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.
For much of the last two years I have used this column to laud the steps that were being taken in the Virginia General Assembly with the support of then Governor Ralph Northam to bring Virginia into the modern era. Virginia has a rich history, but one that is also shrouded in controversy. There is a tendency on the part of long-time Virginians to want to focus on the earliest history of the Commonwealth in the new nation with an emphasis on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence authored by a Virginian, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights that served as a model for the federal Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the history that surrounded that era is not so glorious. Forgotten until recent times were the indigenous people who were forced out with the settlement of the colony and new state, the horrors of slavery, a Civil War in which the state was a major battleground, and a white supremacist government until recent years.
The shift in attitudes was not confined to Virginia alone as movements such as Black Lives Matter forced us to examine our history and our actions under the laws as they had been written. The success of Democrats at the polls to control both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governorship and lieutenant governor and attorney general’s offices brought about the amazing changes in the laws of Virginia in 2020 and 2021.
Virginia moved into a leadership role in rewriting its election laws to make them among the most progressive in the nation. Early voting was instituted, absentee voting was permitted without the need for an excuse and voting generally was made more accessible. Laws against all forms of discrimination were passed and hate crime laws were strengthened. Common sense gun control laws were passed including my universal background checks bill. Major steps were taken to end the classroom to prison pipeline, and laws that were unevenly applied to racial minorities were repealed or revised. Symbols that represented the oppressive period of our history were removed. Our educational institutions moved to interpret our history more broadly to be inclusive of all persons who lived in the state.
I was feeling good that democracy was expanded, we were becoming more inclusive, our criminal justice system was being reformed, and our communities were becoming safer. And, then there was the election of 2021. Democrats lost the majority in the House of Delegates, and Republicans swept the statewide elections of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In the current session of the General Assembly bills have been introduced to turn back all the progress that had been made over the last two years. The clock is being turned back to the more conservative Virginia that many of us have been struggling to get past for many years. All the bills are passing in the Republican controlled House of Delegates. Fortunately Democrats have a majority in the State Senate that will be able to defeat these Republican measures, and our progressive measures will remain in place. We must be eternally vigilant to ensure that while progress might be impeded it is not lost.
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.
For nearly 250 years of Virginia’s history Black people in the state were enslaved. Following emancipation there was a denial of the rights of Black people in the state, and Jim Crow laws curtailed their freedom. The Lost Cause movement after the Civil War sought to obscure the treatment of Black people as slaves and downplay any contributions they made to society. Only in recent years with the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements have Black people started to receive the recognition they deserve in society and in the state legislature.
Each day in the Virginia General Assembly history is being made as a record number of 18 Black members serve in the 100-member House of Delegates and three Black members are in the 40-member Senate. For most of my career as a delegate the number of Black legislators in the General Assembly could be counted on the fingers on one hand. For the first time ever, Black women are in leadership roles with the Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the House Minority Caucus Chair. A small but significant example of the changes being made are the daily speeches in the General Assembly during February about notable Black Virginians who have not received the attention they deserve
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Events leading up to the designation of a Black History Month extend back as far as 1926 when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland started a Negro History Week. The second week of February was chosen as the date to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Hopefully the writing and teaching of more complete histories will reduce the need for separate historic celebrations, but there is so much to do in filling in the blanks of histories in the past that left out so much information or distorted it in so many ways. There is a continuing effort on the part of many who see one-sided historical accounts as benefiting the false narrative they continue to present.
There are real concerns that I and others have about what is happening currently in Virginia. As I discussed in a recent column, the Governor’s Executive Order Number One “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” has fueled this concern. Adding to the Order, the Governor’s setting up a snitch line for parents and others to report on teachers teaching “divisive concepts” raises further concerns. It’s impossible to teach accurate history without some seeing it as divisive. Hopefully the celebration of Black History Month in the General Assembly will demonstrate that celebrating each other’s successes will not be viewed as divisive but rather as strengthening our common histories and aspirations.
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.
Many say that I have the best view of the Jefferson-designed State Capitol from the window in my office in the Pocahontas Building where members of the House of Delegates and State Senate have their Richmond offices. It is an awe-inspiring view. This past week workers have been busy dismantling the seating and stand where Governor Youngkin was inaugurated. While the formal structure of the Inaugural has been removed from the outside of the Capitol building, inside the structure of a new government dominated by a new Republican governor and a Republican-majority House of Delegates is quickly taking shape. Campaign rhetoric is being replaced by executive orders and draft legislation. Faces new to Virginia government including the new governor and most of his appointees are moving into their roles in the new administration.
