Virginians are lovers of history, including this Virginian as regular readers of this column know. This year Virginia is celebrating 400 years since the first representative legislative body met at Jamestown. Virginia is the Mother of Presidents. Virginia is for lovers of all kinds of things!
One bit of history that continues to loom large in Virginia’s psyche these days with as little mention as possible from the state apologists is the prevalence of gun violence in the Commonwealth. Twelve years ago the campus of Virginia Tech was the scene of the largest mass murder of its time. While other mass murders have occurred since then, VA Tech through no direct fault of its own continues to hold the record for the most people killed on a college campus.
Virginia last week made history again. Virginia Beach was the scene of the biggest mass murder so far this year. A dubious distinction that we would least like to have. Virginia lost 1,028 people to gun violence in 2017, and as the Governor described it, that is almost three people a day; that is more deaths than those due to vehicle accidents.
For Governor Ralph Northam and for me and countless other Virginians, we long ago have had enough. As Governor Northam said in a press conference which I took part in last week: “No one should go to work, to school, or to church wondering if they will come home. But that is what our society has come to, because we fail to act on gun violence. I will be asking for votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”
The laws he is seeking to get passed have been introduced in the General Assembly during its regular sessions without success. In a special session called by the Governor that will be held on July 9, only bills intended to end gun violence will be considered. And the Governor requested that “members of the General Assembly engage in an open and transparent debate and that the bills brought before the legislature are put to a vote by the entire General Assembly.”
Bills related to gun violence that have been introduced in the regular session including my bill to require universal background checks have been routinely referred by the Speaker of the House to the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee where they are sent to a subcommittee of six members. The members of the subcommittee are appointed by the Speaker of the House, four of whom have perfect voting records of opposing any gun safety legislation. My background check bill and the approximate 15 other bills related to preventing gun violence were defeated on a predictable vote of 2 to 4 with limited discussion or debate. Yes, that’s right. Four members who are buddies with the NRA get to make the decision of 140 elected members of the General Assembly!
It is time for Virginia to make history again by leading the nation in doing the right thing to end gun violence. Voters, please pay close attention to how your elected representatives vote!
Later today I will be renewing my application with voters in the 36th legislative district to keep my job as their representative in the Virginia House of Delegates. My campaign kick-off reception will be from 6 p.m to 7:30 pm at The Lake House of Reston at 11450 Baron Cameron Avenue, across the street from the entrance to Lake Anne. All are welcome to attend this free event with special guests former Governor Terry McAuliffe and House Democratic Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41st).
A question I have gotten every odd-numbered year I have run for office since 1973 is what got me interested in working for the people as an elected representative in the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly. As clear an answer I can give is to explain that history was always my favorite subject in school. A field trip to Jamestown when I was in fourth grade really piqued my interest. I came to learn that otherwise ordinary people we studied about shaped our history through their service in government and in the community. At that very young age I started dreaming about serving in the legislature and went on to study history through graduate school to prepare myself to serve. Since my election in 1981 I have been in office continuously making me now the longest serving member in the House of Delegates.
We hear calls for “term limits,” but Virginia has a very definitive term limit system. To be a member of the House of Delegates one must stand for election every two years and win a plurality of votes in the district to stay in office. This is my 20th such re-application to continue the work I have been doing. While I clearly have a lot of experience, I offer an informed vision for the future of the Commonwealth as my strongest asset.
It is not certain yet if I will have an opponent in this year’s election. Even if I run unopposed, I still intend to campaign in a way that takes advantage of voter interest to talk about the advances we have made in the Commonwealth and the miles we still need to go. My efforts will not be confined to my district as I will be campaigning in other districts on behalf of level-headed, socially progressive, and morally strong candidates who can contribute to a majority in the House of Delegates to accomplish needed changes that I write about almost weekly in this column.
Join me this evening if you can. I want to be able to tell you directly how honored I am to work for you and how earnest I am in reapplying for the job. Please be in touch with me at [email protected] with your questions and concerns.
