This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
For much of the last two years I have used this column to laud the steps that were being taken in the Virginia General Assembly with the support of then Governor Ralph Northam to bring Virginia into the modern era. Virginia has a rich history, but one that is also shrouded in controversy. There is a tendency on the part of long-time Virginians to want to focus on the earliest history of the Commonwealth in the new nation with an emphasis on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence authored by a Virginian, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights that served as a model for the federal Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the history that surrounded that era is not so glorious. Forgotten until recent times were the indigenous people who were forced out with the settlement of the colony and new state, the horrors of slavery, a Civil War in which the state was a major battleground, and a white supremacist government until recent years.
The shift in attitudes was not confined to Virginia alone as movements such as Black Lives Matter forced us to examine our history and our actions under the laws as they had been written. The success of Democrats at the polls to control both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governorship and lieutenant governor and attorney general’s offices brought about the amazing changes in the laws of Virginia in 2020 and 2021.
Virginia moved into a leadership role in rewriting its election laws to make them among the most progressive in the nation. Early voting was instituted, absentee voting was permitted without the need for an excuse and voting generally was made more accessible. Laws against all forms of discrimination were passed and hate crime laws were strengthened. Common sense gun control laws were passed including my universal background checks bill. Major steps were taken to end the classroom to prison pipeline, and laws that were unevenly applied to racial minorities were repealed or revised. Symbols that represented the oppressive period of our history were removed. Our educational institutions moved to interpret our history more broadly to be inclusive of all persons who lived in the state.
I was feeling good that democracy was expanded, we were becoming more inclusive, our criminal justice system was being reformed, and our communities were becoming safer. And, then there was the election of 2021. Democrats lost the majority in the House of Delegates, and Republicans swept the statewide elections of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In the current session of the General Assembly bills have been introduced to turn back all the progress that had been made over the last two years. The clock is being turned back to the more conservative Virginia that many of us have been struggling to get past for many years. All the bills are passing in the Republican controlled House of Delegates. Fortunately Democrats have a majority in the State Senate that will be able to defeat these Republican measures, and our progressive measures will remain in place. We must be eternally vigilant to ensure that while progress might be impeded it is not lost.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
For nearly 250 years of Virginia’s history Black people in the state were enslaved. Following emancipation there was a denial of the rights of Black people in the state, and Jim Crow laws curtailed their freedom. The Lost Cause movement after the Civil War sought to obscure the treatment of Black people as slaves and downplay any contributions they made to society. Only in recent years with the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements have Black people started to receive the recognition they deserve in society and in the state legislature.
Each day in the Virginia General Assembly history is being made as a record number of 18 Black members serve in the 100-member House of Delegates and three Black members are in the 40-member Senate. For most of my career as a delegate the number of Black legislators in the General Assembly could be counted on the fingers on one hand. For the first time ever, Black women are in leadership roles with the Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the House Minority Caucus Chair. A small but significant example of the changes being made are the daily speeches in the General Assembly during February about notable Black Virginians who have not received the attention they deserve
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Events leading up to the designation of a Black History Month extend back as far as 1926 when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland started a Negro History Week. The second week of February was chosen as the date to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Hopefully the writing and teaching of more complete histories will reduce the need for separate historic celebrations, but there is so much to do in filling in the blanks of histories in the past that left out so much information or distorted it in so many ways. There is a continuing effort on the part of many who see one-sided historical accounts as benefiting the false narrative they continue to present.
There are real concerns that I and others have about what is happening currently in Virginia. As I discussed in a recent column, the Governor’s Executive Order Number One “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” has fueled this concern. Adding to the Order, the Governor’s setting up a snitch line for parents and others to report on teachers teaching “divisive concepts” raises further concerns. It’s impossible to teach accurate history without some seeing it as divisive. Hopefully the celebration of Black History Month in the General Assembly will demonstrate that celebrating each other’s successes will not be viewed as divisive but rather as strengthening our common histories and aspirations.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
Many say that I have the best view of the Jefferson-designed State Capitol from the window in my office in the Pocahontas Building where members of the House of Delegates and State Senate have their Richmond offices. It is an awe-inspiring view. This past week workers have been busy dismantling the seating and stand where Governor Youngkin was inaugurated. While the formal structure of the Inaugural has been removed from the outside of the Capitol building, inside the structure of a new government dominated by a new Republican governor and a Republican-majority House of Delegates is quickly taking shape. Campaign rhetoric is being replaced by executive orders and draft legislation. Faces new to Virginia government including the new governor and most of his appointees are moving into their roles in the new administration.
