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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we probably learned and as we teach our children, voting is the most important of civic duties. By choosing our leaders at election time and by deciding questions on referenda, we set the direction for our communities, states, and nation. Voting is a way to express our values and beliefs.
In one of the contradictions that strain the legitimacy of what we teach vs. what we do is to teach our children, proclaim in civic pronouncements and require for Scouting citizenship merit badges an acknowledgement of the importance of voting while at the same time making it difficult and sometimes impossible for some people to vote.
During the colonial period and early years of the state of Virginia, only white land-owners could vote. The Reconstruction era after the Civil War brought Black men into the electorate, but in a matter of decades that free access to voting was cut off by white supremacists who reasserted their power. An avowed purpose of writing a new constitution in 1902 was to disenfranchise Black men. It was successful in that the voting rolls were cut in half as most Blacks and poor whites were not able to make their way through the maze of requirements that one had to meet in order to vote. A blank sheet registration system and a $1.50 poll tax to be paid three years in a row at least six months before an election kept many from voting. White people in the upper crust of local society made it through these hurdles as the voting registrar who was part of the governing machine would provide them assistance while everyone else floundered at trying to get through the process.
Regardless of their race, women in this country have been able to vote for just over a hundred years, and that right came after incredible struggle. The Civil Rights era and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened up the electoral process for many Black people. Even now there are debates in the states about ways that access to the polls can be limited.
The Virginia General Assembly has put the Commonwealth on the path to supporting citizens carrying out their civic duty with several of the most progressive voting laws in the country. A headline in the New York Times last week proclaimed that “Virginia, the Old Confederacy’s Heart, Becomes a Voting Rights Bastion.” Over a fourteen-month period and two legislative sessions the General Assembly has passed and the Governor has signed bills to repeal a voter ID law, enact a 45-day no-excuse absentee voting period that permits early voting, made Election Day a holiday, and established a system for automatic voter registration for anyone who receives a Virginia driver’s license. The Virginia Voting Rights Act follows some of the provisions of the earlier federal law but applies to localities in the state to ensure that voting remains accessible.
In Virginia we will continue to say that voting is one of the most important of our civic duties, and now we will have a legal structure that demonstrates we believe it!
Virginia made history last week: The Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam signed the bill that made Virginia the first state in the south and the 23rd state in the nation to end the death penalty! I made the nearly four-hour trip to the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarrett where the “death chamber” is located to be at this momentous occasion when another of my legislative goals was realized.
While some have justified the death penalty as an appropriate “eye for an eye” punishment and a deterrent for other crimes, the history of the death penalty is much more complex. Virginia executed more people than any other state having executed 1,390 people over its 413 years. Its uneven application among the states and within the state itself is astounding. Virginia executed 94 women over its history, twice as many as the state with the next most executions of women. Of those, 78 were Black, 11 were White and five were of unknown race. Sixteen children below the age of 18 were executed including a slave girl about 12 years old who was hung in 1825. In 2005 the United States Supreme Court declared that the execution of those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime was cruel and unusual punishment and hence unconstitutional. It followed an earlier decision in a Virginia case that found that executing an intellectually disabled person as the state was poised to do was unconstitutional.
Until the first electrocution in 1908, executions in Virginia were carried out by hanging making them not unlike the lynchings of Blacks that had occurred throughout the South. From 1900 until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1977 for crimes in which no one was killed, Virginia executed 73 Black defendants for rape, or attempted or armed robbery that did not result in death, while no White defendants were executed for those crimes.
Other numbers show how the death penalty was more an act of White supremacy than for public safety. Between 1900 and 1999, there were 377 executions and of those 296 were Black persons and 79 White persons. For murder there were 304 executions, 223 Black and 79 White persons. For rape 48 Black persons and for attempted rape 20 Black persons executed, and in both instances no White persons were executed.
