One of the meaningful traditions that has evolved in the Virginia House of Delegates over the last couple of decades has been the celebration of Black History Month by having a speech each day on the House floor about famous Black persons and their struggles and accomplishments in the Commonwealth. According to History magazine, Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Also known as African American History Month, the event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976 the month of February has been designated as Black History Month and is celebrated around the world, including in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Virginia has a unique role in Black history. The first enslaved Blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619, and the labors of these persons were central to the growth of the Virginia colony and then state. It was Black laborers who built the grand plantations’ homes and the institutions of higher education while themselves living in meager housing and refused entrance into public schools and colleges. It was Black slave labor that built the early Virginia tobacco economy while being denied all but the most limited income. Black persons supported the lifestyle of the most prominent Virginia families with no public recognition of their accomplishments. As significant as were Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, they did not apply to the slaves in his household nor to the Constitution that counted them as 3/5ths of a person.
The Emancipation Proclamation, the outcome of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment did not result in equality under the law for Black citizens. Under federal Reconstruction government about one hundred Black citizens were elected to public office between 1869 and 1890 including a Black congressman, but a swift reaction by conservative whites led to Jim Crow laws and voting laws that quickly curtailed the power of Black voters. The 1902 Virginia Constitution that included a literacy test and poll tax for voting limited the number of Black voters to such a degree that they did not regain their numbers at the turn of the century until the 1990s.
The recent history of voting in Virginia offers reasons to celebrate. There are more Black members of the Virginia General Assembly today than at any time since Reconstruction. There are two Black congressmen from Virginia. The Lieutenant Governor, the President of the Virginia Senate, and the majority leader of the House of Delegates are Black. The General Assembly has made historic strides in repealing Jim Crow laws, expanding voter participation and reforming criminal justice laws and practices that discriminated against persons of color. Virginia was the first state to have a Black governor, and for the nominations to run this fall there are at least two Black women and one Black man running for governor, two or more Black men running for lieutenant governor and at least one Black man running for the attorney general nomination. There are ample reasons to be celebrating Black history in Virginia this month and throughout the year.
I have never known a politician who has not promised better schools, quality of life and safety. Although these standards are defined differently by the persuasion of the persons making them, the promises share one thing in common: to be realized fully will cost money. The true measure of an officeholder comes not in the promises made but whether that person is willing to put their money where their mouth is. I could not be prouder as a member of the House of Delegates and the Appropriations Committee of the budget passed in the House of Delegates last week. The Senate passed a very similar budget with the differences between the two to be resolved in a conference committee over the next couple of weeks.
While debate over the budget is most often about spending, discussions need also to take into account revenues and investments. There had been dire predictions about state revenues heading into the pandemic, but the loss in revenue has not been nearly as great as feared. In addition, federal monies coming to the state for education and for COVID relief helped make up for lost revenue. The Governor’s proposed budget already had more than a billion dollars in reserve, and the House added $150 million to that amount to soften the impact of a decline of revenue next year without the same level of federal relief.
Both the House and the Senate funded the biggest investment in preschool education ever made. I term it an investment for much research shows that investing in early childhood education pays off many fold in later learning success, civic engagement, and quality of life. The House budget includes the state share of a five percent pay increase for teachers whose average pay has continued to lag behind the national average and who have had to do double duty this year with virtual learning. Funding is provided for another step to a 1:325 school counselor-to-student ratio moving towards the ideal of 1:250. Federal relief of $1.3 billion is provided for schools along with $51.1 million to address COVID-19 learning loss. An amount of $84 million is provided in the budget to maintain affordable access to Virginia colleges and universities and $8.5 million to increase Tuition Assistance Grant awards and include online education.
COVID-19 concerns drove many budget decisions. In addition to getting the schools open when safe and to make up for lost learning, the budget provides paid sick leave for essential workers, increased funding for nursing homes, and worker compensation for health care workers and first responders.
The budget makes investments in the future of the economy and our environment. Funding is provided to expand broadband access throughout the state. A one-time five million dollar capitalization fund is established for rebates on the purchase of electric vehicles for persons whose income qualifies them. The largest ever amount is provided for agricultural best-management practices to meet Chesapeake Bay clean-up benchmarks.
The best compliment that I and my colleagues could receive is that we put the public’s money where we have been told that it should be!
