The General Assembly is in the final week of its scheduled 60-day annual session–scheduled to adjourn sine die on March 7. The session has already made history with the actions that have been taken, and that history will be added to in its last week. Resolution of remaining issues will determine just how historic the session will be and how strong the forces of “we have always done it this way” are.
A majority of both the House and the Senate members agree that the minimum wage should be increased–actually should have been increased years ago. The current minimum of $7.25 is an embarrassment. But discussions continue to be held on how much the increase should be. Should there be incremental increases over time? Should increases be statewide or regional? What jobs should the increase cover?
Almost every member ran for office with a promise to clean up the environment. How should we get to a cleaner economy in the state? What should be the timeline on environmental legislation as experts advise us on the impending climate change crisis? Are consumers willing to pay more to get cleaner electricity?
How strict should background checks be for firearm transfers? A slim majority support my bill to require a background check on all firearm transfers. Others are vehement about having background checks for only firearm purchases. Should compromises be made on gun safety measures designed to reduce gun-related violence?
Should public employees be allowed to bargain with local governments on the conditions and compensation for employment? Or should they only be able to meet and discuss their wages and conditions with local governments with no power to bargain? Should all employees be required to pay dues to unions that are representing their interests?
How often should vehicles have a safety inspection? For many years the requirement was twice annually. Most recently it has been once annually. Most states have dropped the requirement. Would every other year be adequate?
With gasoline tax revenues declining as automobiles get more mileage per gallon, should the gas tax be increased to make up for the loss? Or should cars be taxed on the distance they travel in a year? And what about electric vehicles that do not burn any gas? Should we be making a greater investment in our transportation infrastructure?
Should a constitutional amendment be approved setting up an independent redistricting commission or is there another way to try make sure districts can be drawn fairly without incumbents alone picking their voters?
I have made my views public on these and other issues over the years. In a legislative session all views must be considered: urban, suburban, rural; Democratic, Republican, Socialist (there is one); conservative, moderate, liberal; etc. In most instances a compromise can be reached in conference committees such as those that are now meeting. Other issues will be put off for another year. Regardless of what happens with remaining issues, the 2020 session will go down in history as truly a remarkable one with the many tough issues that have already been resolved.
In contrast to the federal government’s method of budgeting, the budget for the Commonwealth of Virginia is more than balanced. The state Constitution prohibits the borrowing of money for operations, and it requires a “rainy day fund” of reserve monies that can be drawn upon in an economic downturn. That is in part why the state has a perfect AAA bond rating giving it the best terms when monies are borrowed for capital projects.
Both the House and the Senate have completed work on their versions of the budget that was proposed by Governor Ralph Northam earlier this year. The two budgets will be reconciled in a conference committee that will resolve differences between the two. Total spending for the biennium will be about $48 billion in general funds raised through taxes. Individual and corporate income taxes provide three quarters of the revenue with sales tax providing about seventeen percent and additional smaller taxes making up the rest. General funds coming from taxes make up about 36 percent of total revenue. Non-general funds that consist of fees such as motor vehicle and gas taxes, college tuition, federal grants and other fees make up 64 percent of the budget.
Noteworthy features of the House and Senate budgets that are being reconciled and are subject to change before a final budget is adopted include a much needed increase in rates for personal care providers in Medicaid programs, an increase in developmental waiver disability slots by 1,135 in the Governor’s budget to 1,635 in the Senate version of the budget. While the increase will help, the number of persons on the waiting list still number in the thousands. The Governor and the House budgeted for 630 supportive housing slots for persons with serious mental illness while the Senate provided 1,630. Budget language provides for the establishment of a state-based exchange for health insurance.
The budgets of both houses provided for teacher raises as did the Governor’s budget. The amount differs in each with an expected three to four percent over the biennium. The ratio of counselors to students in the public schools will be improved. The Governor proposed a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. The House ratio is 325 and the Senate’s is 300. Likewise, the ratio of teachers for English learners will be improved. A major point of contention among the Governor’s and the House and Senate budgets is that only the House has proposed to restore the cost to compete funding for Northern Virginia schools because of the high cost of living in the region. The average per pupil direct aid for public school students ranges from $6,206 in the Governor’s budget to $6,297 in the House budget.