Last week I expressed my concern about Executive Order One and its potential impact on education as it seeks to end “the use of inherently divisive concepts” in schools. My concern has been heightened as the governor has taken a further step in controlling the curriculum of the schools by establishing a “tip line for parents to report to the state any school officials behaving objectionably–including teaching divisive subjects.” On a local radio show the governor said, “We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations…to help us be aware of their child being denied their rights that parents in Virginia have.” The announcement of the “snitch line” brought a strong reaction from teachers and parents who see this move as adding undue stress to teachers without clear direction.
The Constitution of Virginia puts responsibility for the public school system under the State Board of Education and local school boards. This arrangement has insulated the schools from undue political influence for the most part until the current governor came to realize that running against the schools was attractive to his political base.
Following through on one of his political promises the new governor, acting outside of advice from health experts and demonstrating his willingness to overcome educator objections, lifted the mask mandates that had been put in place as a way to keep the schools open and safe. Most large school divisions ignored his ban on mask mandates, and several districts have asked the courts to decide if the governor has the authority to do what he has done. A decision from the court should be forthcoming in the near future.
In the meantime, on the same radio program the governor justified to the host his ban on local mask mandates by saying that we should “love our neighbor.” I could not agree more with the plea to love our neighbor, but in my mind in a pandemic we should love others as well as ourselves by wearing masks! The governor may have shown his true purpose by expressing to the host that his ban on masks was “moving against the left liberals.” As one who is eternally optimistic, I hope to have a more positive report next week on our getting down to work!
Last week I spoke to the members of the House of Delegates about my concerns of protecting student learning under the new administration in Richmond. The Governor’s first Executive Order raised more questions than answers as to the intent of the order. Entitled “Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Concepts, Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K-12 Public Education in the Commonwealth,” its opening page has little with which I would quarrel: “The foundation of our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves.”
The following three pages of directives set the administration on an investigation to find Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the curriculum even though it is not taught in the public schools. The 14 directives have the staff looking in every document, every file folder, and seemingly behind every nook and cranny to root out CRT. This wild goose chase called for in Executive Order One to find something that does not exist is akin to the calls for a forensic audit of all election results to support the Big Lie that fraud and corruption in the last presidential election allowed the election to be stolen.
My red warning light goes off with the Executive Order for in Virginia we have gone down such a path in the past much to the embarrassment of the state in the eyes of the Nation. The Lost Cause was an effort on the part of the Southern states to justify the Civil War, glorify the participants, and claim the high ground for it having been fought. All those Civil War monuments that have been removed in the past couple of years for the false narrative they helped to promote were part of the Lost Cause movement.
Virginia’s contribution to the Lost Cause effort to give a different meaning to the causes of the Civil War was the establishment by the General Assembly of a legislative commission to oversee publication of new textbooks on Virginia history and government. The Commission realized many difficulties in trying to have professional historians and teachers cooperate in writing a selective history of the Commonwealth. One legislative member of the Commission explained that “we want to emphasize the greatness of Virginia and take out any reference to poor people.”
One historian wrote that the textbooks “portrayed Virginia’s white leaders in unfailingly flattering lights, its enslaved residents as happy and contented beneficiaries of benign masters who civilized and Christianized them, and its Indians as savage barbarians in some contexts or as primitive simpletons in others.” (Tarter, The Grandees of Government, University of Virginia Press, 2013).
My personal experience with state-written textbooks came in the mid-1960s when as an intern teacher I refused to use the textbook for it left out so much of Virginia history including the slave economy, the resulting Civil War and the Jim Crow era and its consequences. Objections by educators, ridicule in the press, and embarrassment by state officials led to these books being abandoned.
Executive Order One seems obsessed with what it calls “inherently divisive concepts.” Considering history that is truthful in our highs and lows can lead to better understandings and a stronger more inclusive state than can efforts to ignore, white-wash or mislead in our history. We do not want politicians writing our textbooks!