In 1998 I chaired a task force of business and community leaders to collectively document what Northern Virginia needed to do to be an “EV Ready Community.” Our work was part of a national effort involving ten communities under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas to prepare for the introduction of electric vehicles. Our inch-thick report was very comprehensive in detailing the infrastructure needed in charging stations, building and roadways, and other changes that electric vehicles would require.
We were ahead of our time. Within about a year of our report the first commercial electric car, EV1, was no longer available and other manufacturers were not offering electric vehicles. Move ahead less than two decades and electric vehicles are becoming commonplace in many areas. I even own one, and on trips in my community I always see more than one.
What happened in the meantime is a greater awareness of our transportation system’s contribution to greenhouse gases and pollution. In the United States alone in 2017, the transportation sector accounted for 29% of the nation’s total emissions of 6.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e (the CO2 equivalent of an individual greenhouse gas). Driven largely by the transportation sector’s emissions of fossil fuels, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen steadily since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Interestingly, when there is a recession there is a corresponding dip in emissions.
In addition to the increased awareness of the adverse effects of our conventional transportation on the environment, there has been an increase in the number of entrepreneurs who are willing to make major investments in developing electric cars and other vehicles and increased competition from abroad. A Super Bowl commercial sponsored by General Motors lamented the fact that in Norway 54 percent of the new cars sold are EVs. The president of General Motors announced recently that the company would phase out gasoline vehicles and sell only electric passenger cars and trucks by 2035. Press accounts are that Ford Motor Company is making major investments in electric vehicles and VW that is about to move its US headquarters to Reston will be investing $37 billion in electric vehicles.
In the General Assembly I am a co-patron along with the patron Delegate Lamont Bagby of HB1965 that directs the State Air Pollution Control Board to implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later. The legislation will help resolve the problem of consumers in Virginia who want to buy an electric vehicle but must go out of the state to do so. Along with a rebate program the vehicles will become more affordable for persons of limited income. There have been major investments in charging stations throughout the state enabling travel without the fear of running out of juice. You may have noticed the Wawa in Vienna that sells electric charging only but no gas.
I need to review more carefully that report of two decades ago to make sure we are ready for EVs. Ready or not, here they come!
Updated at 7 p.m. with comment from Harmony
Several local assisted living and senior centers are advertising vaccinations if seniors make reservations for residencies, a marketing tactic that is raising concern among county and elected officials.
Reston Now has found at least three businesses have advertised either through social media or on their website that if an individual pays to become a resident of the assisted living or senior center by a certain date, they’d receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
This comes as regional localities continue to have immense challenges with distributing COVID-19 vaccines to all who are eligible. In Fairfax County, everyone 65 or older is currently eligible to sign up for the vaccine. The vaccine is also free to all.
Notably, up until late last week, Tall Oaks Assisted Living in Reston ran a Facebook aid promoting a “vaccination staycation,” as reported by the Washington Post.
The local assisted living facility was advertising a $5,000 all-inclusive month-long stay in a studio apartment where residents would also receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It was accompanied by a 30-second video and a photo of a senior receiving a shot in the arm.
That post was taken down on Friday, according to the Post.
However, Tall Oaks Assisted Living isn’t the only local business that has advertised this type of message.
On Jan.13, Harmony in Chantilly promoted on their Facebook page “priority vaccine access” to those who become residents prior to Feb. 9.
Sunrise Senior Living at Reston Town Center also posted on their website’s landing page that “vaccine clinics are now available” and new “eligible” residents can learn more by calling the facility. Towards the bottom of the page, however, it explains that “no respite or short-term stays” are eligible to get the vaccine.
Fairfax County officials are worried about what these messages are promoting.
“The main concern is the promotion could be interpreted as needing to pay money to get the vaccine, which is not the case,” Jeremy Lasich, Fairfax County Health Department spokesperson, writes to Reston Now in an email.
Lasich notes that long-term care facilities, like those mentioned, are receiving their vaccine allotment directly from the federal government and not the county. He says Fairfax County has allocated roughly half of the weekly doses to people 65 and over, per Virginia guidelines.
While Lasich does understand the frustration since it could be weeks or even months to get a vaccine appointment, he emphasizes that those 75 and over were able to sign up a week earlier than those over 65. Meaning, those residents’ appointments should come sooner.
The advertisements do “raise some concerns as both a promotional strategy and from a safety perspective,” Lasich writes.
