that have been brought on by the quarantine or that have been recognized as a result of our having to stay home. The lack of face masks resulted in dozens of persons working alone or as part of groups to sew face masks and make them available to first responders, medical staff and others. Access to food has been a major concern, and numerous food pantries and distribution centers have been expanded or established to make food available to those in need. Food donations have come pouring in. For a list of places where you can respond to the food crisis, my website, kenplum.com, includes a Food Resources Directory. I am so pleased and honored to live in such a caring community.
Just as I am celebrating the goodness of our community, some misguided individual or individuals show up and for whatever their motivation decide to spray paint hate symbols on the sidewalks and buildings in one of our shopping centers. For whatever has happened in their lives to fill them with the hate they express, they are unable to exist in an open society that so many worked hard to establish. Graffiti with the worst of the hate words and symbols is bad enough, but in our state and throughout the country there are too many acts of bullying and violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks more than a thousand hate groups with 36 of them located in Virginia. That is why in the last session of the legislature I introduced a bill that the Governor has signed into law to strengthen our hate crime penalties.
I thank Rabbi Michael G. Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation for his “Call for Courage” after the recent hate event in Reston for providing me a meaningful perspective: “The solution is to call these symbols what they are, marks of cowardice. While they claim to communicate hate and fear, they really belie the underlying weakness and loneliness of the perpetrator. We are all afraid, and courage is the ability to face a fear and carry on despite it. Cowards allow fear to drive their decisions and actions, undermining one’s duties and purpose.” (Full statement is at www.nvhcreston.org.)
I concur with Rabbi Holzman’s recommendation as to what we should do: “The moment calls for courage. We invite everyone to drown these cowardly messages with the message “Hate has No Home Here.” Write this on sidewalks, take photos, use the hashtag, and post it online. Let us show Reston, Herndon, Vienna, Northern Virginia, the Commonwealth and the Country that we go forward together.” And I would add, let us continue to show through our acts of generosity and support for our neighbors and those in need in this time of a pandemic that we are a caring and compassionate community. Hate has no place here! (Hate Has No Home Here yard signs available for purchase at hatehasnohome.org)
Passing by the elementary and high schools I attended as a youngster was a small yellow bus carrying about six children to a school 12 miles away in Luray. They were black children who by the constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia were prohibited from attending school with white children. I was reminded of that experience this past Sunday which was the 66th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision by the United States Supreme Court. In this landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. They ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal in public education. Among the cases that were heard along with the Brown case was a case coming out of Prince Edward County, Virginia, challenging racial segregation of public schools that I had seen as a young person.
It took more than a decade for black and white children to start attending school together in Virginia and throughout the Nation as state and local government actions and numerous lawsuits sought to reverse the Brown decision. Massive Resistance was the term applied in Virginia to the efforts over a decade of state legislation and court challenges to keep schools segregated.
The Brown decision 66 years ago was as critically important a step in moving towards equality in access to public educational opportunities as it was in helping to ignite the civil rights movement in the United States. Clearly it was a beginning and not a conclusion to the challenges of combating racial inequities in public schools. The concept it helped to foster was that there should be equality in funding among public schools regardless of the zip code in which they might be located.
Performance outcomes by minority students over decades demonstrate that equality of funding is not sufficient. Equal funding suggests that all students start at the same point and given the same support will progress equally. There are many social and economic factors as well as individual differences that affect student performance.
A depiction that has become popular recently demonstrates the differences among equality, equity and justice. Three children of different heights are shown looking over a fence at a sports game. With equality, the three children are given the same height box on which to stand; two children can see the game, but the shortest child cannot see over the fence. With equity the children are given the height box each needs to see over the fence. With justice, the fence barrier to seeing the game is removed.
More than six decades after the Brown decision there are real efforts to move forward on equity funding of our schools. The most recent General Assembly session did more in introducing equity concepts into school funding than ever before. School funding is to be divided along principles that more schools would get the funding they need and not the same as every other school. We cannot let the current economic depression take away that important step in supporting our schools. We have come too far in seeking to achieve equity to let it slip away. With equity in place we can move on to justice!
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.
My mom and dad were married in 1928 just before the Great Depression that lasted from 1929 to 1939. They grew up less than three miles apart, and Mom’s father who was a carpenter helped them build a house almost exactly halfway between the homes in which they had grown up. My dad worked for his father on the family farm in rural Page County, Virginia, growing grains and converting some of them into a liquid product (moonshine)!
The Great Depression was the greatest economic disaster the world had ever experienced to that time, and its impact was exacerbated by a drought. Mom and Dad never forgot the hardships they endured during that first decade of married life together, and those early experiences affected their entire lives. They developed skills of self-reliance and frugality that stayed with them even as economic times got easier for them later in their lives.
My dad farmed about an acre of vegetables that fed us throughout the summer and for the rest of the year as my mom canned or later when they had electricity and a freezer froze food for future consumption. We always grew enough potatoes to fill a garner in the cellar (essentially a basement with a dirt floor) to last us all year. In the earliest years of their marriage, more than a decade before I came along as the youngest of their three sons, they had a cow for milk and raised a hog for butchering.