One of the most unbelievable stories in the history of the death penalty in Virginia was the execution of five Black defendants on February 2, 1951, and the execution of two more Black men on February 5, 1951, accused of raping a White woman. An all-White jury meted out the punishment after trials that lasted one day per defendant.
We cannot rewrite this dark chapter of Virginia’s history, but we must learn from it. Too many laws in the past were written to maintain White supremacy rather than protect the public equally. The General Assembly has made major strides at ridding the Code of Jim Crow laws. We can see the repeal of the death penalty as a major step in moving Virginia forward as a more just state.
Matt Lang, a veteran and security consultant who lives in Reston, is the first Republican candidate to challenge Del. Ken Plum (D-36) for his seat in the state House in a decade.
Lang, 45, will face the Democratic primary election winner in the general election. The Democratic primary is a faceoff of Mary Barthelson, 27, against incumbent Del. Ken Plum. Plum has been in this office since 1982 and also held the seat from 1978-80. The last Republican challenger for HD 36 was Hugh Cannon in 2011.
“I think a lot of people believe that Northern Virginia is one of those places where it’s going to be a Democratic or blue area the rest of eternity,” Lang said. “I don’t feel that’s 100 percent true. I feel there’s a lot of people out here with conservative values and Republican-minded thinking that just aren’t being listened to. I believe that’s a shame. I want to reach out to them, but I also want to reach out to everybody as well.”
Lang has lived in Reston for the last four years and has resided in Fairfax County since 1998 after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. The husband and father of three retired from the Navy Reserve at the beginning of this year after 22 total years of military service.
His military service and experience with law enforcement drives one of the primary issues he vows to take on if elected.
Lang acknowledges the “evolving field and practice” of law enforcement and the reality it will always change. However, he believes there are alternatives to calls to reallocate funds or defund police.
“I would like to see a more professionalization of the police. More training. More opportunities for them. Better recruitment,” Lang said. “We need to make the field something people want to work in and are compensated for doing such. Just like any other job, if you want quality, you pay.”
Among the issues Lang is bringing to the forefront is providing greater support to military veterans. Specifically, he cites his personal experience of getting out of active duty at 22 and being confronted with a lack of resources available to individuals like him.
“Not every veteran who goes into the military comes out with a marketable skill upon discharge. Some do, some don’t,” Lang said.
“I’d like to find some better programs, develop some policies and programs to get these guys transitioning out of the military better marketable skills, apprenticeship programs, recruitment into different businesses, especially within the state.”
A third issue Lang hopes to address is providing greater educational opportunities and advocating for additional benefits and pay for teachers and support staff.
He feels that parents don’t have enough say in their children’s education and is proposing an alternative option of providing a school choice or voucher system.
“I’d like to be able see us have a little more say in how our kids are educated,” Lang said. “I’d like to see a little more school-choice, voucher system put into play. Almost every other state in the country does such. Virginia is one the last ones lagging behind, and I think it’s time for us to catch up.”
He hopes to “find common ground” and opportunities to reach across the aisle to find solutions.
If elected, Lang said the first thing he will do is reach out across the aisle to try and come to a general consensus to pull people together.
“First thing I’m going to do is bring a little of the civility back,” Lang said. “I’ve seen too many delegates get down to Richmond and the first thing they do is come right out of the gate like a raging bull, changing things overnight. Just like a pendulum, you swing it too far to the left or right, it’s going to swing back the other way, it’s going to knock a lot of things out of the way.”
Photo courtesy Matt Lang
As a child of frugal parents who grew up during the Great Depression, I was always taught as long as I did not waste food or material things that I would never be without. “Waste not, want not” was an oft-heard slogan around our house. I carried my lunch to school in a brown paper bag that was recycled from our grocery store purchases, and my peanut butter and jelly sandwich was wrapped in wax paper. After lunch I would fold up the wax paper inside the bag and carry it home in my back pocket for use the next day. I could generally go an entire week without the need for another bag or more wax paper.