Ken Plum is the Virginia House Delegate for the 36th District. Both Tall Oaks and Sunrise at Reston Town Center lie in his district. He also shares considerable concern about these promotions.
“It sends the message that you can get in front of the line for the vaccine by paying for an expensive [residency] package,” Plum tells Reston Now.
There’s already a high level of anxiety and frustration with how the vaccine is being distributed, he says, and this type of advertisements are playing off of those fears, particularly aimed at seniors and their loved ones.
“It’s misleading and inappropriate,” says Plum.
Reston Now has reached out to the three assisted living and senior centers noted asking about the decision-making process behind the promotions and advertisements.
Tall Oaks Assisted Living responded to a request for comment from Reston Now.
Executive Director George Winters admitted that promoting in such a way could be seen as “insensitive.”
“At Tall Oaks, we believe in the many positive benefits of short-term respite care for both seniors and their families. Moreover, we are delighted to be able to do our part to help seniors within our communities get vaccinated and to protect their health as well as that of their families via our vaccination clinic,” Winters writes to Reston Now. “At the same time, we recognize that demand for the vaccine is considerable and that marketing our respite-care program as we did may have been seen as insensitive to the individuals awaiting their vaccines. We are grateful to our residents, our staff, and our neighbors for their understanding.”
It remains unclear how effective the promotions and advertising were in bringing in new residents.
Winters told the Washington Post that only one person responded to the ad prior to it being taken down on Feb. 5. That person had previously taken her mother out of the Reston facility last year due to fears about the pandemic.
Reston Now has followed up with Winters if it remains the case that only one person has responded to the ad, but has not received a response.
Harmony in Chantilly, in an email response to Reston Now, said that their residents were first vaccinated in late Jan. and were among the first to receive vaccinations in Virginia.
This statement is disputed since more than 10,000 Fairfax County residents received the vaccine weeks earlier. The assisted living center says they have follow-up vaccine clinics set-up for residents later this month and in March.
They declined to comment specifically on county officials’ concern over the appropriateness or potential misleading nature of the Facebook post
Under current Virginia law, anyone who is convicted of a second misdemeanor larceny conviction is subjected to a mandatory jail sentence of at least 30 days (but not more than 12 months). A third misdemeanor larceny conviction is a Class 6 felony, punishable with at least a year in jail.
Misdemeanor, or petit larceny, is defined as theft of items under $1,000. The law was first passed more than 50 years ago. The bill passed the Virginia House of Delegates by a 52 to 45 vote with three delegates not voting.
If approved, Plum’s bill would change the mandatory jail sentences. Plum is a Democrat and a long-time delegate for a district that covers a large portion of Reston. He has a weekly opinion column on Reston Now where he discussed this very topic.
The bill would not repeal all punishments for petit larceny, simply not make a jail sentence mandatory on second and subsequent convictions.
Plum says he believes the current law works against people of color.
“What we’ve come to recognize is that laws are not just in Virginia. They’re not always appropriate to the severity of a crime versus punishment,” he says. “It works to the disadvantage of those people of color… or those disadvantaged by income or social status.”
He cites statistics and explanations from Justice Forward Virginia, a political action committee advocating for criminal justice reform in Virginia, to justify why he’s introduced this bill.
“Incarcerating someone for 5 years for stealing something worth less than $,1000 is facially unreasonable,” reads their website. “Whatever value we may place on the security of someone’s property, imprisoning someone for five years for shoplifting doesn’t make sense.”
Justice Forward Virginia also notes that this law disproportionately impacts those most vulnerable. This could mean those who suffer from mental illness, substance use disorders, or are homeless.
Plum agrees with this assessment.
“There are a lot of people who steal things because they don’t have enough to eat. They don’t have the kind of family support that they need and their last is related to survival,” he says.
He says severe penalties like those in current Virginia law are simply piling on folks that can least afford it.
The repealing of the law could also save the Commonwealth money.
According to HB 2290’s fiscal impact statement, approximately 1,000 cases were impacted by this law in the fiscal years of 2019 and 2020. Of those, 792 were sentenced to a jail term.
Prisoners cost money but Plum says that was not a major factor in the bill’s consideration.
“We save a few bucks, but mainly what we do is we save lives of people who get caught up in the criminal justice system,” he says.
One of those voting against the bill is Delegate Mark Cole of the 88th District, which covers parts of Fauquier, Spotsylvania, and Strafford Counties.