The General Assembly convenes at noon today, January 12, for its annual legislative session. There has been much speculation since the November election as to the direction the Commonwealth might be heading with the change in partisan control of the three statewide offices and the House of Delegates. The newly-elected lieutenant governor and attorney general were known quantities in state politics having served in the House of Delegates. The newly-elected governor who will take the oath of office at noon on Saturday, January 15, does not have any elective office experience and after having run a campaign of having to thread a needle among the various factions of his party has remained somewhat a mystery as to the direction he might pursue. That was especially true until he had to start taking action to organize his new government.
He set off a firestorm of opposition last week when he announced his pick to be the next Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. Making up for any lack of experience that he may have in the environmental area, Governor-elect Youngkin announced that he would name former Trump Administration head of the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s chief protector of its rich natural heritage. The reaction from those who have worked in natural resource protection in Virginia was immediate. The Virginia League of Conservation Voters issued a press release stating that Wheeler had “presided over an unprecedented rollback of environmental safeguards intended to protect clean air and water across our country–damage that the agency is still working to repair.” The leader of the organization went further and described the Wheeler nomination as “hands down the most extreme nomination for an environmental post in Virginia’s history and the absolute worst pick the Governor-elect could make.
I share the concerns expressed by the League of Conservation Voters with one exception. I believe the nomination of Becky Norton Dunlop to be the Secretary of Natural Resources in Virginia in 1993 by Governor George Allen to be the worst nomination to ever have been made to a Virginia cabinet post. Dunlop gained her experience in dismantling environmental protection agencies in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and she wreaked havoc on the environmental protection agencies in the state. It was as many at the time expressed “like having a fox in the chicken coop.”
Emerging evidence indicates that Wheeler will compete with or even exceed the damage done to environmental protection by Dunlop. In July 2019 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a list in its blog of “10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year.” (https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/andrew-wheeler-decimated-epa/) Among the concerns was Wheeler’s gutting of the Obama-era coal ash rule after Wheeler had worked as a coal industry lobbyist. He rolled back Clean Water Act protections even as concerns have been raised about the quality of water in this country.
Environmentalists and activists are hard at work bringing the Wheeler record to the attention of the members of the General Assembly who must confirm his nomination. I oppose the nomination, but the history in Virginia is that the governor gets to pick the people in his administration even if it may mean another fox in the chicken coop!
In the general election in 2021 through a constitutional amendment, Virginia voters decided to transfer the majority party responsibility of turning the census count of persons in the state into as much as practicable 100 House of Delegates districts, 40 Senate districts and 11 congressional districts to a nonpartisan election redistricting process. The outcome of the vote was not even close–2.77 million in favor and 1.45 opposed. The process to keep the outcome as independent as possible was clunky and inefficient but in the end produced a defensible result that will move Virginia into a leadership role of independent redistricting. A reform goal I had worked on for more than 40 years has become a reality.
A scan of the new maps as drawn by the Supreme Court when the commission could not come to a conclusion on a set of maps does not contain any salamander-shaped districts or any grotesque shapes designed to protect the interests of incumbents. The Washington Post described the outcome of the new redistricting procedure as “ending a contentious redistricting process that for the first time gave no say to the state’s elected officials.”
Although there had been much criticism that the Supreme Court could not render an unbiased decision because they are political appointees proved to be misguided. As the Court Order stated, it has” fully complied with federal and state law in the following order of precedence:
- The United States Constitution, particularly Article I, Section 2, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;
- Applicable federal statutes, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 u.s.c. § 10301;
- The Constitution of Virginia, particularly Article II, Sections 6 to 6-A; and
- Applicable Virginia statutes, particularly Code §§ 30-399(E), 24.2-304.04, and any other relevant provision in Chapter 3 of Title 24.2 of the Code of Virginia.
Although it may have taken you a decade to learn the number of your delegate and senate districts, be aware that all those numbers have changed. My previously numbered 36th district is now the 7th House of Delegates district. Details of the new districts can be found at https://www.vacourts.gov/courts/scv/districting. Discussion of the impact of the new maps is available at www.vpap.org.
Not everyone is happy with the new maps. Having witnessed the redistricting of the Virginia General Assembly over 40 years I can confirm that it is never a smooth and easy process because every incumbent argues for safe districts for themselves and for their party. Every redistricting has been followed by a decade of court suits. That is not likely to occur this year. The legislature can get underway with the important tasks in front of it and spend less time on redistricting as the people indicated in their vote for the constitutional amendment.