Last week I expressed my concern about Executive Order One and its potential impact on education as it seeks to end “the use of inherently divisive concepts” in schools. My concern has been heightened as the governor has taken a further step in controlling the curriculum of the schools by establishing a “tip line for parents to report to the state any school officials behaving objectionably–including teaching divisive subjects.” On a local radio show the governor said, “We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations…to help us be aware of their child being denied their rights that parents in Virginia have.” The announcement of the “snitch line” brought a strong reaction from teachers and parents who see this move as adding undue stress to teachers without clear direction.
The Constitution of Virginia puts responsibility for the public school system under the State Board of Education and local school boards. This arrangement has insulated the schools from undue political influence for the most part until the current governor came to realize that running against the schools was attractive to his political base.
Following through on one of his political promises the new governor, acting outside of advice from health experts and demonstrating his willingness to overcome educator objections, lifted the mask mandates that had been put in place as a way to keep the schools open and safe. Most large school divisions ignored his ban on mask mandates, and several districts have asked the courts to decide if the governor has the authority to do what he has done. A decision from the court should be forthcoming in the near future.
In the meantime, on the same radio program the governor justified to the host his ban on local mask mandates by saying that we should “love our neighbor.” I could not agree more with the plea to love our neighbor, but in my mind in a pandemic we should love others as well as ourselves by wearing masks! The governor may have shown his true purpose by expressing to the host that his ban on masks was “moving against the left liberals.” As one who is eternally optimistic, I hope to have a more positive report next week on our getting down to work!
Last week I spoke to the members of the House of Delegates about my concerns of protecting student learning under the new administration in Richmond. The Governor’s first Executive Order raised more questions than answers as to the intent of the order. Entitled “Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Concepts, Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K-12 Public Education in the Commonwealth,” its opening page has little with which I would quarrel: “The foundation of our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves.”
The following three pages of directives set the administration on an investigation to find Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the curriculum even though it is not taught in the public schools. The 14 directives have the staff looking in every document, every file folder, and seemingly behind every nook and cranny to root out CRT. This wild goose chase called for in Executive Order One to find something that does not exist is akin to the calls for a forensic audit of all election results to support the Big Lie that fraud and corruption in the last presidential election allowed the election to be stolen.
My red warning light goes off with the Executive Order for in Virginia we have gone down such a path in the past much to the embarrassment of the state in the eyes of the Nation. The Lost Cause was an effort on the part of the Southern states to justify the Civil War, glorify the participants, and claim the high ground for it having been fought. All those Civil War monuments that have been removed in the past couple of years for the false narrative they helped to promote were part of the Lost Cause movement.
Virginia’s contribution to the Lost Cause effort to give a different meaning to the causes of the Civil War was the establishment by the General Assembly of a legislative commission to oversee publication of new textbooks on Virginia history and government. The Commission realized many difficulties in trying to have professional historians and teachers cooperate in writing a selective history of the Commonwealth. One legislative member of the Commission explained that “we want to emphasize the greatness of Virginia and take out any reference to poor people.”
One historian wrote that the textbooks “portrayed Virginia’s white leaders in unfailingly flattering lights, its enslaved residents as happy and contented beneficiaries of benign masters who civilized and Christianized them, and its Indians as savage barbarians in some contexts or as primitive simpletons in others.” (Tarter, The Grandees of Government, University of Virginia Press, 2013).
My personal experience with state-written textbooks came in the mid-1960s when as an intern teacher I refused to use the textbook for it left out so much of Virginia history including the slave economy, the resulting Civil War and the Jim Crow era and its consequences. Objections by educators, ridicule in the press, and embarrassment by state officials led to these books being abandoned.
Executive Order One seems obsessed with what it calls “inherently divisive concepts.” Considering history that is truthful in our highs and lows can lead to better understandings and a stronger more inclusive state than can efforts to ignore, white-wash or mislead in our history. We do not want politicians writing our textbooks!