A major emphasis in the budget is an increased investment in preschool education that was championed by the First Lady. The Governor’s “Get skilled, Get a job, Give back” (G3) funding to provide tuition assistance to low- to moderate-income students who meet certain criteria is receiving significant funding. The Housing Trust Fund will receive a much-needed infusion of cash proposed in all the budgets.
A tradition in the House of Delegates that has come about in recent years is to have a speech at the beginning of each daily session during February about a Black person. Some speeches are about well-known historic figures; most are about lesser-known Black persons who have made contributions to their communities and to the state. After all, the point of Black History Month is to have all of us gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of Black persons’ contributions to our history. The Legislative Black Caucus organizes the event, and I am pleased to have been invited to speak each year at one of the daily sessions. This year I spoke about the late Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour and Washington Week in Review who was the first Black woman to become a national news commentator. I always appreciated receiving the daily news from her in her calm and professional manner. Not all speeches are about historic figures; one delegate spoke this year about his experiences of growing up Black.
I predict that in future years a speech will be made on the floor of the House of Delegates about the 2020 Virginia General Assembly being a transformative event in Black history. Black experience accounts for a major portion of the story in a state that unfortunately has been known for centuries for its racist policies. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, and the slave codes that were enacted to keep them subjected as slaves were inhumane.
When the tobacco fields were no longer productive, Virginia’s chief source of income became the selling of slaves into the deep South. Even the freeing of the slaves with the Civil War did not bring equal rights to Virginia’s Black population. Slave codes were replaced by Jim Crow laws. Voting by Blacks was restricted. Their separate schools and other accommodations were not equal.
Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought about changes that started Black people on the way to greater freedom. A successful lawsuit against gerrymandering in the state along with greater voter participation brought about a record number of Black candidates being elected to the General Assembly. Black legislators took on greater roles of responsibility in the 2020 session of the legislature.
The first Black woman was elected Majority Leader of the House of Delegates, and the first Black woman was elected President of the State Senate. While there had been a few Black committee chairs over the years in the House of Delegates, half of the fourteen committee chairs are now Black. Vestiges of Jim Crow laws that remained in the Code even though they had been over-turned by the courts are being stripped away. Localities are being given permission to deal with Confederate monuments that were the symbols of Jim Crowism.
Laws that were unevenly applied to Black persons are being amended or repealed. Black cemeteries are being cared for as the Confederate cemeteries were for many years. A commission is going to look at the teaching of Black history in our schools to ensure that it tells the whole story. Major strides are being made in this month of Black history!
A bill to reduce the use of styrofoam use by food vendors in Virginia cleared the state House with a 55-44 vote on Tuesday (Feb. 11).
Introduced by Del. Paul Krizek (D-Alexandria) and backed by Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston) who introduced a similar measure this session, the bill requires some chain restaurants to stop using styrofoam containers by July 1, 2021. All food vendors must phase out the use of the containers by July 1, 2025.
Plum proposed a similar measure that was incorporated into Carr’s bill.
Styrofoam products — which are also known as polystyrene — are not biodegradable and take up a significant percentage of space in the state’s landfills.
Environment Virginia, an advocacy organization that is part of Environment America, applauded the vote:
A lot of waste comes from things we don’t need and we know we shouldn’t use, such as foam cups and take-out containers. This trash ends up in our open spaces and waterways, where it endangers wildlife. Polystyrene never breaks down, so it harms our environment for decades. Nothing we use for five minutes should pollute our planet for generations to come.
Environment Virginia has talked to tens of thousands of Virginians about plastic pollution and polystyrene and has collected more than 50,000 petitions calling on our leaders to take action on this crucial issue. Virginia’s leaders in the House of Delegates listened today and we look forward to our leaders in the Senate doing the same.
The ban will not apply to public schools and correctional facilities. Localities can also step in and provide one-year exemptions to individual food vendors if the proposal causes “undue economic hardship.”
All violators will be charged a $50 fee for each day of violation, which would be reused for lottery control and recycling projects.
The state Senate will consider the bill at a date that has not been announced yet.
Dazzling is the only word I could think of to describe the amazing work that is going on in the Virginia General Assembly this legislative session. The annual meeting of the legislature is just approaching half-time of its annual session, but already significant policy changes are being debated and adopted. There is little new to the policies that are being adopted; many are in place in other states already. But in Richmond they seem revolutionary!