With the new year coming up this week and with a new session of the General Assembly about to convene on January 12, I want to wish you and your family the happiest of the new year and to thank all those who have given me the awesome privilege of representing you in the House of Delegates. The pandemic has altered the ways we stay in touch, but I do want to emphasize the importance I feel about hearing from you. Many times we agree on issues, but it is still important to me to hear that you think I am representing your interests and values. Of course, there are times we may disagree, but it can be instructive for both of us to explore our differences to see if there is common ground. And in a democratic society we will sometimes agree to disagree, but I want that to be in a way that is respectful to all.
Communications is so very important in our system of government. While this column is intended to be a renewal of my invitation for you to be in touch with me on issues of concern, I want you to know that I pledge to continue to be in regular contact with you. My weekly commentary on what is happening in state government is available in my electronic newsletter, Virginia E-News, and in the Connection newspaper for this region and Reston Patch.
I encourage everyone to share it with friends and neighbors. If you are not yet a regular subscriber to my electronic newsletter which is free, you can do so on my website, kenplum.com, where you can also review past issues. In addition to my commentary, Virginia E-News contains important information on state government and a calendar of what is happening in our community related to government services.
Many constituents contact me by email at [email protected]. I do review all email even if I am not able to respond to every one personally. Regular mail is also welcomed during the legislative session; send it to me at Virginia House of Delegates, P.O. Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218
While the ongoing pandemic and the surge of the Omicron variant limit the number of in-person events I am attending, I am available for online discussions including the following:
- January 3, 2022, 7:30 to 9:00 p.m., Preview of Virginia 2022 Legislative Session with Delegates Ken Plum and Mark Keam. Learn more and register here.
- January 5, 2022, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Virtual Public Hearing with Appropriations Committee. Express your views on the new state budget. Those persons wishing to speak may register to speak the day before each virtual hearing. View or download an informational flyer with details.
- January 5, 6:00 p.m. I will be joining Senator Jennifer Boysko for a Herndon/Reston Virtual Legislative Town Hall. Register in advance for this meeting.
- January 8, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Fairfax Delegation Public Hearing. Sign up to speak. Additional information is available here.
Del. Ken Plum will head back to a very different Virginia State Capitol next month.
As the delegate for the 36th District, he says he’s looking to advocate for changes that Democrats heralded in during the last two years when they controlled both houses in the legislature and the governor’s office, a trifecta that hadn’t been since 1993.
“The election outcome represents a dramatic turnabout from the course we’ve been on the last two years, which has been one that has led to us passing some of the most progressive election laws in Virginia, election laws in the nation,” Plum told Reston Now. “I don’t want to see us turn back the clock on that.”
Virginia will become one of only three states in the country with split legislative control between Democrats and Republicans.
“Unfortunately, both parties in both Houses seem to insist on strict partisan voting, and that is really too bad,” he said. “It stands in the … ways which we could work together cooperatively and reach common solutions.”
With the results of the November election, Democrats will lose control of the House, meaning they’ll no long chair various agenda-setting committees, which for Plum was the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.
In 2020, Plum advocated a proposal to create an urban agricultural advisory council to help support local sustainable food programs, but the bill lost steam in the Senate toward the end of the year. The proposed legislation is slated to expire in July 2023, and Plum says it’s something that he would like to revive.
With the upcoming session, which is slated to start Jan. 12, Plum says legislators hope to address issues with the state’s mental health system with a major study of the state’s Community Services Boards, which help people with mental illness, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities.
He said he would like to see more funding for the state’s CSBs, saying the state doesn’t need big mental health hospitals but needs growth with crisis intervention centers.
“That’s not a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue. And we need to respond to it,” he said.
The 80-year-old legislator, who has represented the 36th District of half of his life, says he doesn’t want reforms to be rolled back, such as the end of the state’s use of the death penalty, a change he thinks will remain. He also highlighted other recent laws, such as the passing of legislation to help prevent racial and ethnic discrimination as well as discrimination of LGBTQ+ individuals.