To supplement the meager income Dad had from farming with my grandfather, they would pick huckleberries in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that are now part of the Shenandoah National Park. They picked wild strawberries and blackberries for home consumption of jams and jellies Mom would make. Their most profitable side-line was selling the meat of black walnuts that they had gathered from the area. Cracking a black walnut takes a lot of force and know-how. They were extremely frugal as they had to be. Well after the Great Depression ended and I was a young person we used our wax paper and tin (aluminum) foil more than once by simply wiping it off after each use.
Dad and Mom never lost their love and appreciation for President Franklin Roosevelt whom they credited with saving the country. They responded to his fireside chats that assured them that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” When the Great Depression finally ended and Dad went to work “in the public” meaning that he no longer worked for his father, their economic situation improved with his being in a unionized job and as the entire country improved with the New Deal.
In many of the same ways that my parents experienced the first Great Depression, future generations will have been impacted by the next Great Depression coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic we are now experiencing. With hard work, strong faith, frugality, honest leadership, and perseverance they will be able to share the things they are now having to do to survive.
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.
Warren G. Harding was elected president by a landslide in 1920. He promised in his campaign speeches that he would deliver, in a phrase that he reportedly coined, “a return to normalcy” that people eagerly sought after World War I. Harding had a scandal-plagued administration and marital affairs that contributed to rumors that his wife poisoned him leading to the heart attack that killed him before the end of his term. But Harding liked to be liked, and his “normalcy” phrase captured the mood of the people.
Today there is certainly a desire to return to life as normal from the quarantine existence we are experiencing during the pandemic. There are politicians who suggest that a quick return to life as we knew it before the coronavirus is possible and that people should be “liberated” to live without the restrictions that governors have had to impose for public health and safety. At the reconvened session of the General Assembly last week there was a background blare of horns sounding as cars and trucks circled Capitol Square driven by protestors who wanted to let us know that they wanted restrictions lifted.
It would be a tragic mistake to lift health and safety restrictions too early based on politics rather that reliable scientific evidence. Every individual needs to act in a responsible way with social distancing, hand washing, and face masks, and we need to encourage others to do the same. There is no constitutional right to spread your germs around.
The economic crisis brought on in part by the pandemic is another issue that will be addressed in future columns.
An activity that I believe would be helpful to undertake while we are hunkered down is to review the old “normalcy” under which we grew accustomed to living and to ask ourselves if we have learned things over the past several weeks that might be applied to life in the future. Recently there has been a significant reduction in air pollution. We drive our vehicles less. Could we continue to make a list of what we need and make fewer vehicular trips to get those items. Walking and bicycling are on the increase that will contribute to better health in the community.
There has been a strengthening of community as neighbors support each other more, and there has been a wonderful outpouring of contributions and help to those in need. Many are looking at entertainment differently as there is a need to be more inventive and creative in entertaining ourselves.
Technology is being used more frequently to deliver information and services that should be continued into the future. Do not simply go back to the old way if we have been forced to recognize better ways to accomplish a purpose. Certainly teachers and public education have gained support by those who have had to teach their children at home!
I share the desire that a life without restrictions return as soon as medical science says it is safe to do so. In the meantime, let’s think about what we have learned through all of this that might make our life be even better in the future. Share your ideas with me at [email protected].
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.
As you are reading this column on Wednesday morning, I will have left home in Reston and be heading south on Interstate 95 for a noon meeting of the General Assembly for its reconvened session, commonly referred to as the “veto session.” A reconvened session can be deemed essential during this stay-at-home period because Article IV, Section 6 and Article V, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia and House Joint Resolution No. 99 (procedural resolution) require that the 2020 Reconvened Session convene on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, at noon, to act upon the Governor’s recommendations and vetoes to legislation passed during the 2020 Regular Session. The constitutional requirement for a reconvened session came about after Virginians started electing a Republican Governor ever so often who would have the audacity to veto bills that had been passed by the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. The constitutional amendment establishing the reconvened session gives legislators the last word as to what bills can become law without the Governor’s signature if a two-thirds vote can be gotten in both houses. Also, the reconvened session provides an opportunity to correct technical glitches or provide clarifying language through amendments suggested by the Governor from the bills that are passed in the fast-paced legislative sessions.
Social distancing will be strictly adhered to for the session which will be a challenge for legislators who are accustomed to a lot of handshaking and hugging. The House of Delegates will convene under a temporary tent covering on Capitol grounds that will provide the space for the 100 members to be at least six feet apart. The Senate of Virginia will meet in a large space at the Science Museum of Virginia that will accommodate social distancing for its 40 members. The usual strict requirement that men wear neckties has been relaxed for apparently ties sweep up too many germs. The Governor and his staff are not wearing ties these days. Face masks will be required, and plenty of hand sanitizer will be available. It is suggested that members bring their own lunches.