Needless to say, I feel a high level of discomfort with our current throw-away society. Not only do we consume ever-increasing levels of natural resources, but we create mountains of waste and the resulting degradation of our environment. Nowhere is the problem more evident than with plastic products. My paper bag and wax paper have been replaced with plastic bags for chips, a plastic container for fruit or dessert, a plastic sandwich wrapper and a drink in a plastic bottle. The manufacturer’s ability to find new uses and the public’s willingness to accept them seem unlimited
A two-year research project by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, Ltd., a London-based environmental think tank, estimates that by 2040 the amount of plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year will triple to 29 million metric tons. Its report “Breaking the Plastic Wave” lists challenging actions that need to be taken to reverse this dangerous threat to our environment. (www.pewtrusts.org, July 2020). The Report was peer reviewed and presented in the journal Science (science.sciencemag.org, July 2020).
The report calls for a wholesale remaking of the global plastics industry by shifting to a circular economy that reuses and recycles plastics. It discusses ten critical findings “showing that a path forward to a low plastic pollution future already exists–now we have to make the choice to walk this path.” The Virginia General Assembly took two steps on the pathway to reduce plastic pollution.
A bill on which I was a co-patron passed and which the Governor has now signed into law prohibits the use of expanded polystyrene food containers, the white foam containers that break into endless number of pieces and litter our beaches and roadsides. The legislature also passed a bill designating advanced recycling as a manufacturing process that must follow all federal and state environmental regulations and laws and a budget amendment I introduced to require the Department of Environmental Quality to monitor the newly-emerging industry. Governor Northam recently signed a new executive order that will decrease plastic pollution and reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfills by phasing out single-use plastics at state agencies.
Clearly the General Assembly must take more aggressive actions in the future to reduce the use of plastics, provide for their reuse or recycling, and recognize that multiple strategies must be taken if the challenges that the Pew study identified are to be addressed. Citizens can join in taking voluntary actions to make choices in the marketplace of alternatives to plastics. Returning to a paper lunch bag or reusable container is a good idea, but the reuse of wax paper is not recommended!
There is no more important function of government than ensuring public safety. The challenge in a constitutional form of government is achieving safety for the public without jeopardizing the rights and freedom of some to protect others. Public safety has been like a political football with some raising fears about crime and perceived threats to the community. Few is the number of politicians who until recently have been willing to suggest that our laws and institutions of justice require a review of the balance of public safety, the application of laws, and justice.
Over the last several decades there have been many political campaigns built around a suggestion of increasing crime rates and simplistic solutions to keep everyone safe. California started the trend with legislation with the slogan “Three Strikes and You’re Out” that increased penalties for repeated offenses. A governor’s race in Virginia was won by an underdog candidate with a slogan of “no more parole.” Legislative sessions during an election year would see more ideas about expanding the list of crimes for which the state could put someone to death, and the list lengthened of crimes for which mandatory minimum sentences were prescribed. At the same time guns became easier to purchase and own, and every mass shooting was followed by more gun purchases.
Capital punishment, extending the time prisoners were held, and arming more citizens resulted in Virginia being the number one state in putting people to death (first with an electric chair and more recently with lethal injections), increased prison construction, severe over-crowding of prisons, and protests at the state capitol in Richmond of over 22,000 armed persons.
The disproportionate impact on people of color and in minority communities has become glaringly clear as the videos of body-cam and other devices show us the unfair way some laws have been administered. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” hit a responsive chord as the inequities in administering laws became obvious.
With the outcome of the elections of 2019 and the election of more progressive members in the House of Delegates, Virginia has become more realistic in its dealing with criminal justice and law and order issues. Abolishing the death penalty was one of the first among many reforms taken. A recognition of the connection between Jim Crow laws of the past and current policing resulted in the repeal of laws that were most strongly felt in the Black community.
No-knock warrants were eliminated as were minor offenses that resulted in Black persons being stopped regularly by the police. A bill for the expungement of records of convictions for several misdemeanor crimes passed as did a bill to establish a process for seeking expungement through the courts for other crimes. Major progress was made in the discussion of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences with the likelihood that a bill will be passed in future sessions.