In 2019, he sponsored a bill that became law regarding universal background checks for people buying guns, strengthening a Virginia law that was in place since 1989. Plum said he’s seen no evidence that it infringes on people’s civil rights, and he said he expects it to remain.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Supreme Court is working to redraw state and federal districting maps after a bipartisan redistricting commission failed to reach a plan by deadline, drawing criticism for partisanship by onlookers including Fairfax County Chairman Supervisors Jeff McKay.
Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter in 1897 to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was really a Santa Claus. The editor’s response–“yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”–became what is believed to be the most repeated editorial of all times. As the editor explained, “he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”
Virginians, not just by that name but residents of the Commonwealth as a whole, became true believers in Santa Claus last week as Governor Ralph Northam presented his proposed budget for the next biennium. Record levels of revenue are available for appropriation as the state has been frugal during the pandemic while receiving record amounts of revenue from the federal government as well as a recovering economy. The Governor’s proposed budget is his last as he leaves office in January, and it will be up to the new governor and the General Assembly to decide what really happens to the additional monies. Certainly a wide range of requests that have lingered for years will be considered for funding.
Virginia is a triple A rated state financially, the best rating a state can receive, and is a repeat winner of the designation as the best state in which to do business. Of the $7.7 billion in new monies, Governor Northam has proposed that the biggest chunk amounting to $1.7 billion go to the “rainy day” reserves to help in future years if funding is short. Another billion dollars would go to the retirement system to reduce unfunded liabilities. Some of the new money would go into one-time capital projects rather than recurring cost projects including money for much-needed repairs to school buildings in some localities.
State employees and teachers whose salaries have lagged the private sector will receive a boost with teachers’ salaries projected to finally meet the national average. Much needed funds for mental health and public safety are also included.
The proposed budget includes $2.1 billion in tax policy adjustments that will be welcomed news to many taxpayers. The budget includes the elimination of the state’s 1.5% share of the sales tax on groceries that will be most helpful to low-income persons. In addition the budget includes one-time economic growth tax rebates of $250 for individuals and $500 for married couples. For the first time the Governor includes a proposal that I have introduced many times that would fund up to 15% of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for eligible families. Accelerated payment of the sales tax by merchants would also be eliminated.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) would receive $297 million more for capital improvements, student support, and other needs if the budget is approved as proposed.
The proposed budget goes to the General Assembly where it must be approved by both houses. The new governor is certain to have some ideas as to how he would like to see the budget modified. Hopefully, however, there will not be too many grinches who will seek to spoil this wonderful holiday gift Governor Northam delivered.
Fewer Virginians can afford to buy a home, and there is a shortage of at least 200,000 affordable rental units according to the results of a study by the staff of the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) released earlier this week. Much of the material in this column is taken directly from the report which is available to the public at jlarc.virginia.gov. The study was undertaken at the direction of the legislative members of JLARC including myself as chairman and Senator Janet Howell as vice chairman to give basic information to the General Assembly for its legislative action as needed.
As expected, Virginians most affected by the lack of affordable housing are renters who have low income. Households are considered housing-cost burdened when they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses. Approximately 29 percent of Virginia households (905,000) were housing-cost burdened in 2019, and nearly half of these households spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing putting Virginia near the middle of states in terms of the percentage of households that are cost burdened.
Not surprisingly, the study found that households that rent their homes are more likely to be cost burdened than households that own their homes. Approximately 44 percent of renting households are cost burdened compared with 21 percent of owning households. The majority (67 percent) of cost burdened households live in the state’s so called “Golden Crescent” of Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and Central Virginia.
There is a relationship between housing-cost burdened individuals and their occupations, many of which are in high demand. Examples include home health aides ($22,000 salary), teaching assistants ($29,000 salary), and social workers ($51,000 salary) who are needed in all parts of the state, and a lack of affordable housing in some regions constrains the supply.
The JLARC report states that the median home sales price in Virginia has risen 28 percent over the past four years to $270,000 in 2021. The percentage of all Virginia homes that sold for $200,000 or less decreased by 40 percent since 2019. In addition to the rising cost of homes are the upfront costs required to purchase a home. Renting a home is an obvious alternative to home purchasing, but the shortage of 200,000 affordable rental units adds to the problem. The shortage of affordable rental units in Fairfax County alone is estimated to be 80,000.