I have already written about the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early days of the session. The movement to ratify the ERA began in the early 1970s but was not successful in Virginia until nearly 50 years later! Since two ratification deadlines have already passed, the fate of the amendment with Virginia being the needed 38th state to ratify is uncertain. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is among the leaders seeking a judicial decision to validate the amendment’s ratification. Although the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in 1920 and added to the Constitution, Virginia did not add its support to ratification until 1952!
While legislation must be passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor to become law, here is a run-down on what has been approved so far by at least one house. By the time the legislature adjourns in early March this legislation is expected to be approved by both houses and sent to the governor. Numerous bills have been passed to ban discrimination against persons because of their sex; bills to protect LGBTQ+ persons would not have made it out of committee last year. Bills to ban discrimination in housing, public accommodations, employment and credit applications have passed as has a bill to ban conversion therapy.
Likewise, bills to protect public safety from the misuse of guns that would never have made it out of committee previously have passed in both houses of the Assembly. My bill to require universal background checks has passed as well as bills granting localities the right to ban guns in public spaces, increasing the penalties for leaving guns unsecured around children, and requiring people to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours. A “red flag” law that allows authorities to remove guns from individuals who have shown themselves to be a danger to themselves and to others has passed.
This week action is expected on bills that will open up the state to more solar and wind power and that will establish standards for the increased use of renewables in generating electricity. Plastic bags may be eliminated or taxed to reduce plastic pollution. I am sponsoring the Governor’s bill to advance the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay that is getting some push-back from the farming community that would be affected by regulations to clean up stream run-off. Numerous bills have already passed to make it easier to register to vote and to vote on election day, including no-excuse absentee voting.
There is more to come. Tune in next week or follow the sessions on live-streaming at House Chamber Live Stream for more dazzling action!
The General Assembly has shifted into high gear to get through its agenda of thousands of bills in sixty days. The old saying that you cannot be in two places at one time is disproven every day as the 140 members of the House and Senate scurry among sub-committees and standing committees on which they serve and the subcommittees and committees before which they have to present their bills. By strategically placing an assistant or intern in one meeting while the member moves quickly among several meetings, it may even appear that a member is in more than even two places at one time. The legislature is not a place for lengthy contemplation but rather is a place for action. After all, we ran on a platform of what we promised we were going to do, and the legislative session is the time of action to deliver on our promises.
With such a “meat grinder” approach can we trust the outcome of a legislative session? Consider that in order for a bill to become a law it must meet the approval of a subcommittee and full committee, passage twice in the full house on two different days, the same process in the other house of the legislature, and the signature of the governor. All that time there are hundreds of advocates, constituents, lobbyists and others looking over your shoulder and providing comments on what you are doing. Bills get intense scrutiny before they are passed. It is easier to describe how a bill does not make it than it is to tell how a bill becomes a law. Fewer than half the bills introduced become law.
Election outcomes do matter for to change the outcome of debate on important issues it may be easier to change the people in the legislature through the ballot box than it is to change the minds of incumbent legislators. A case in point is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that was debated for decades but approved within a week in a General Assembly made up of new members supporting the rights of women. Those same new members, joining the progressives who were already there, have even now approved sweeping new common-sense gun safety laws such as my universal background check bill that had been defeated for two decades by previous members of a subcommittee of the House. Laws that put barriers in the way of women in making choices concerning their own reproductive health are being repealed. Laws that disproportionally affected people of color are being repealed. The criminal justice system is undergoing a major shift to make it work more fairly for all people. Challenges to the environment are being met with meaningful legislation.
It is impossible to list in a short column the thousands of bills before the legislature. You can however review the full list with descriptions and status at lis.virginia.gov and for the first time this year you can see livestreaming of most full and subcommittee meetings at House Chamber Stream and Senate Chamber Stream. And you can visit the Capitol in Richmond; all meetings are open to the public. Some say the process is like making sausage. The important thing is it is doing the people’s business.
Virginia’s government has been termed representative since its start-up in the church in Jamestown in 1619. It took 400 years to achieve true representation as it has this year–more persons of color than ever before, a multi-fold increase in women to 41 of 140, and more ethnic diversity than ever before. While the flip from red to blue partisan control is often mentioned, the more dramatic change is the shift from male to female dominance in leadership. Making up the leadership is the first woman Speaker of the House who happens to also be the first Jewish speaker, the first woman floor leader of either party who happens also to be a woman of color, the first woman clerk of the House of Delegates, the first woman President of the Senate who happens also to be a woman of color, and the first woman chair of the Senate Finance Committee who happens to be my good friend Senator Janet Howell. What a way to start a new session and a new era! We are making herstory!