In the general election in 2021 through a constitutional amendment, Virginia voters decided to transfer the majority party responsibility of turning the census count of persons in the state into as much as practicable 100 House of Delegates districts, 40 Senate districts and 11 congressional districts to a nonpartisan election redistricting process. The outcome of the vote was not even close–2.77 million in favor and 1.45 opposed. The process to keep the outcome as independent as possible was clunky and inefficient but in the end produced a defensible result that will move Virginia into a leadership role of independent redistricting. A reform goal I had worked on for more than 40 years has become a reality.
A scan of the new maps as drawn by the Supreme Court when the commission could not come to a conclusion on a set of maps does not contain any salamander-shaped districts or any grotesque shapes designed to protect the interests of incumbents. The Washington Post described the outcome of the new redistricting procedure as “ending a contentious redistricting process that for the first time gave no say to the state’s elected officials.”
Although there had been much criticism that the Supreme Court could not render an unbiased decision because they are political appointees proved to be misguided. As the Court Order stated, it has” fully complied with federal and state law in the following order of precedence:
- The United States Constitution, particularly Article I, Section 2, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;
- Applicable federal statutes, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 u.s.c. § 10301;
- The Constitution of Virginia, particularly Article II, Sections 6 to 6-A; and
- Applicable Virginia statutes, particularly Code §§ 30-399(E), 24.2-304.04, and any other relevant provision in Chapter 3 of Title 24.2 of the Code of Virginia.
Although it may have taken you a decade to learn the number of your delegate and senate districts, be aware that all those numbers have changed. My previously numbered 36th district is now the 7th House of Delegates district. Details of the new districts can be found at https://www.vacourts.gov/courts/scv/districting. Discussion of the impact of the new maps is available at www.vpap.org.
Not everyone is happy with the new maps. Having witnessed the redistricting of the Virginia General Assembly over 40 years I can confirm that it is never a smooth and easy process because every incumbent argues for safe districts for themselves and for their party. Every redistricting has been followed by a decade of court suits. That is not likely to occur this year. The legislature can get underway with the important tasks in front of it and spend less time on redistricting as the people indicated in their vote for the constitutional amendment.
With the new year coming up this week and with a new session of the General Assembly about to convene on January 12, I want to wish you and your family the happiest of the new year and to thank all those who have given me the awesome privilege of representing you in the House of Delegates. The pandemic has altered the ways we stay in touch, but I do want to emphasize the importance I feel about hearing from you. Many times we agree on issues, but it is still important to me to hear that you think I am representing your interests and values. Of course, there are times we may disagree, but it can be instructive for both of us to explore our differences to see if there is common ground. And in a democratic society we will sometimes agree to disagree, but I want that to be in a way that is respectful to all.
Communications is so very important in our system of government. While this column is intended to be a renewal of my invitation for you to be in touch with me on issues of concern, I want you to know that I pledge to continue to be in regular contact with you. My weekly commentary on what is happening in state government is available in my electronic newsletter, Virginia E-News, and in the Connection newspaper for this region and Reston Patch.
I encourage everyone to share it with friends and neighbors. If you are not yet a regular subscriber to my electronic newsletter which is free, you can do so on my website, kenplum.com, where you can also review past issues. In addition to my commentary, Virginia E-News contains important information on state government and a calendar of what is happening in our community related to government services.
Many constituents contact me by email at [email protected]. I do review all email even if I am not able to respond to every one personally. Regular mail is also welcomed during the legislative session; send it to me at Virginia House of Delegates, P.O. Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218
While the ongoing pandemic and the surge of the Omicron variant limit the number of in-person events I am attending, I am available for online discussions including the following:
- January 3, 2022, 7:30 to 9:00 p.m., Preview of Virginia 2022 Legislative Session with Delegates Ken Plum and Mark Keam. Learn more and register here.
- January 5, 2022, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Virtual Public Hearing with Appropriations Committee. Express your views on the new state budget. Those persons wishing to speak may register to speak the day before each virtual hearing. View or download an informational flyer with details.
- January 5, 6:00 p.m. I will be joining Senator Jennifer Boysko for a Herndon/Reston Virtual Legislative Town Hall. Register in advance for this meeting.
- January 8, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Fairfax Delegation Public Hearing. Sign up to speak. Additional information is available here.
Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter in 1897 to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was really a Santa Claus. The editor’s response–“yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”–became what is believed to be the most repeated editorial of all times. As the editor explained, “he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”
Virginians, not just by that name but residents of the Commonwealth as a whole, became true believers in Santa Claus last week as Governor Ralph Northam presented his proposed budget for the next biennium. Record levels of revenue are available for appropriation as the state has been frugal during the pandemic while receiving record amounts of revenue from the federal government as well as a recovering economy. The Governor’s proposed budget is his last as he leaves office in January, and it will be up to the new governor and the General Assembly to decide what really happens to the additional monies. Certainly a wide range of requests that have lingered for years will be considered for funding.
Virginia is a triple A rated state financially, the best rating a state can receive, and is a repeat winner of the designation as the best state in which to do business. Of the $7.7 billion in new monies, Governor Northam has proposed that the biggest chunk amounting to $1.7 billion go to the “rainy day” reserves to help in future years if funding is short. Another billion dollars would go to the retirement system to reduce unfunded liabilities. Some of the new money would go into one-time capital projects rather than recurring cost projects including money for much-needed repairs to school buildings in some localities.
State employees and teachers whose salaries have lagged the private sector will receive a boost with teachers’ salaries projected to finally meet the national average. Much needed funds for mental health and public safety are also included.
The proposed budget includes $2.1 billion in tax policy adjustments that will be welcomed news to many taxpayers. The budget includes the elimination of the state’s 1.5% share of the sales tax on groceries that will be most helpful to low-income persons. In addition the budget includes one-time economic growth tax rebates of $250 for individuals and $500 for married couples. For the first time the Governor includes a proposal that I have introduced many times that would fund up to 15% of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for eligible families. Accelerated payment of the sales tax by merchants would also be eliminated.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) would receive $297 million more for capital improvements, student support, and other needs if the budget is approved as proposed.
The proposed budget goes to the General Assembly where it must be approved by both houses. The new governor is certain to have some ideas as to how he would like to see the budget modified. Hopefully, however, there will not be too many grinches who will seek to spoil this wonderful holiday gift Governor Northam delivered.
Last week I attended the Virginia Education Summit 2021 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. I could hardly recognize the location where I attended undergraduate school in the early 1960s when it was the Norfolk College of William and Mary. Unfortunately, I could recognize many of the topics on the agenda for they were the same topics discussed during my 30-year career in public education that ended with my retirement from Fairfax County Public Schools in 1996.
The Summit was designed to educate legislators on current education issues, but it was not organized by the Virginia education establishment. It was organized by the Hunt Institute, a non-profit institute named for former four-term North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt who has been described as America’s first education governor. Governor Hunt was known for saying, “Education can’t be just another thing we do. It’s the most important thing we do!”
The Summit was held at a critical time in the Commonwealth’s history. The last two years have seen amazing advances in early childhood education that a whole body of research has shown to be critical to an individual’s future success in schooling and in life. Presently fewer than half of Virginia’s three and four year olds attend preschool. Under legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor the multiple programs related to preschool education have been brought together creating a unified public-private early childhood system that needs continuing financing and monitoring in order to ensure that all children have access to programs and services.
Not surprisingly a major theme permeating the Summit was the impact of COVID on our schools. The increased stress of teaching in an often changing environment that included virtual learning has resulted in many retirements and in increased difficulty recruiting teachers to teacher-training programs and to employment as teachers. There are about 106,000 teachers in Virginia whose average pay is 34th lowest in the country. There is a serious need to recruit more men and more persons of color into teaching positions.
Every school system faces the challenge of dealing with learning losses among children as a result of interruptions in their schooling from the pandemic. I was so impressed with the teachers and school administrators at the Summit and their stories of heroic efforts to continue to deliver schooling to their students during a time of unprecedented challenges. They deserve our commendation and support as we move forward with schooling that has been changed in many ways during the pandemic. Some of those changes are worthy of continuation.
Virginia has made progress in the last several years in reducing excessive testing that limits time for instruction and provides little useful information. We can measure how our schools are doing without the large number of high stakes tests that have been given in the past. A study of our educational system for children with special needs has been shown to have major deficiencies that are now being addressed.
We are about to move to a new administration of state government. The rhetoric I hear about cutting taxes indicates that a sizable chunk would come from education and that charter schools would divert public monies to private schools. These issues cause me a great deal of concern as does the call to strip libraries of books. The new administration and legislators need to heed Governor Hunt’s admonition that education is the most important thing we do!