Possible solutions to the not-so-affordable housing in Virginia suggested by JLARC for state legislative action include a greater contribution to the state’s funding for affordable housing of both new affordable multi-family housing and rental housing. The state needs to provide better assistance with upfront mortgage costs. Local zoning affects the affordable housing supply and needs to be examined and revised. Virginia needs to give additional localities the authority to require developers to set aside a portion of units to rent or sell below market price.
There is no place like home for the holidays–or for any time of the year. There is a responsibility that government respond to the need for affordable housing.
Last week I attended the Virginia Education Summit 2021 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. I could hardly recognize the location where I attended undergraduate school in the early 1960s when it was the Norfolk College of William and Mary. Unfortunately, I could recognize many of the topics on the agenda for they were the same topics discussed during my 30-year career in public education that ended with my retirement from Fairfax County Public Schools in 1996.
The Summit was designed to educate legislators on current education issues, but it was not organized by the Virginia education establishment. It was organized by the Hunt Institute, a non-profit institute named for former four-term North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt who has been described as America’s first education governor. Governor Hunt was known for saying, “Education can’t be just another thing we do. It’s the most important thing we do!”
The Summit was held at a critical time in the Commonwealth’s history. The last two years have seen amazing advances in early childhood education that a whole body of research has shown to be critical to an individual’s future success in schooling and in life. Presently fewer than half of Virginia’s three and four year olds attend preschool. Under legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor the multiple programs related to preschool education have been brought together creating a unified public-private early childhood system that needs continuing financing and monitoring in order to ensure that all children have access to programs and services.
Not surprisingly a major theme permeating the Summit was the impact of COVID on our schools. The increased stress of teaching in an often changing environment that included virtual learning has resulted in many retirements and in increased difficulty recruiting teachers to teacher-training programs and to employment as teachers. There are about 106,000 teachers in Virginia whose average pay is 34th lowest in the country. There is a serious need to recruit more men and more persons of color into teaching positions.
Every school system faces the challenge of dealing with learning losses among children as a result of interruptions in their schooling from the pandemic. I was so impressed with the teachers and school administrators at the Summit and their stories of heroic efforts to continue to deliver schooling to their students during a time of unprecedented challenges. They deserve our commendation and support as we move forward with schooling that has been changed in many ways during the pandemic. Some of those changes are worthy of continuation.
Virginia has made progress in the last several years in reducing excessive testing that limits time for instruction and provides little useful information. We can measure how our schools are doing without the large number of high stakes tests that have been given in the past. A study of our educational system for children with special needs has been shown to have major deficiencies that are now being addressed.
We are about to move to a new administration of state government. The rhetoric I hear about cutting taxes indicates that a sizable chunk would come from education and that charter schools would divert public monies to private schools. These issues cause me a great deal of concern as does the call to strip libraries of books. The new administration and legislators need to heed Governor Hunt’s admonition that education is the most important thing we do!
A combination of an economy producing much more strongly than expected during the pandemic and a frugal state budget in anticipation of a revenue shortfall combined with several federal programs sending enormous amounts of cash to the states has resulted in Virginia having a strong cash position–possibly the greatest ever. Some choose to call the available cash a surplus, but I think a much more accurate term to describe it is an unappropriated balance. The amount involved is more than four billion dollars!
Using the term surplus implies to me that the needs of the state have been met and that there is money left over. As I indicated above, the existing state budget was put together with a very conservative estimate of tax revenue based on a contraction in the economy. Programs were minimally funded or needs were not addressed in order to ensure that the budget would be balanced at the end of the year as constitutionally mandated. Likewise, the availability of cash flowing from the federal government has been much greater than ever before with an expectation that even more dollars will be coming to the states.
With the numerous challenges facing government in general it is reassuring that the availability of funding will not be as great an issue as it has been in recent years. The list of unmet needs for those who view government’s role broadly can be reduced by the available cash. For others, the availability of cash in government coffers raises the prospect of tax cuts. The incoming governor has indicated that he favors tax cuts. Virginia’s tax rates are among the lowest in the country and should a policy of tax reductions be pursued it should be targeted to those with the lowest income.
Certainly tax revenues should never be allowed to exceed the wants and needs of citizens for government services. When there are dollars available the question becomes one of giving monies back to citizens in the form of tax reductions or rebates or using it to provide needed services. Cutting taxes is an approach that is appealing to most politicians and is one that I think should be pursued when it can be done responsibly. In Virginia at this time I believe there are too many unmet needs to be doing anything in the budget other than providing funding for programs and services that have been needed but unfunded for years.