My committee assignments have changed reflecting the fact that I am once again after two decades serving in the majority party. I will continue to serve on the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee as I have for 38 years except that now I will be chairing the committee. I expect significant environmental protection legislation will be forthcoming this year. I am returning to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee on which I served for many years before being removed when partisan control of the House changed. I will continue to serve on the renamed Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee of which I was co-chair when it was first organized as the Science and Technology Committee a couple of decades ago. I will also be serving on the newly designated Public Safety Committee taking over the jurisdiction of the former Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee. I am on the Gun Safety subcommittee that I know will be passing meaningful gun safety laws including my universal background checks bill.
Social media posts indicate that there will be more people coming to Capitol grounds this year especially on January 20 to protest the bills that have been introduced to end gun violence. Under rules adopted by the new majority, guns will not be allowed in the Capitol or the Pocahontas Building where legislative offices are. More security measures have been put into place than ever before. Be aware that your visit to the Capitol may take more time with the additional security precautions that are being taken.
There are multiple ways to keep up with what is happening during the session. Daily meetings of the full legislative sessions are live-streamed at House Chamber Stream and Senate Stream. Progress of legislation can be tracked at http://lis.virginia.gov/. Clips of newspaper articles from news sources around the state can be found by signing up at the Virginia Public Access Project website, https://www.vpap.org/about-us/ subscribe/. Communicate with me at [email protected] or 804.698.1036.
Last Sunday I made my annual winter trek south to Richmond for the General Assembly session. My two-hour trip is not far enough to get me to sunny weather, but it is far enough for me to be in some hot debates. I stay in a hotel with such proximity to my office that my daily commute is just a walk of a couple of minutes. Going south in the winter may be a vacation for some, but for the next 60 days it is the most intense period of work that one can imagine. Fortunately, I get home most weekends for a brief reprieve.
This trip south has been one filled with great anticipation. For the first time in two decades I am not in the minority! I chair a committee now, the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, that will be acting on many environmental bills. I can expect that bills I introduce will get a fair hearing and most of them will pass. My colleagues and I reflect the population of the Commonwealth more than any previous General Assembly session ever. Not only do we have more women in the legislature, but we have the first ever woman Speaker of the House!
Being a member of the majority party brings enormous responsibility. As the party “in power,” we must exercise our duties in ways that are judicious and fair. There is no time for political pay-back. We must shift from campaigning mode to governing mode. Although it may be tempting to do otherwise, we must conduct ourselves in ways towards the minority party members that would be the way we want to be treated in the distant future when we may find ourselves the minority again. Yes, the golden rule should apply even in the legislature.
How exciting it is to realize that in a few short months we will be able to add Virginia to the list of states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment even if we are the last needed for ratification. We will strengthen our existing antidiscrimination laws and add to them. We will make our communities safer from gun violence. We will add essential funding increases to our educational and human service programs. We will make critical decisions on protecting our environment and responding to climate change. And more. When all this work is done we have a governor who has pledged to sign our bills into law!
Last Saturday’s public hearing by the Fairfax General Assembly delegation reminded us that there is not total accord on what we will be doing. About half the audience of around 300 people in attendance seemed to be there to shout down those with whom they disagreed. Their efforts to show support for what they define as their second amendment rights was to violate the first amendment rights of others. The lack of civility in public discourse across the country has found its way to Virginia. What a shame!
I am honored to be here, and I am going to do my best to fairly represent your interests. Make a trip south to see me and the legislative process over the next couple of months. To live-stream the legislative sessions, go to House of Delegates and to Senate. To follow the progress of bills, visit lis.virginia.gov.
With the outcomes of the elections in 2019 Virginia may be considered by some to be in an altered state. While the flipping of the legislature from red to blue will have consequences, actual proposed changes will not be known until campaign rhetoric is translated into legislative languages, a multitude of interest groups and individuals have weighed in, and the level of political will for significant change can be measured by votes in legislative committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. Readers of this column will be getting steady reports over the next weeks and months following the beginning of the next 400 years of the Commonwealth.