Before we tear off the remaining couple of pages on the May calendar, I want to address the important recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month. While Virginia is credited with having the first mental health hospital, or asylum as they were called in the 18th century, the Commonwealth has had difficulty in recent times coming to grips with the enormity of the need and the provision of funds to respond to those needs. In fact Virginia is ranked 40th in the nation in mental health care according to the results of a national study of the issue. It took a state senator’s mentally ill son attacking his father with a knife to shock the state to greater action. That father now chairs the Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health Services in the 21st Century, or the Deeds Commission, that includes Sen. Janet Howell as a member and has made critically important recommendations on which the state has made significant progress.
Special thanks go to The Commonwealth Institute for documenting recent progress and remaining opportunities in behavioral health in a recent edition of The Half Sheet. The Institute, which is a nonprofit organization focusing mostly on human service needs, used the term “behavioral health” to be more comprehensive than “mental health” to include mental health services and supports such as substance abuse treatment. The Institute recognized accomplishments this past year to include a 21 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement to encourage more licensed mental health professionals to accept Medicaid thus increasing access to services for people with low income. Additional funding for emergency opioid kits will expand the access to and availability of Naloxone, which is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The General Assembly also passed and the Governor signed my bill to expand the health care providers authorized to dispense Naloxone to make it more readily available.
Increased funding was provided to increase staffing at state mental health facilities that are struggling to keep up with demand. Funding was also approved to replace the aging mental health facility Central State Hospital. In addition, monies have been made available for transportation of persons needing mental health hospitalization from having to be transported by law enforcement.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services indicates that there is a need for 5,000 permanent housing units for those who need supportive housing in the state. This year’s funding along with an increase last year will provide 1,300 units of supportive housing. Obviously, there is a severe need to do more in this area with a price tag of about $47 million.
Challenges remain to be addressed in providing greater access to programs and services for those who live in rural areas and to those who have experienced the trauma of having been exposed to the immigration and refugee system. A task force is looking at ways to increase the number of mental health professionals in the state.
Our awareness of mental health needs cannot end with the month of May. More needs to be done!
Following the daily news coming out of our Nation’s Capital is enough to leave anyone despondent. The backing away from long-sought freedoms against discrimination and oppression to a seeming lack of concern about the health of our planet and its people to a rise in hateful speech and behavior punctuated by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many contribute to the feeling of desperation on the part of many who share values very different than those holding positions of power today. Add to the very real concerns about the direction of our country the plight of millions around the world and one can become very depressed.
I remind myself regularly that it is important to remember that behind all the dark clouds there is a sunny side. While my examples of the sunny side will be from our community over the last couple of days, the sunshine of care and compassion shines in different ways and intensities throughout the world every day We sometimes have to clean the lenses through which we view our community and the world to gain a clearer perspective of where we are and where we are headed.
Just last weekend Jane and I spent an evening with the caring and compassionate people in our community who raise money and work through FISH (Friendly, Immediate, Sympathetic Help) to help those who are down on their luck pay their utility bills and rent, fill prescriptions, and learn to manage their finances. A golf tournament this week with Kids R First along with the volunteer help of many will provide funding to ensure that thousands of children in our region start school with book bags filled with needed school supplies. Students in South Lakes High School (SLHS) who do not have enough to eat at their homes can get food through the SLHS Food Pantry on school days and for the weekends.
Days in a homeless shelter can no doubt seem bleak despite the best efforts of volunteers to make them seem otherwise, but nothing can replace the burst of sunshine that comes from Cornerstones and all its supporters who work mightily to end homelessness in our community. I spent an evening recently with the volunteers of Britepaths who are doing the same kind of work in other areas of our region bringing hope to many.
I spend time monthly with volunteers from Moms Demand Action, Brady Campaign, and other groups working to end gun violence. Their commonsense approach to the public health crisis of gun violence will pay off. I continue to be impressed with the determination and hard work of the Herndon-Reston Indivisibles who are devoted to the election of caring candidates to office and to bring focus on bad public policies.