A combination of an economy producing much more strongly than expected during the pandemic and a frugal state budget in anticipation of a revenue shortfall combined with several federal programs sending enormous amounts of cash to the states has resulted in Virginia having a strong cash position–possibly the greatest ever. Some choose to call the available cash a surplus, but I think a much more accurate term to describe it is an unappropriated balance. The amount involved is more than four billion dollars!
Using the term surplus implies to me that the needs of the state have been met and that there is money left over. As I indicated above, the existing state budget was put together with a very conservative estimate of tax revenue based on a contraction in the economy. Programs were minimally funded or needs were not addressed in order to ensure that the budget would be balanced at the end of the year as constitutionally mandated. Likewise, the availability of cash flowing from the federal government has been much greater than ever before with an expectation that even more dollars will be coming to the states.
With the numerous challenges facing government in general it is reassuring that the availability of funding will not be as great an issue as it has been in recent years. The list of unmet needs for those who view government’s role broadly can be reduced by the available cash. For others, the availability of cash in government coffers raises the prospect of tax cuts. The incoming governor has indicated that he favors tax cuts. Virginia’s tax rates are among the lowest in the country and should a policy of tax reductions be pursued it should be targeted to those with the lowest income.
Certainly tax revenues should never be allowed to exceed the wants and needs of citizens for government services. When there are dollars available the question becomes one of giving monies back to citizens in the form of tax reductions or rebates or using it to provide needed services. Cutting taxes is an approach that is appealing to most politicians and is one that I think should be pursued when it can be done responsibly. In Virginia at this time I believe there are too many unmet needs to be doing anything in the budget other than providing funding for programs and services that have been needed but unfunded for years.
There is a waiting list estimated at over 12,000 individuals who qualify for assistance because of a developmental disability, but that list is reduced by only a few thousand persons per year with the need growing faster than programs or services to meet them. There is a wide disparity of funding across jurisdictional lines for public education even though there is a composite index that is supposed to smooth out the differences. The lack of equity in funding among counties and cities is unjustifiable as are the differences across colleges and universities. In coming columns, I will be discussing other unmet needs. It is not possible to have a budget surplus when there is so much left to be done!
The number of unemployed Virginians increased from 145,294 in March 2020 to 482,111 in April 2020 causing unemployment insurance claims to increase ten-fold within a month! In addition to the rising number of unemployed, Congress created several temporary programs to extend unemployment insurance benefits and expand them to many previously ineligible workers. Since those federal programs are administered by the states, the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) was overwhelmed with claims. In the fall of 2020 VEC ranked lowest nationwide for timeliness in processing unemployment insurance claims that required further review. Citizens were understandably frustrated and upset with a process that has left some without benefits for many months. My office, along with that of other legislators, was deluged with e-mails and calls from those desperately seeking help. My legislative assistant has put in many extra hours helping constituents with their filings and follow up.
A review of unemployment rates throughout the Commonwealth reveals that the rise in unemployment was statewide with areas having a high rate of unemployment going into the pandemic getting hit the hardest, but more prosperous areas got hit as well. According to data on the VEC website, the rate of unemployment for March 2021, the last period for which numbers are available, ranged from a low of 3.2 percent in Madison County, an agricultural area in the center of the state, to a high of 12.9 percent in Petersburg City, one of the poorest areas in the state. On the low end of the unemployment numbers, Falls Church City was number 2 with a rate of 3.4 percent, and Fairfax County was 39th lowest at a rate of 4.6 percent. On the high end, Richmond was 7.1 percent, and the cities in the Hampton Roads region including Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Hopewell ranged from 7.1 percent to 10.0 percent, just below Petersburg City.
The COVID-19 relief checks were very helpful in slowing the slide of the economy toward recession levels of unemployment. The additional funding now being debated in the Congress for infrastructure and additional relief will shore up the economy further until the normal activity of the economy returns with the end of the pandemic. I will leave to economists to debate the amount of stimulus needed to restore the economy, but I can say that the federal money that has flowed into the state has prevented widespread reductions in staff and services that would have been necessary without that funding.
For those who have borne the brunt of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic I can only offer my sympathy and compassion for what you have had to endure. I continue to be impressed with the resiliency of individuals and communities in times of challenge like these. The response of state government in this pandemic was unsatisfactory. True the bureaucracy was swamped with requests, but we should have been quicker to respond. True our existing technology was not up to the demand, but the technology that was to have been upgraded should have been done years ago. As Chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC), I promise that the results of the study that we are undertaking of VEC will address current concerns and provide recommendations to prevent this kind of situation from arising again!