Some will call the actions of the legislature being soft on crime. I believe that a more realistic view is that the state has become less political and more balanced on ways to keep the community safe and to realize justice for more of our citizens. You will hear more of these opposing views in the campaigns coming up this fall.
For the first time in over two decades, Del. Ken Plum, the state delegate for district 36, has a primary challenger.
Mary Barthelson, 27, is set to challenge incumbent Plum, 79, in the Democratic primary election. Plum, who has been in this office since 1982 and also held the seat from 1978-80, has run unopposed for the seat since 2011 when he faced Republican Hugh Cannon in the general election. The primary winner of the Barthelson-Plum race will face Republican Matthew Lang in the general election.
Barthelson officially announced her candidacy today.
Previously a data analyst, the Northern Virginia native currently works as a security engineer. Barthelson aims to use her engineering background to meet “a growing challenge” that is being presented by emerging technologies.
She grew up in Fairfax before attending Battlefield High School in Prince William County. She also earned a master’s degree from George Mason University in systems engineering.
“I think that my background makes me uniquely qualified to address the challenges that we’re currently facing, many of which are time sensitive both in technology and also with poverty that has risen as a result of the pandemic,” she said.
Technology and addressing poverty are her two primary focuses as she runs for office. She will also focus on green energy standards, creating green energy jobs and focusing on ending the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.
She believes that having an engineer’s eye will help to navigate challenges such as electric car standards and communicating them to legislators and the public to avoid similar issues.
“I think it lends itself to a new perspective in problem solving because people can get very fixated on the first solution that is proposed or the one that’s been proposed by someone they like instead of looking at all the information available from a wide range of sources to really come up with creative ideas to solve problems,” Barthelson said.
“That’s exactly what my background is in. Systems engineering is really the engineering of problem solving.”
Her agenda also includes reviewing and working on challenges presented with intellectual freedoms, doxxing, cyber flashing and data concerns.
Barthelson also vows to focus on removing barriers of entry into the workforce to help people from low-income backgrounds get jobs.
“I think technology is going to be a big challenge because a lot of these conversations are newer and we’re still navigating them and figuring out the best way to resolve problems and address them,” Barthelson said.
“Some of them are very complicated, so obviously it can take time to really work through that and figure out the best policies to solve the problem.”
Another technology aspect she wants to implement is making sure disinformation curriculum is provided to schools “so that the next generation has the tools it needs to engage in appropriate social media behaviors and use critical thinking when assessing information that they consume online.”
Barthelson said she decided to run because of the “time sensitive” issues she sees in poverty and challenges technology is now bringing. Among those issues is communicating with and ensuring money is properly distributed to small businesses that have closed as a result of the pandemic.
As the owner of PPE 4 NOVA, which she established to help Virginians access masks during the pandemic, she said many people with small businesses she spoke to were unaware of where to access resources available to them.
“I think we really need new ideas and we need the next generation to start getting civically engaged as well,” Barthelson said. “And with the pandemic and all the challenges that we’re facing right now, it’s really a time sensitive issue. So it’s something that we need to address now and not later.”
Photo courtesy Mary Barthelson
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin who when asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia what kind of government had been formed replied, “a republic if we can keep it!” As the General Assembly concluded the work of its annual session this past weekend the same kind of question could be posed as the changes in the Commonwealth’s laws and governance have been so profound. The answer I believe is a progressive state measured not by southern standards but by comparison to all the other states. At the ballot box the state over the last several years has gone from red to purple to blue. All statewide elected officials are Democrats, and both houses of the General Assembly have been controlled by Democrats since the elections in 2019. Far more meaningful than the partisan labels of elected officials are the changes that have taken place in the laws of the Commonwealth.
In the regular and a special session of the General Assembly last year, historic legislation was passed including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and lifting of barriers to abortion. Jim Crow era laws were repealed, and the Virginia Values Act prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment was passed. Bills to reduce gun violence were passed as were bills to reduce the school to prison pipeline. Criminal justice and policing reform bills were passed. And more.