I am honored to be in public office to observe and participate in the hard work of citizens who bring sunshine where it is needed. I have listed just a few examples. Join with us and pull back the shades to let the sunshine in. Let me know at [email protected] if you are looking for ways to become involved.
Advocates on behalf of cleaning up our environment got further strong evidence of the need for “bold, swift action on behalf of our environment,” a phrase used by many who have recently written letters to me. A 1,500-page report based on thousands of scientific studies by hundreds of international experts has concluded that “humans are transforming earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plants and animal species are now at risk of extinction posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival.”
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that produced the report for the United Nations found that “piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient.” Instead, they call for ‘transformative changes’ that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agricultures and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.” The writers of the assessment are hoping that policy makers will see the importance of nature to the health of people and local economies and will able “to strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.”
As Virginia advocates point out in their plea, “it will now be up to the 2020 Virginia General Assembly to stand up for our health and the environment, for clean energy, and to protect Virginians from the ravages of climate change of which we are already feeling the effects.” The most recent session of the General Assembly demonstrated that the legislators in charge can make all the difference. In a strictly partisan vote, the Republican majority had language inserted in the budget that restricts the Commonwealth’s ability to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that will be a critical avenue for reducing carbon emissions in the state and addressing the negative effects of climate change on the health and safety of the people.
While the language by the Republicans was not subject to a line item veto by the Governor because of past court decisions, the Governor nonetheless has pledged to move forward with new regulations much the same as would be part of RGGI to make significant reductions in carbon pollution from fossil fuel fired power plants. The Governor has made it clear that the budget he prepares next year will delete the Republican language. With the probable change of control of the House of Delegates and State Senate this year the language will not be carried forward in future budgets.
It is unfortunate that the actions of the Governor on this and other items in the budget have been sharply criticized because of a misunderstanding on the part of many that the Governor’s line item veto power is not unlimited — supported by court decisions but still controversial. The good news is that the Governor has indicated in many other actions that he recognizes the need for bold and swift action to protect our environment. I look forward to working with him in greatly enhancing Virginia’s protection of the environment.
Over the past several weeks I have spent more than a dozen hours digging out at least a bushel of Star-of-Bethlehem plants and bulbs even though this time of year they look pretty with their white, six-petal blossoms. Soon the plants would have gone back into a bulb, so I dig them when they are blooming, and I can locate them.
Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) is a winter bulb belonging to the Lily family and blooms in late spring or early summer. It is native to the Mediterranean region and is similar to wild garlic. Star-of-Bethlehem flowers, though attractive for a few weeks when in bloom, have escaped cultivation in many areas like my flower bed. When this happens, they quickly become a danger to native and other ornamental plants. The problem is it takes over and will choke out other bulbs and plants. The only solution is to dig them out. A single plant can have dozens of bulbs that continue to multiply until removed.
While certainly not a direct analogy I could not help but think while I was digging away in my garden that in public policy there are areas where false or misleading ideas get started and are difficult if not impossible to dig out to expose the truth. Certainly, the Founding Fathers who were fresh from a revolutionary war to free themselves from the British Empire recognized the need to protect themselves in the future. As they wrote in the Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Some scholars point to the prefatory language “a well regulated Militia” to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense. They contend that citizens do not have an unlimited individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms. The idea of an unlimited right to possess guns has taken hold and is cultivated by arms manufacturers and others to defeat the most reasonable, common-sense legislation.
So far in the first 120 days of this year according to the press there have been more than 100 mass shootings, more than 4,500 gun deaths not counting suicides with many being by assault weapons, and more than 8,400 gun injuries. These numbers have increased exponentially over the last couple of decades and show no indication of decline.
Reasonable gun safety legislation would not confiscate all guns despite what the fear mongers who lead the opposition to any gun safety legislation would have us believe. I support gun safety legislation — not eliminating gun ownership. We need to continue digging out the truth and do the hard work to have future generations act on facts and not fear. It is the only way to stop an invasion of misinformation that threatens the safety of individuals and families.