One of the side-effects of the global pandemic and the resulting quarantine has been the difficulty of recognizing others after months of not seeing each other in person. There is the normal aging process that can alter our looks, along with little or no access to barbers and stylists, and a decline in interest to apply the usual make-up since no one is going to see you up close. All this can leave others looking quizzically at you with an “I believe I know you” look. Longer hair without additional coloring and a mask covering half your face can make it a challenge sometimes to even recognize our friends.
Facebook has or had a system to alert you if your photo appeared on someone else’s page. I have gotten dozens of such messages which when I investigated them found photos of persons who clearly were not me and for which I could find no resemblance. As clever as the technologists were who developed it, the use of facial recognition leaves serious questions about its application, particularly in law enforcement.
The challenges of recognizing even someone you know under today’s difficult conditions and the shortcoming of the systems now being used have raised questions about the propriety of collecting large numbers of photos and using them in criminal investigations. In the Washington Metropolitan area there is a little-known program called the National Capital Region Facial Recognition Investigative Leads System that has 1.4 million photos that can be used in criminal investigation but for which civil rights groups have little information.
Concerns about facial recognition technology came to the attention of Virginia legislators last year, and in the recent legislative session we passed a bill signed by the governor to require agencies that plan to use the technology to get specific approval of the legislature. With the high error rate in correctly identifying minorities among its other shortcomings, along with the civil liberties issues it raises, it is unlikely that such approvals are to be forthcoming.
Requests for legislation involving the use of new technologies are most often referred to the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS) which was created from legislation I proposed and of which I was chair for many years. Learning about new technologies is always interesting but precautions must be taken when there are issues of civil liberties involved.
JCOTS’ usual procedure is to appoint a technical advisory committee that may involve as many as 25 persons from the advocate community, adversaries of the proposals, representatives from academia, and other interested parties to work through the issues involved.
The legislature will not get involved in proprietary issues around a particular technology but instead will involve itself with the civil liberties issues, impact on the community, and trade concerns, among other matters. Regardless of the complexities involved with a technology it is imperative that the legislature provide appropriate safeguards for the community.
The highlight of last week along with Earth Day was the announcement by President Joe Biden that the United States is returning to the Paris Climate Agreement. The Agreement that was adopted by nearly 200 nations of the world came into being in 2016. President Barack Obama led the United States in joining the Agreement that united the world’s nations for the first time in a single understanding on global warming and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The only other example of something like this agreement previously was the Montreal Protocol in which 197 countries agreed in 1987 to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). Scientists had discovered that CFC was causing a hole in the ozone layer which if not stopped would lead to disastrous health results. All nations banned CFC as a result. The United States estimates that because of the ban by the year 2065 more than 6.3 million skin cancer deaths would have been avoided and between 1985 and the year 2100 Americans avoiding suffering from cataracts would number 22 million.
With the Montreal Protocol the leaders of the world responded to scientific findings, prevented a huge amount of human suffering, and saved trillions of dollars in healthcare costs. On the subject of climate change and global warming there are those who want to continue to debate scientific findings and ignore the evidence that is becoming even more apparent that the earth is heating up and the consequences are going to be devastating if action is not taken right away.
The Paris Climate Agreement commits nations of the world to take action to keep global temperature well below the pre-industrial level of 2.0C or 3.6F and endeavor to limit temperature rise to 1.5C. The Agreement limits the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and water can naturally absorb. Each country sets its own emission-reduction targets that are reviewed every five years. The Agreement has richer nations helping poorer countries with financing to switch to renewable energy.
While the United States left the Agreement for a short time under the previous president the announcement by President Biden restores the United States to its rightful role of being a leader in ending climate change. Many states and cities had pledged to seek these goals even when the country for a short time seemed not willing to. After all the United States is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases exceeded only by China. Beyond re-joining the Agreement, the President is committing the United States to more aggressive actions to cut emissions by 2030 rather than 2050 that scientists now say is necessary if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Just as nations came together to rid the world of CFC and prevent major health horrors, I believe that nations can come together to provide responsible leadership and actions to stop climate change. It will cost money to do so, but the savings to the planet will be inestimable. We will end fossil fuel use, control carbon release, and adopt more alternative and resilient ways of living and doing things. Our country can and will be a leader in these planet-saving changes!