In an email to Reston Now, Cole said he voted against the bill because it lessens the punishment for repeat offenders.
“If you are going to give someone a break, it should be a first offender that may be unlikely to re-offend, not a repeat offender,” he wrote.
The bill has been referred to the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee.
Photo via David Clarke/Unsplash
Under current Virginia law a person who steals something of value less than $1,000 can be punished by up to 12 months in jail with fines up to $2,500 along with any restitution that might be owed. As tough as that sentence may seem, if that same person commits another misdemeanor larceny of whatever amount less than a thousand dollars within any time frame in the future, that person under current law can be jailed for between 30 days and 12 months. A third or any subsequent offense at any time in the future results in a Class 6 felony with up to five years in prison.
Persons who practice law defending individuals facing such charges tell me that the accused are most likely to be poor, and the vast majority are homeless and/or mentally ill. Upping the penalties on such persons is neither just for the vulnerable persons involved nor does it make society any safer. With thanks to Justice Forward of Virginia (justiceforwardva.com) for bringing my attention to this injustice, I introduced HB2290 that is now making its way through the House to repeal the enhanced penalties.
This bill is but one example of laws that have been on the books for years but upon examination are clearly not just laws; they do not agree with what is considered morally right or good. For most of the years I have served in the House of Delegates, I was the lone vote against a series of bills that added to the list of capital crimes. Along the way conservative Republican Frank Hargrove of Hanover County joined me in my opposition to the death penalty. In more recent years, opposition to the death penalty has grown to the point where it appears likely that the death penalty will be abolished this year by a bill of which I am a co-patron.
Abolishing the death penalty would help put just into the justice system in the Commonwealth. Between 1901 and 1981, 258 Black people were executed in Virginia at a rate nearly six times the rate of white people. Not a single white person was executed for any crime other than murder while Black persons were executed for crimes that included armed robbery and attempted sexual assault. During its history stretching back to 1608, Virginia put to death 1,300 people including the most women and young children of any state in the Union.
This legislative session may be the most historic yet in reforming the criminal justice system. Bills pending before the current session include repealing mandatory minimum sentencing, ending felony possession for drugs, reforming the broken probation system, instituting automatic expungement of criminal records, establishing pay parity for public defenders, and ending presumption against bail.
Virginians will be no less safe in their person or in their possessions when the laws become more just, fair and equally applied regardless of one’s race. Laws that are just are more likely to be respected and certainly easier to defend.
On the east side of Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion in Richmond is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial featuring 16-year-old Barbara Johns who led the student walkout that resulted in a civil rights case before the Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education that found racially-segregated schools to be unconstitutional. With her on the memorial are statues of attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson who argued the case and representations of persons who faced repression throughout Virginia’s racist history.
On the west end of Capitol Square, near where the new General Assembly office building is being constructed, is a lone statue of Harry F. Byrd: Senator, VA (1933-1965), Governor of Virginia (1926-1930), and Virginia State Senator (1924-1926).
Barbara Johns is about to receive an additional recognition as a civil rights pioneer. A sculpture of her will join a copy of the Houdon sculpture of George Washington in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol representing Virginia and replacing the one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that has already been removed.
A resolution making its way through the current session of the General Assembly directs that the Harry Byrd statue be removed. Byrd held political office for many years and dominated Virginia politics for nearly four decades as head of what was called the Byrd Organization that in any other state would be called the Byrd machine. He stayed in power through racist voter suppression laws that were some of the most effective in keeping Black voters from the polls and kept Virginia with the lowest voter participation among the states. He was known for his fiscal conservatism as governor and senator, and Virginia remained near the bottom of the states in funding for public schools and health and social services programs while he and his machine controlled state government. While states moved towards racial desegregation of their schools, a Byrd-devised “massive resistance” ploy delayed school desegregation in Virginia by more than a decade amid about forty or more lawsuits. In the process, some public schools were closed, and some children stayed home for as many as five years because of Byrd’s resistance.
As a teenager, I worked “up on the mountain” from my home in Page County at Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive. As a room clerk I was told not to rent the best room we had until after 6 pm in case Senator Byrd wanted to come for the night. He was extended this courtesy for the pivotal role he played in establishing the Shenandoah National Park. His biographer Professor Ronald L. Heinemann in Harry Byrd of Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1996) pointed out that while as governor he modernized state government for the time, his conservative economic and social policies held the state back. He was a product of the Jim Crow era, and he could never get beyond it.