The Constitution limits the business of the General Assembly at Reconvened Session to consideration of the Governor’s amendments and objections. Of the 1,291 bills presented to the Governor, he signed 1,188 (92.02%), recommended amendments to 102 bills and vetoed one bill. An official summary of the bills passed during the 2020 General Assembly session is available at http://dls.virginia.gov/pubs/ summary/2020/summary2020.pdf.
The effort that legislators have to make to finish our work for the session pales in comparison to the challenges that people worldwide face every day during the pandemic. I continue to be impressed with the ways that social distancing has brought us together. Every day on social media and other outlets I learn of people who are sewing masks, running food pantries, contributing to charities, and doing good deeds for others. Our medical personnel put their lives on the line every day and cannot be thanked enough. On my website, kenplum.com, there is updated information on the pandemic and ways you can help. Stay safe. I will be heading back home immediately upon the conclusion of the one-day session.
My columns written over the couple of weeks after the ending of the annual General Assembly session this year as you may remember were filled were excitement and superlatives about the great work that had been accomplished this year. I even described the budget that was passed for the next two years as being the best on which I had voted over my legislative career. Many goals including to better fund education, mental health, homeless prevention, environment and other areas were not only met but were funded at historic levels.
Then suddenly, “poof,” the good news ended as the world sank into the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting economic collapse. Monies that had been projected to be received to support the very real needs of the Commonwealth as reflected in the budget we passed evaporated. The General Assembly is scheduled to meet on April 22 in a reconvened session to consider the Governor’s recommendations on legislation we passed including amendments that are needed to keep the budget in balance. Extra precautions are being taken for the meeting because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the meeting will be very painful for the decisions that must be made on the budget. There are no good choices.
Virginia has an all-time high in rainy-day reserve funds of about two billion dollars. Those funds are built up in the good times to serve as a cushion in challenging times like now. Ideally, reserve funds would be drawn on over the duration of the recession rather than being fully exhausted at the beginning, but the unknown is the length of the economic recession. Virginia has historically taken a very conservative approach to dipping into its reserves and is likely to once again with the high level of uncertainty about the future of the economy. While federal funds are expected to be made available to the states, the amount and timeline for assistance may be even more unpredictable than the future strength of the economy.
The tendency in budgeting is often to make reductions in those items last added to the budget and to protect more established programs. Such an approach at this time would put in jeopardy an increase in the minimum wage that affects state employees as well as those in the private sector. We are way past time to increase the measly $7.25 minimum wage that we had approved to go to $9.50 in January. I agree with the argument of advocates who insist that increasing the minimum wage would help with economic recovery because that increase would go immediately back into the economy as it is spent on groceries, rent, transportation and other necessities. The same argument applies to salary increases for teachers and state employees. These workers with the lowest of incomes should not bear the brunt of the declining economy.
More difficult decisions face us in a budget that proposes increases to programs that help the homeless, increase funding for preschool education, expand programs for persons with special needs, and expand environmental protection among others. There are no good choices!
At a critical time in our history when our federal administration is displaying a level of ineptness that is head-shakingly unbelievable, the importance of community becomes more evident to us. Whether that community is at the state level as we live-stream on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 2 pm the quiet bed-side manner of our physician now Governor Ralph Northam as he tells us the steps we need to get through the COVID-19 crisis as best as humanly possible or whether it is the neighbors on the street who emerge to the stoops of their homes at noon one day to sing happy birthday to a young person who is celebrating a mile-marking 18th birthday, we as members of multiple communities are facing a history-changing crisis. The way we emerge on the other side is likely to be dependent more on our community support system than on government action.
The federal Congress has already passed legislation of historic proportions that at any other time in our history would have been called socialism. There seems to be widespread agreement that it is not enough and that further federal assistance will be required both for individuals and families as well as the economy. To ensure that you are aware of the various programs of assistance that might be available to you and your family, visit my website at kenplum.com for a description of programs.
The General Assembly is required by the state Constitution to meet in a reconvened session after the Governor has reviewed and signed, vetoed or proposed amendments to bills passed in the recent regular session. The reconvened session is scheduled for April 22 this year, but there are serious questions as to whether it is a good idea to have 100 delegates and staff meeting in one room while 40 senators and staff meet in another room. However, the issue is resolved we will be ploughing new legal ground. Whenever the General Assembly meets it will not bring good news; the sharp decline in revenue will wreck what was a historically good budget. The reductions will be many, and they will be deep.
What can we as a community do while we are hunkered down? As people are demonstrating in communities throughout the country, there are many life-saving and useful things we can do. First, we can, and we must respond to the needs of people who are hungry. On my website, www.kenplum.com, is a directory of food banks and pantries that are responding to the needs of the hungry. Congratulations and thank you to all who have put together these wonderful efforts. All of the rest of us can help them. Without leaving your home you can donate online to the food banks that can use your contribution to buy food. You can buy groceries online and have them shipped to the local food bank. Or if you choose you can buy extra when you are doing your own shopping and contribute it to a food pantry. We are community, and we can help our neighbors who are hungry.
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.