There is a waiting list estimated at over 12,000 individuals who qualify for assistance because of a developmental disability, but that list is reduced by only a few thousand persons per year with the need growing faster than programs or services to meet them. There is a wide disparity of funding across jurisdictional lines for public education even though there is a composite index that is supposed to smooth out the differences. The lack of equity in funding among counties and cities is unjustifiable as are the differences across colleges and universities. In coming columns, I will be discussing other unmet needs. It is not possible to have a budget surplus when there is so much left to be done!
When the final recount of votes in the two districts that were within a percentage point difference between the candidates are finally certified, it appears that in the House of Delegates the Republicans will have a 53 to 47 majority. Such a shift in partisan control is often referred to as “flipping the House” or “turning the House from blue to red.” Democrats who took control of the House in 2019 were not able to withstand the shifting winds as the string of Democratic governors was broken when former Governor Terry McAuliffe who had been out of office for a term as required by the State Constitution was not able to win a second term. Some have observed that the Virginia governorship election that is held the year after the presidential election is most often won by the candidate of the party opposite that of the president. The Youngkin win to be governor after the Biden win followed that pattern.
With the change in partisan control of the House of Delegates, members will find themselves having different roles. The Democratic Speaker of the House and the first woman and first Jewish person to be speaker will lose her position to a new speaker elected by the majority Republican caucus. At the time of writing this column the rumor is that Delegate Todd Gilbert who represents a part of the Shenandoah Valley will be the new speaker. The Speaker of the House has total control over appointing members to committees. Too often including in the recent past the practice has been to take members of the minority party off the key committees on which they may have had the most influence. The shuffling of members on committees has been a way for the majority to solidify its power.
The way in which the transition of power has been handled in the past by both parties has led to many inefficiencies in the legislative process. Rather than a continuous process responding to the needs of the Commonwealth there have been many fits and starts that delay needed legislative action.
Of course, the winning party always wants to assert its power. I understand that to the victors go the spoils. But much of what the legislature does should not be partisan. Virginians showed again in this election cycle that they are not clearly blue or red. No Democrat celebrated more than I did the transformative actions taken by the legislature over the past two years. Hopefully the new governor and the new House leadership will not throw out all that work and start over. We can build on those things for which there are areas of agreement.
I will be pleading with the new administration that we view the next several months as time to look at reforms in the process on which we can agree. We need not spend time on seeking revenge on those who have been in office in the past. The winners in such an approach will be the people of Virginia and not a single political party.
Democrats continued to hold onto their trifecta of power in local races for the Virginia House of Delegates.
With 12 of 17 reporting, Democrat Ken Plum retained a stronghold over challenger Matt Lang, a Republican veteran, retaining nearly 72 percent of the vote for the 36th District. Lang secured a little over a quarter of the total vote.
Plum has served as House Delegate for the 36th District since 1982. He turns 80 the day after the election.
Democratic candidate Irene Shin — who knocked off incumbent Ibraheem Samirah in the June Democratic primary — also had a dominant lead over her Republican opponent, Julie Perry for the 86th district seat.
Shin clenched 66 percent of the vote while Perry had just 33 percent of the vote as of around 9 p.m. today. Just two of the county’s 13 precincts remain open.
Perry is a public school history teacher while Shin is the executive director of a nonprofit organization on civic engagement. The seat covers Herndon, Oak Hill, and Chantilly and some parts of Loudoun County.
Plum handily defeated a primary challenge with more than 77 percent of the vote in June.
After an otherwise uneventful day, the county’s Office of Elections had to rescan 20,000 in-person early voting ballots. Spokesperson Brian Worthy said there was “corrupted electric media” where votes were recorded in the machine used at early voting sites. The issue affected four of 38 machines.
Roughly 66 percent of Fairfax County voters voted for Democrat Terry McAuliffe — cementing its historically blue history. But Republican Glenn Youngkin appears to be inching ahead, with around 55 percent of the vote across the state.
The county’s elections office reported a turnout of 49 percent overall. But that number is expected to rise, as it did not account for three hours of voting.
All 100 House of Delegates seats were on today’s ballots. Currently, Democrats have a majority with 55 members to 45 Republicans.
This story was updated at 10 p.m. Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.