In the meantime, it is helpful to step back as much as that is possible and to closely examine where we are today as a baseline in moving forward. The Commonwealth is a wealthy state–twelfth wealthiest among the states. That is not common wealth however. Three regions of Virginia that make up the Golden Crescent from Northern Virginia through Tidewater exceed U.S. per capita income. Northern Virginia jurisdictions have a per capita income level greater than Connecticut which is the highest in the nation. At the same time, three regions of Virginia in Southwest and Southside have per capita income less than Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. Parts of Virginia are the wealthiest while other parts are the poorest in the United States. Even with its great diversity in income Virginia continues to have the lowest state minimum wage in the country at $7.25 which had it simply kept up with inflation would be $10.54.
Virginia is certainly not unique among the states in having broad differences in growth rates and wealth within its boundaries. There are many factors that create differences. From a public policy perspective, it is important that Virginia be viewed in its uncommon aspects as well as generalized as a state on the whole. One size seldom fits all, and certainly the diversity of Virginia requires that its unique regions be considered in any statewide policies and programs.
Unfortunately, the regional differences seen in per capita income are reflected in the growth rate, educational level, life span and many other measures of the health of the state. Northern Virginia grew by about 12 percent in population between 2010 and 2017, central Virginia by about 7 percent while Southside declined by 2.5 percent and Southwest by 4 percent.
A recent national America’s Health Ranking report shows Virginia moving up from 20th to 15th among the states in health rankings. A big drop in persons smoking–29 percent to about 15 percent of adults–helped. At the same time there has been a significant increase in drug-related deaths over the past three years, from 10.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 15.4.
The diversity of the state will impact the business of the legislature. I will discuss these and further aspects of the Commonwealth at a State of the Commonwealth Breakfast this Friday, the 3rd of January, at the Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston at 8 am. RSVP to secure.actblue.com.
Comments Sought for Plum’s Pre-Session Survey — Del. Ken Plum is seeking residents’ feedback on priorities and issues facing the Virginia General Assembly this year. The 2020 session begins next week. [Ken Plum]
Group of Men Assault Victim in Herndon — Police believe a victim was assaulted by a group of up to seven males on Dec. 28 on the 12000 block of Alabama Drive. One of the men hit the victim in the head with a bottle. The case is under investigation. [Herndon Police Department]
Fairfax County General Assembly Public Hearing Set for Saturday — The local delegation’s hearing is set for Saturday (Jan. 4) at the Fairfax County Government Center (12000 Government Center Parkway). Only county residents may register to speak. [Fairfax County Government]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
Since many of her friends had told her there was no Santa, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon had no idea when she wrote to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus that his editorial response to her would become the most quoted newspaper editorial ever. The editor’s response to her question was “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
For residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia the question has arisen with the announcement of every biennial budget, Is there a Santa Claus who can provide the resources for making progress in the state? The answer last week was clearly, “Yes!” and his name is Governor Ralph Northam. The Governor presented a budget for the next two years that will warm many hearts and respond to many unmet needs.
Among the many improvements in programs and services, Governor Northam observed “But perhaps the smartest investment we can make is in our children and their education.” His budget proposals include an additional $1.2 billion for public education, one of the largest investments the Commonwealth has ever made in education from early childhood through high school. Beyond that investment the Governor has proposed free community college for those with a financial need who are enrolled in programs leading to jobs. More school counselors and teacher raises are also included in his proposed budget.
The affordable housing program will receive an additional $63 million in funding under the Governor’s budget. Community Services Boards will receive much needed additional funding to respond to the people who are having mental health crises. The Governor has also proposed a state-based marketplace for the nearly 400,000 Virginians who buy health insurance on their own rather than through an employer. A state system can help keep premiums down.
The Governor is proposing to raise the cigarette tax which I have also proposed several times over the years. Even with an increase Virginia will have the lowest tax on cigarettes except for North Carolina. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Virginia, and it directly causes more than $3 billion in yearly health care costs.
On transportation the Governor proposes an increase in the gas tax to raise money for improvements. To offset the increases, the Governor has proposed to save drivers $150 million per year by eliminating annual vehicle inspections that have not been shown to increase public safety. One of the greatest advancements in transportation improvements for Northern Virginia was announced days after his speech on the budget. Expansion of the Long Bridge across the Potomac River between Arlington and D.C. will take place over the next several years greatly expanding rail transit in the region.
With whatever holidays you celebrate, may they be filled with happiness, good health and joy! I look forward to serving you in the new year.