The message of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris to the 900 Virginia health, education, and human services professionals and advocates at the Voices for Virginia’s Children Summit on Childhood Trauma and Resilience last week was clear: Virginia, as well as other states, needs to move forward promptly on an evidence-based early human services program to screen for adverse childhood experiences and coordinate resources to respond to the needs. It was not a hard sell to the audience. They had already given her a lengthy standing ovation before she started her speech. Most knew of her pioneering work from her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, or her Ted Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime,” that has reached over 2.8 million viewers on www.ted.com/talks. She is known for linking adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later on in life. She founded the Center for Youth Wellness and is California’s first Surgeon General.
According to Dr. Harris, exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACE) including abuse, neglect, domestic violence and parental mental illness and substance abuse affect 34.8 million children across socio-economic lines and affect not only brain development but can change children’s hormonal systems, immune systems and even their DNA. The results are behavioral problems, learning difficulties and physical health issues. In adults, exposure to ACEs dramatically increases the likelihood of 7 out of 10 leading adult causes of death including heart disease and cancer.
For Dr. Harris early detection is key. Screening for ACEs in children is possible and with appropriate support services the existing and future harm to children’s brains and bodies caused by toxic stress can be alleviated. As Dr. Harris told the group in Richmond, “routine screening for ACEs at pediatric well-child visits should be as common as checking for hearing loss or exposure to lead paint. With early detection children can be treated and saved from a lifetime of health issues.”
Virginia currently has 19 communities throughout the state that have programs referred to as “trauma-informed community networks” that are at various stages of development of programs and services utilizing the findings of research on trauma and its impact on public health. There is little doubt that Dr. Harris’s visit will increase interest among practitioners and policy makers as to a more widespread use of the results of studies on ACEs. An effective program of ACE detection and intervention could lead to reduced health care costs, better performance of students in school, and a better quality of life for those involved. In the long-term, costs would be low or minimal as better diagnoses of conditions should lead to more effective treatments and a reduction in costs.
I look forward to working with Voices for Virginia’s Children–celebrating its 25th anniversary at the Summit–and its advocates to determine the most effective ways to make all programs trauma informed that will serve the entire Commonwealth. Such an approach will reduce the lingering harm that can come from undetected adverse childhood experiences.
There was both shock and amazement on the part of many Restonians to hear last Friday evening that our community was under a tornado warning by the National Weather Service (NWS). These warnings occur all the time especially in the Midwest and earlier that day across the deep South. For us the weather is relatively mild, although the winds do seem to blow harder these days, and the rains this spring seem to have brought a lot of local flooding. The amount of snow varies from winter to winter.
About 8:30 p.m. on Friday the National Weather Service found that an approaching squall line ahead of a larger storm’s cold front distorted into an S shape across Northern Virginia. Gusts along the bow were significant until the bow broke up into a rotating storm. Doppler radar revealed a counterclockwise circulation known as a mesocyclone over Reston that developed into a cyclone.
Technically the National Weather Service recorded that on Friday, April 19, there was a tornado event in Reston beginning at 8:55 p.m. estimated time with estimated maximum wind speed of 70 mph, with a maximum path width of 100 yards and a path length of 4 miles. The NWS uses the Fujita Scale to classify tornadoes into one of six categories–EF0 (weak) to EF5 (violent). The tornado in our community was rated at the lowest ranking, EF0.
For professional weather people who deal with bad weather all the time, the tornado in our community that lasted an estimated five minutes may have seemed weak. But for those who sought refuge in their basements and heard the wind whipping around their homes and saw the trees swaying in their yards the storm was anything but weak. Fortunately, no one was killed or reported hurt. Lots of trees and branches were downed and several cars were damaged with one townhouse being severely damaged. Everyone is left to wonder if we will be as lucky if the flukes of weather send their wrath on us again.
Weather refers to what happens in the atmosphere around us with rain, snow, wind, and thunderstorms as examples. For many of us weather conditions seem to have become more severe. Only scientific recordings of weather events over a long period of time will provide evidence needed to confirm or deny our hunches. All the weather events of temperature, humidity and rainfall patterns averaged over seasons, years or longer creates our climate. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that climate is changing and that human behavior especially in releasing more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere is a leading cause. Completing the circle of what is happening in our world is that climate change is bringing about more extreme weather events.