In the session that just ended, criminal justice reform continued. The death penalty was abolished, and criminal defendants and civil litigants were granted an automatic right to appeal that exists in every other state. My bill that ended excessive fines and prison time for petit larceny passed. Criminal records for many nonviolent offenses will be expunged under a new law. And more. Details for both sessions are at https://lis.virginia.gov.
All of these changes along with record levels of funding for COVID-19 relief and pay raises for teachers, police and other essential workers have led to references about Virginia being the leader among states in progressive legislation. The first ever woman Speaker of the House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn said that the House Democratic majority elected in 2019 “has kept its promise to protect families, keep Virginia healthy and rebuild our economy stronger.”
As one who served during years when the news coming from Richmond was not so good, I am aware that these reforms passed with barely a majority of Democratic legislator votes and a rare and scant few of Republican legislator votes. Attention is already shifting to the fall when the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general will be elected along with all 100 members of the House of Delegates. The progressive reforms will be on the ballot: do we build on them in the future or do we turn back the clock? Already a former governor, two Black women, and a self-avowed socialist are running for the Democratic nomination for governor and a self-proclaimed “Trump in high heels” and a staunch opponent of abortion rights are among those seeking the Republican nomination. There is likely to be a record number of candidates running for the House of Delegates. The voters in November will ultimately decide if we keep our progressive state!
One of the meaningful traditions that has evolved in the Virginia House of Delegates over the last couple of decades has been the celebration of Black History Month by having a speech each day on the House floor about famous Black persons and their struggles and accomplishments in the Commonwealth. According to History magazine, Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976 the month of February has been designated as Black History Month and is celebrated around the world, including in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Virginia has a unique role in Black history. The first enslaved Blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619, and the labors of these persons were central to the growth of the Virginia colony and then state. It was Black laborers who built the grand plantations’ homes and the institutions of higher education while themselves living in meager housing and refused entrance into public schools and colleges. It was Black slave labor that built the early Virginia tobacco economy while being denied all but the most limited income. Black persons supported the lifestyle of the most prominent Virginia families with no public recognition of their accomplishments. As significant as were Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, they did not apply to the slaves in his household nor to the Constitution that counted them as 3/5ths of a person.
The Emancipation Proclamation, the outcome of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment did not result in equality under the law for Black citizens. Under federal Reconstruction government about one hundred Black citizens were elected to public office between 1869 and 1890 including a Black congressman, but a swift reaction by conservative whites led to Jim Crow laws and voting laws that quickly curtailed the power of Black voters. The 1902 Virginia Constitution that included a literacy test and poll tax for voting limited the number of Black voters to such a degree that they did not regain their numbers at the turn of the century until the 1990s.
The recent history of voting in Virginia offers reasons to celebrate. There are more Black members of the Virginia General Assembly today than at any time since Reconstruction. There are two Black congressmen from Virginia. The Lieutenant Governor, the President of the Virginia Senate, and the majority leader of the House of Delegates are Black. The General Assembly has made historic strides in repealing Jim Crow laws, expanding voter participation and reforming criminal justice laws and practices that discriminated against persons of color. Virginia was the first state to have a Black governor, and for the nominations to run this fall there are at least two Black women and one Black man running for governor, two or more Black men running for lieutenant governor and at least one Black man running for the attorney general nomination. There are ample reasons to be celebrating Black history in Virginia this month and throughout the year.
I have never known a politician who has not promised better schools, quality of life and safety. Although these standards are defined differently by the persuasion of the persons making them, the promises share one thing in common: to be realized fully will cost money. The true measure of an officeholder comes not in the promises made but whether that person is willing to put their money where their mouth is. I could not be prouder as a member of the House of Delegates and the Appropriations Committee of the budget passed in the House of Delegates last week. The Senate passed a very similar budget with the differences between the two to be resolved in a conference committee over the next couple of weeks.