In the oddities of the Virginia government calendar, the one-term limited governor spends the first two years of the term implementing a biennial budget proposed by the previous governor and passed by the General Assembly in the first two months of his term.
It is only after serving nearly two years that the governor has the opportunity to propose a budget reflecting the priorities on which he was elected. The governor then has two years to implement his budget before proposing a budget that will be implemented by his successor.
The complexities of changing the calendar are more than is likely to be undertaken at this time. Some like the system for it slows down the process of change for certainly the “Virginia Way” has never been to bring about any change too swiftly!
A fix that would take care of part of the snail pace of doing business in the Commonwealth would be to allow the governor to run for a successive term. I support such a change for it would allow the voters to decide if an individual should be granted a second term.
One area in which there is a need for haste in taking action is related to the environment and the role the state will take in reducing carbon emissions and responding to climate change and all of its ramifications.
Gov. Ralph Northam ran on a platform promising more protection for the environment. He and his staff worked busily on his new budget that was announced yesterday before this column was written. In the weeks leading up to his announcement, the governor held press conferences around the state on various parts of the budget including one on his environmental proposals.
The budget and legislative proposals he announced on environmental protection are the strongest ever proposed by a Virginia governor. He said of his proposals that “these significant investments in environmental protection, environmental justice, clean energy, and clean water will combat climate change and ensure we maintain our high quality of life here in Virginia.”
To reduce carbon pollution the governor recommends removing budget language added by the Republican legislature two years ago prohibiting Virginia from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). He instead proposes legislation making Virginia a part of the regional effort to reduce carbon emissions by requiring the purchase of credits that through the marketplace will make fossil fuels more expensive than solar and wind sources of energy. The proposal is already being attacked as a “carbon tax.”
The governor’s proposals include $400 million for the Chesapeake Bay clean up that will keep that effort on track. Significant new investments in state agencies with environmental responsibilities will provide the staffing and resources for doing a more effective job in enforcing environmental regulations, improving public engagement, and ensuring environmental justice.
An investment of up to $40 million to upgrade the Portsmouth Marine Terminal will support the offshore wind supply chain and the development of offshore wind energy generating capacity to achieve 2,500 megawatts by 2026. Additional funding will also be provided for land conservation. This additional focus on the environment is sorely needed in Virginia.
Taking down Confederate monuments is but one part of a continuing story in Virginia as the Commonwealth tries to come to grips with its racist history. The story is in no way a pretty one. Africans who were brought to the colony as enslaved people were kept in bondage with cruelty and repression. They were stripped of their names and given names that had no meaning to them. Slaves were for the most part not taught to read and their ability to congregate together was severely restricted. They were overlooked in the Declaration of Independence and considered only three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. When Virginia plantations no longer found their labor needed with the depletion of the soil in the state, slaves were sold into the deep South with their families being broken up. The Civil War brought emancipation, but repression of Black people continued with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans started to realize what equal protection of the laws really meant.
During this history the General Assembly of Virginia passed laws that make those of us interested in the state’s history hang our heads in shame at the racism they embodied. Earlier this year Governor Ralph Northam appointed The Commission to Examine Racial Equality in Virginia Law to take a look at the language and intent of legislative actions in The Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia. The interim report issued this past week was shocking to those of us who study this issue for its sheer volume as well as for the stark language it uncovered of racism in the laws. Take a look for yourself at Racial Inequity Report.
Passed as recently as 1956 was a law, part of Massive Resistance, that provided that “no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.” The Commission found that “Virginia policymakers engaged in deliberate and coordinated legislative strategies to deny equal educational opportunities to black students…” There are numerous examples of laws including the poll tax that were intended to keep black people from voting.
Though most of the laws identified by the Commission are outdated and have no legal effect, they remain in the law. The Interim Report states that “the Commission believes that such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.” Laws that have been found to be unconstitutional or otherwise been invalidated should be repealed to ensure that they “could not be revived with a change of law or interpretation by a different leadership or court.”
The Commission found that “white and nonwhite Virginians face starkly disparate outcomes in health, educational attainment, financial stability, and access to justice. Any assessment of their disparities must take into account Virginia’s haunting legacy of coordinated, intentional, and official acts of forced segregation and overt racism.” The past is for recording in history books and not in official laws of today. The General Assembly meeting in January must take the important step of wiping the slate clean!