While extreme weather, climate change and global warming may be controversial topics to some, many of us are deeply concerned. This week’s celebration of Earth Day was a global experience. Our local weather event while relatively mild reminds us that we need to be serious about the subject and serious about our response to it.
If a sign of a healthy democracy is a lot of people running for elective office, we have become a true democracy in Virginia. This year is a busy year for elections because a lot of terms for elective offices are up this year. In Fairfax County, for example, all the seats on the County Board of Supervisors are up for election as is the chairman of the Board who is elected county-wide. The June 11 Democratic Party primary election has four contenders vying for the supervisor’s seat that is being vacated with the retirement of Supervisor Cathy Hudgins. I am not sure whether the Republicans intend to nominate a candidate to make for a race on November 5. For chairman of the Board there is a Democratic primary to pick the nominee who the Republicans will presumably challenge in the November election.
School Board members for Fairfax County also are up for election. A member is chosen for each magisterial district plus three at-large members. School board elections are non-partisan, but candidates seek endorsement of one of the major parties. Currently there is a scramble in Hunter Mill district to replace retiring member Pat Hynes. A broad and diverse field of candidates is seeking party endorsements.
Constitutional offices which in Fairfax County are the Commonwealth Attorney and the sheriff are also on the ballot this November. The incumbent Commonwealth Attorney must withstand a primary challenge in the Democratic Party before getting to the fall election. The sheriff is likely to move smoothly through the November election.
Adding to the number of candidates for whom you are likely to see ads, receive brochures or answer those pesky robo-calls are the candidates for the House of Delegates and the Senate, all of whom are up for election this year. While it is too early to know for sure who all the challengers will be as it is possible for political parties to name candidates up until early June, we already know the field is crowded. There is an unprecedented number of challenges in primaries and a larger than usual number of retirements of incumbents. On the State Senate side there are eleven Democratic and five Republican primaries that include challenges to four incumbent Democrats and three Republican incumbents.
On the House of Delegates side of the General Assembly there are 13 Democratic primaries involving five incumbents and seven Republican primaries with two incumbents being challenged. These numbers do not include districts in which conventions may be held to select candidates.
All this activity is good news for democracy but might seem overwhelming to voters. At this point in time races are not all set with candidates. After the June 11 primaries, the line-ups will be clearer. Party activists will be busy informing voters who their candidates are. In the meantime, please forgive me if any of my numbers are off as this story continues to emerge. The good news is there will be many choices that have the potential to lead to better government. Don’t be alarmed by this crowded field!
While I would never recommend reading the Code of Virginia for pleasure, as it is filled with legalese intended for trained lawyers and judges to debate its intended meaning, it can be a useful document to understand the history of an era.
Because court decisions at the state and federal level can change the application of a law, the words that are in the Code may have been superseded by such a decision or by later enactments of law.
If all that is not enough to confuse us non-lawyers, there are the “notwithstanding” clauses that effectively say that whatever else the law may provide the effective meaning follows the clause.
Laws can be read to help understand the community mores and values of the past. This session saw a meaningful number of bills passed that reflect a cleaning-up of the Code to reflect changing community values.
Some of these include repealing remnants of Jim Crow laws of racial oppression of the past. Thanks to Del. Marcia Price and State Sen. Lionell Spruill, the provisions in Code that exempted Virginia’s minimum wage requirements for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters, all of which were occupations that were most likely held by African Americans, were repealed. The old law made it legal to discriminate through wages. A new law will require employers to provide pay stubs as a way to assist low-wage workers to manage their money and be treated fairly.
Up until action of the General Assembly this session, if you owed court fines and fees in Virginia, your driver’s license could be suspended unless you established a payment plan. As the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy that advocated strongly for a change in the law explained it, one in six Virginia drivers (approximately 900,000 people) has had his or her license suspended because of owing court fines and fees. Almost any poor person who has interacted with the criminal justice system owes some court fines and fees.