While debate over the budget is most often about spending, discussions need also to take into account revenues and investments. There had been dire predictions about state revenues heading into the pandemic, but the loss in revenue has not been nearly as great as feared. In addition, federal monies coming to the state for education and for COVID relief helped make up for lost revenue. The Governor’s proposed budget already had more than a billion dollars in reserve, and the House added $150 million to that amount to soften the impact of a decline of revenue next year without the same level of federal relief.
Both the House and the Senate funded the biggest investment in preschool education ever made. I term it an investment for much research shows that investing in early childhood education pays off many fold in later learning success, civic engagement, and quality of life. The House budget includes the state share of a five percent pay increase for teachers whose average pay has continued to lag behind the national average and who have had to do double duty this year with virtual learning. Funding is provided for another step to a 1:325 school counselor-to-student ratio moving towards the ideal of 1:250. Federal relief of $1.3 billion is provided for schools along with $51.1 million to address COVID-19 learning loss. An amount of $84 million is provided in the budget to maintain affordable access to Virginia colleges and universities and $8.5 million to increase Tuition Assistance Grant awards and include online education.
COVID-19 concerns drove many budget decisions. In addition to getting the schools open when safe and to make up for lost learning, the budget provides paid sick leave for essential workers, increased funding for nursing homes, and worker compensation for health care workers and first responders.
The budget makes investments in the future of the economy and our environment. Funding is provided to expand broadband access throughout the state. A one-time five million dollar capitalization fund is established for rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles for persons whose income qualifies them. The largest ever amount is provided for agricultural best-management practices to meet Chesapeake Bay clean-up benchmarks.
The best compliment that I and my colleagues could receive is that we put the public’s money where we have been told that it should be!
In 1998 I chaired a task force of business and community leaders to collectively document what Northern Virginia needed to do to be an “EV Ready Community.” Our work was part of a national effort involving ten communities under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas to prepare for the introduction of electric vehicles. Our inch-thick report was very comprehensive in detailing the infrastructure needed in charging stations, building and roadways, and other changes that electric vehicles would require.
We were ahead of our time. Within about a year of our report the first commercial electric car, EV1, was no longer available and other manufacturers were not offering electric vehicles. Move ahead less than two decades and electric vehicles are becoming commonplace in many areas. I even own one, and on trips in my community I always see more than one.
What happened in the meantime is a greater awareness of our transportation system’s contribution to greenhouse gases and pollution. In the United States alone in 2017, the transportation sector accounted for 29% of the nation’s total emissions of 6.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e (the CO2 equivalent of an individual greenhouse gas). Driven largely by the transportation sector’s emissions of fossil fuels, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen steadily since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Interestingly, when there is a recession there is a corresponding dip in emissions.
In addition to the increased awareness of the adverse effects of our conventional transportation on the environment, there has been an increase in the number of entrepreneurs who are willing to make major investments in developing electric cars and other vehicles and increased competition from abroad. A Super Bowl commercial sponsored by General Motors lamented the fact that in Norway 54 percent of the new cars sold are EVs. The president of General Motors announced recently that the company would phase out gasoline vehicles and sell only electric passenger cars and trucks by 2035. Press accounts are that Ford Motor Company is making major investments in electric vehicles and VW that is about to move its US headquarters to Reston will be investing $37 billion in electric vehicles.
In the General Assembly I am a co-patron along with the patron Delegate Lamont Bagby of HB1965 that directs the State Air Pollution Control Board to implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later. The legislation will help resolve the problem of consumers in Virginia who want to buy an electric vehicle but must go out of the state to do so. Along with a rebate program the vehicles will become more affordable for persons of limited income. There have been major investments in charging stations throughout the state enabling travel without the fear of running out of juice. You may have noticed the Wawa in Vienna that sells electric charging only but no gas.
I need to review more carefully that report of two decades ago to make sure we are ready for EVs. Ready or not, here they come!