After intensive lobbying by some local governments and private investors during the 2019 session, the General Assembly passed a bill requesting the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) on which I serve to conduct a review of the impact if resort-style casinos were to be built in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These locations represent a pattern only of local governments that are interested and /or private investors who want to invest there. The JLARC staff along with assistance of private consultants who specialize in gambling operations reported to the Commission last week. A copy of the report is available at jlarc.virginia.gov/landing- 2019-gaming.
Gambling has long been prohibited in Virginia, with the exception of the lottery, charitable gaming such as bingo, and wagering on horse races. Virginians currently wager over $1 billion annually on these forms of gaming, generating about $600 million in revenue for various purposes, primarily K-12 education. Nearby states permit more forms of gambling than Virginia does, including casino gaming, sports wagering, and online casino gaming.
According to estimates from The Innovation Group, a national gaming consultant who assisted JLARC staff with the study, resort-style casinos could be built and sustained in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These estimates assume an initial $200 million to $300 million capital investment and an annual gaming revenue state tax rate of 27 percent (the national median). Casinos in these five locations are projected to generate about $970 million annually in net gaming revenue and approximately $260 million in gaming tax revenue for the state. For comparison, the Virginia Lottery generates over $600 million annually after prizes are paid out. About one-third of total casino revenue is projected to be generated by out-of-state visitors.
The projected median wage of $33,000 for casino employees would be below the median wage in the five localities. Not all casino jobs would represent a net gain of employment for the localities, and nearly half of the jobs would be low-skill and low-wage. Casino gambling would reduce the revenues in existing forms of gambling such as the Lottery that generates money for the schools.
According to the study, the prevalence of problem gambling in Virginia has not been measured, but evidence from national studies and states with a broad array of gaming options suggests that an estimated 5 to 10 percent of adults may experience gambling problems. The introduction of casinos would make more people at risk of experiencing problems as gambling opportunities increase.
The negative impacts of gambling are not limited to problem gamblers. The report indicates that research consistently shows adverse effects on others, most often a spouse or partner, but also the parents and children of problem gamblers, as well as other family members and close friends. The negative effects of problem gambling can be severe in a small portion of cases and include financial instability and mental health and relationship problems.
I am skeptical of introducing additional gambling opportunities in the Commonwealth. From what I have been able to learn, the modest revenues are not worth the risks involved. Is there something I am missing?
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Mr. Jefferson would have been pleased with the voter rebellion of 2019 that shifted power in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in two decades.
With all the history-making details of the outcome of the 2019 elections, some of what happened is a repeat of past events from which there is a great deal to be learned. In my first term in the House of Delegates in 1978 there were 78 Democrats; that number dwindled to 47 in 2000 when Republicans assumed control of the House.
Republicans had been treated shabbily under Democratic majorities, and they never passed up an opportunity to point out the arrogance and unfairness of the Democratic majority. For decades Democrats had not put Republicans on committees that met.
When Republicans took over the majority in the House, they told stories over and over of Democratic abuses of the past to justify minimizing Democratic participation in the legislative process. Republicans were doing the very things about which they had complained for decades. To the victor goes the spoils. It was time for revenge
Republican campaigning to take the majority never fully transitioned to fairly governing the Commonwealth. Retribution was sought for past grievances. I and many others were removed from major committee assignments. Committee operations were changed to keep Democratic bills bottled up with no recorded votes. In all ways the Republican majority was no better than the Democratic majority had been.
Some examples of abuses: Gerrymander districts to protect Republicans and to reduce chances of Democrats getting elected; Stack committee membership to ensure that their bills were the only ones to get passed; Add subcommittees without adhering to proportional membership or recorded votes to dispose of bills on gun safety, ERA ratification, or nondiscrimination in a way to leave no fingerprints or blame.
Democratic legislators have many stories they can relate about their suffering over the last couple of decades under Republican dominance. The campaigns that just ended were full of dirty tricks. Democrats may well be in the mood to seek revenge; payback can be so sweet.
I believe, however, Democrats must act as though we have learned from past mistakes. Winning the majority puts Democrats in the position to bring about critically needed reform in the legislative process and to act on legislation for which they were not able to get a hearing over the last couple of decades.
Flipping the General Assembly should be more than a color change from red to blue: it needs to be a change to a more open and transparent government. I believe that voters do not want political wrangling; they expect reform of the way business has been done in the past. The majority must provide leadership for meaningful reform while ignoring temptations for revenge. A history of bad deeds should not be repeated.