Essentially, by taking away someone’s license and therefore likely preventing the person from finding or keeping a job, the state denies the person opportunity to escape from poverty (and ever pay back those fines and fees). This policy was a “debtors’ prison” approach. There is no evidence that suspending people’s licenses increases the rate of payback for fines and fees. The issue disproportionately affected low-income workers, and its repeal this year was past due.
Virginia has historically had one of the highest rates of rental evictions in the country. Laws that disproportionally favored landlords over tenants caused this situation that was disruptive to families. A series of revisions to create a better balance in the law and that provides more options for tenants should make the laws operate more fairly.
Virginia has also had a very bad record in the management of its foster care program. Children were shifted from family to family with limited stability in their lives. Major changes in the laws related to foster children should greatly improve the situation.
It is critically important that we clean up the Code from time to time.
The 28th annual Best of Reston Awards celebrated honorees for their philanthropy and volunteerism in the Reston and Herndon communities last Thursday night.
The honorees for 2019 are:
- Bob Schnapp from A Simple Gesture
- Ellen and Mike Jennings from BEI
- Omicron Kappa Kappa Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity/OKK Foundation, Inc.
- Mina and Mark Fies from Synergy Design & Construction
- Helen and Taylor Yi from Touching Heart
- Maggie Parker
- Roz Rakoff
- Kurt Rose, owner of Aspen Jewelry Designs
Del. Ken Plum said that he and State Sen. Janet Howell “always look forward to coming to Best of Reston, because, although we are heavily involved in the community, it always is the case when we come here we meet wonderful new people that we hadn’t known about.”
— Cornerstones (@Cornerstonesva) April 4, 2019
Photos via Chip McCrea Photography
The House of Delegates and the State Senate were in session yesterday (April 3) for the annual reconvened session as required by the constitution. Often referred to as the veto session, part of its business is to consider bills vetoed or with amendments proposed by the governor.
During the regular odd-numbered short session that adjourned on Feb. 24 after 46 days, there were 3,128 bills and resolutions considered. Setting aside resolutions that do not have the force of law of bills, there were 883 bills that passed the legislature all of which must have the signature of the governor in order to become law. The governor’s veto can be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses.
The governor in Virginia has the unique ability among executive officials to propose amendments to bills that previously passed but then must be approved by the General Assembly in the reconvened session with the amendments proposed. This ability for the governor to make corrections or to change the provisions of a bill gives the governor important legislative powers and enhances the importance of the reconvened session that typically lasts for a single day but can go up to three days.
Among the bills on the docket for this reconvened session is a bill that had passed both houses of the legislature but died at the last moment of the regular session. The dispute was over legal language to prohibit the use of cell phones that are not hands-free. The bill will be back before the legislature thanks to an amendment by the governor, and it is likely to finally pass.
I expect to support the governor in his vetoes of bills. One bill that he vetoed would limit his authority to involve Virginia in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that mandates emission reduction in the power sector. Virginia’s involvement in this program is among the most important steps the state can take in reducing greenhouse gases and tackling climate change.
Governor Ralph Northam has also vetoed a bill that I had opposed during the regular session that would force law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions of federal immigration law that are part of the current immigration hysteria. He also vetoed a bill that would have limited the ability of local governments in making decisions about their local employment and pay consideration.
Included among the bills that passed are bills that passed in identical form but were only introduced in one house. Some advocates and legislators believe that there is more certainty that a bill will finally pass if it moves through the legislature on two separate tracks. The governor signs both identical bills to keep from choosing among competing bill sponsors. No one that I know has taken the time to count these bills, but I believe that more than half fall into this category. I question that approach — it seems like unnecessary duplication in an already complex system.
Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in a unique position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds.
As the fall elections approach, the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly, taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased — it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.
An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education.
Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.
Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.
The budget presented to the General Assembly by Gov. Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.
There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain the advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.
March is Women’s History Month. Before women had the whole month, the U.S. recognized Women’s History Week; before that, a single International Women’s Day.
Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements was seen “as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions,” according to an article in Time magazine. The first Women’s Day took place on Feb. 28, 1909 to honor the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes in New York when thousands of women marched for economic rights and to honor an earlier 1857 march when garment workers rallied for equal rights and a 10-hour day, according to the article.
Recognizing the achievement of Virginia women goes beyond naming a month. A monument is under construction on Capitol Square, “Voices from the Garden,” which will be the first monument of its kind in the nation. Representative of the state’s regions, the monument recognizes the 400-year history and the diversity of achievement, ethnicity and thought that women have made to the Commonwealth.
Even more significant in recognizing women in Virginia is the fact that there is historic representation of women in the Virginia House of Delegates, including the election of 11 new women members in 2017, all of whom ousted male incumbents. The House Democratic Caucus is almost 45 percent women, including 11 women of color. The House Republican Caucus is less than 10 percent women. Caucus Chair Charniele Herring is the first woman to chair a caucus in the House of Delegates throughout its 400-year history. Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is the first woman to be elected leader of a caucus in the General Assembly.
Recently I served on a panel, “Can Women Save Democracy? We’re counting on it!” at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University along with Herring, iller-Corn and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. There was a clear consensus in the room that women will play a pivotal role in getting our country back on the right track. Witness this year’s state and local elections when there are record-breaking numbers of women lining up to run in primaries and the general elections.
Not only are women running and winning races, but they are determining the outcome of elections with their tireless work in making calls, knocking on doors, and working on behalf of the candidates they support. Organizations like Indivisibles, with Herndon-Reston Indivisibles being a model organization, and Moms Demand Action among others are making their influence felt on policy issues like ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The big disappointment in celebrating women in history is the refusal of the Virginia House of Delegates to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification failed on a tied vote on a procedural matter that makes it even more frustrating that the amendment was not allowed to be debated on the floor of the House of Delegates. There is more women’s history to be written in Virginia, and I suspect the next step will be the election of even more women this fall and ratification of the ERA next year!
The Virginia General Assembly was adjourning for the year as the film “Green Book” was receiving “Best Picture” recognition at the 91st Oscars. While the story line of the movie may have been fictional, the Green Book was reality in the Jim Crow South.
Segregated facilities of hotels, restaurants, public bathrooms and transportation in Virginia and throughout the South necessitated Black travelers having a guide like the Green Book, a small book with a green cover, to let them know where they could stop to use the bathroom, eat a meal or spend the night. It was not unlike a AAA travel guide except that its listings were just for Black travelers. The movie — without exaggeration — lets recent generations know just how segregated the South was.
As part of the Black History Month celebration in the House of Delegates, a different delegate speaks each day about a famous Black person, an interesting Black person from the past who may not have made the history books or the experience of growing up Black.
One day this session. Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton spoke of her experiences growing up Black in segregated Virginia and her family’s use of the Green Book in their vacation travels. There were special challenges to be met when public bathrooms or restaurants were further than needed.
Other symbols of the challenges of growing up Black in a racist society like Virginia and the South were shockingly brought to our attention this legislative session. The cruel part that blackface played in white entertainment may have been unknown to many younger persons or forgotten by others but must be acknowledged and dealt with in repentance by those who took part including the governor and the attorney general.
To include white robes and hoods in entertainment is to overlook that these are symbols of hate, violence, cross burning, lynchings and white supremacy. Public officials must disavow these symbols unequivocally and provide leadership in healing the communities that have been wounded by signs of white supremacy.
Outside the capitol near the governor’s mansion is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. It features the walk out of Prince Edward schools led by 16-year old Barbara Johns, a factor in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Public schools were not simply segregated, but they were totally unequal.
This legislative session we were reminded by the work of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis of the differences that continue to exist among white and minority facilities, programs and services. The approved budget made some improvements in reducing the inequities among facilities and services that have disadvantaged Black people. There is a new awareness of the work that needs to be done to overcome our racist past.
Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk spoke out forcefully on the floor of the House of Delegates reminding us of our history and the need to take action in the future. The speech of this young Black delegate is worth a listen for it is a powerful statement of the need to overcome our racist past.