While public attention has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic many missed the epidemic surge in gun violence that has been occurring in this country. In the last month there have been 45 mass shootings in the United States, and that is just counting incidents in which mass shootings are defined as four or more people who are shot, wounded, or killed. By that definition there have been 147 mass shootings already in 2021 compared with 600 in all of 2020 and 417 in 2019. We are on course to set another record for mass carnage involving guns.
Surprised that the numbers on gun violence are so high? Our attention has been transfixed on the COVID crisis that forced some news stories to the back pages, and unfortunately the number of mass murders is becoming so common place that they do not receive the attention they once did. And for every news story on the front page about another mass murder there are dozens of stories buried in later pages of shootings of one, two, or three people including shootings in our community of Reston. I share the concern of many that we are becoming immune to the bad news for it happens so frequently. We cannot let these mass shootings become the norm!
If you were wondering why flags were flown at half-mast in Virginia last Friday, it was to remember the 32 people who were murdered and the 17 wounded at Virginia Tech in 2007. At the time it set a record for the number of persons killed in a mass shooting. It has since been eclipsed by shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando. Sandy Hook had almost as many victims, but we need to remember that they were little children in an elementary school. Eight of the shootings with the highest number of casualties happened within the past ten years.
I term the problem we have with gun violence an epidemic in that it is a problem unique to us among the developed and wealthy countries of the world as opposed to a pandemic that might exist more widely. According to a study by the United Nations, there are 29.7 homicides by firearms per one million people in the United States compared to 1.4 in Australia, 1.9 in Germany, and 5.1 in Canada.
One reason for the number of deaths by guns in the United States is their availability. The United States has more guns than people: 120.5 per 100 people. In comparison, the ratio of guns to people in Canada is 34.7 per 100, France and Germany are both 19.6, and Iraq is 19.4.
It is way past time to take action to end this epidemic. The Virginia General Assembly this year and last passed 20 different common-sense gun safety bills including my bill to require universal background checks for gun transfers that the Governor signed into law. Many of the features of these laws have been incorporated into a bill introduced in the United States Senate by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. It comes as close as anything I have seen that will help end this epidemic. Join me in encouraging the Congress to pass it.
During its Reconvened Session last week the General Assembly approved an amendment proposed by Governor Ralph Northam that decriminalizes the possession by adults of a small amount of marijuana effective July 1, 2021. Virginia joins 26 other states and the District of Columbia that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. This generally means certain small, personal-consumption amounts are a civil or local infraction, not a state crime (or are a lowest misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time). Based on the new law in Virginia, adults can grow up to four plants, gift it in private, or have an ounce or less in their possession if they are over 21. Selling, buying, or driving with marijuana remains illegal at this time. People given a summons for possession for an amount beyond the minimum will be issued a summons for marijuana possession for which they have the option of prepaying the civil penalty of $25 instead of going to court.
I voted for the Governor’s amendments as necessary to reflect the realities of marijuana possession and use. The people of Virginia will be no less safe as a result of these changes. Our jails will be less full of persons who use marijuana recreationally for themselves, and persons who do so will not be labeled a criminal. Previously marijuana possession was a criminal offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or up to a $500 fine. Public opinion polls have shown that 83 percent of Virginians support lowering criminal possession to a fine and 61 percent support ending prohibition all together.
I also supported the changes in laws related to the use of medical cannabis in 2017. The law enacted at that time permitted patients suffering from intractable epilepsy to use some types of cannabis oil with a doctor’s certification. Subsequent amendments to that law allow patients with any condition to receive recommendations to use and purchase cannabis preparations with no more than 10 milligrams of THC per dose. Extracts sold under the provisions of this law must be produced by processors approved by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. Thirty-three other states have similar laws related to the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Retail sales of marijuana will not begin until January 1, 2024. Many complex issues remain to be resolved as to who will be certified to sell the product, how an illicit market will be controlled, and what the limitations on purchasing will be. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a 175-page report in November 2020, entitled “Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization” that sets direction with options as to how the state should proceed with full legalization. There is a determination on the part of most legislators that the current system for labeling persons criminal and putting them in jail is not appropriate and that total reform is needed. Minority communities have been particularly hard hit by the current system. Much work remains to be done, but I believe Virginia is taking a responsible route to fixing the laws about weed.