Barbara Johns as a young woman took a big risk standing up for what she knew was right. She played a pivotal role in Virginia moving from a civil rights back-water to the progressive state it is now becoming. She reflects the image I want our state to have!
Photo via Ken Plum
Like most people, I will not be attending any inaugural events this year because of the pandemic restrictions and threats of civil disturbances. The event today does bring back wonderful memories of the first and only inauguration I ever attended. It was on January 20, 1961. In 1960 I had graduated from high school and had not gone to college because of doubts as to whether I could be successful. Instead, I was attending a short-term vocational program in Washington, DC and living in a single room in a boarding house just a half dozen blocks from the White House. Even then I had an intense interest in politics and followed the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns and debates intensely. I loved candidate and then President-elect John F. Kennedy as did millions of others. I was not about to miss the opportunity to go to his inauguration when I was living so close by.
On the day before the inauguration, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees and eight inches of snow fell. I got up early Inauguration Day and literally put on all the clothing I owned and started a trek to the US Capitol on foot. Workers directed by the Army Corp of Engineers had been working throughout the night to haul away as much of the snow as possible from Capitol grounds and Pennsylvania Avenue. The military had brought in flame throwers to melt some of the snow and ice. More than a thousand cars that had been stranded in the area had to be removed
At the Capitol I was able to position myself on the edge of a wall that allowed me to see the inauguration over those who had tickets and were seated at the Capitol. My plan to film the event with my brother’s 8 mm camera did not happen because the cold kept the camera from running a few minutes after I brought it out from under my coat. Certainly there was security, but nothing like we are seeing leading up to this inauguration. I felt free to move about except for the area that had been blocked off for special invited guests.
The speech given by our new president still brings tears to my eyes. His words, “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country,” inspired me to public service.
We have been through four years that have been tragic for our democracy. I believe we are all better informed about threats to our system of government. The Biden-Harris team is well suited to restore hope and confidence in our government. Honesty and decency will become a new norm for the executive branch. Attention to the COVID-19 crisis will be focused, coordinated and intense. Respect for others will dominate our society except for a small minority that will slink away into the background. Equity will be the new standard by which we measure our economy. All this can happen if we truly believe it and dedicate ourselves to making it happen. We can have another inauguration to remember!
Photo via Ken Plum
Last Thursday’s one-word headline in the Richmond Times Dispatch was in such a large font that it extended across the entire width of the newspaper: INSURRECTION. The generally conservative newspaper that was in its history the mouthpiece of massive resistance against school desegregation could have termed the events at the United States Capitol the previous day a riot, a disturbance, or a protest. That they and many others chose insurrection as the best description of what happened is an indication of the seriousness of it.
No one expressed the situation better than Senator Mitt Romney in his prepared speech delivered at the Capitol as soon as the insurrectionists had been forced out: “We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.”
An insurrection is defined legally as the act or an instance of revolting especially violently against civil or political authority or against an established government. Under federal law, whoever incites, assists, or engages in any insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined and/or imprisoned; and shall be incapable of holding any office in the future.
The rights to assemble and to petition the government are protected in the Constitution. America is known for its open protests to bring injustices to the attention of government officials and the public. Some would say that such actions are as American as apple pie. What happened last week is different. Incited and directed by the President of the United States, his lawyer and a retired general who was recently pardoned by the President, thousands of persons marched from near the White House to the United States Capitol where for the first time since the British occupied the Capitol in 1814 took over the building for a short time.
It is essential that the Congress and the justice system take appropriate action against those who incited, led and participated in the insurrection. Defense of our democracy demands it. Likewise, we need to understand why the Capitol was left so defenseless when it was well known that a major bullying of the Congress was going to take place that day as the President had been talking about for weeks.
The Guardian offered a perspective: “A group of white supremacists from throughout the country who had been radicalized by the rants and misinformation from the President occupied a space that has been the citadel of democracy.” About the ease with which the insurrectionists took over the Capitol it observed, “The contrast with the mass deployments of over 5,000 troops for the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer could not have been more glaring. Then, Washington resembled a city under occupation.”
Through what has been one of the most disturbing days of our history I remain hopeful that we will be able to undo the many wrongs of the last four years and the racism of hundreds of years. I pledge myself to working as hard as I can to make it happen!
Photo via Ken Plum
I can remember every word of the conversation as if it took place yesterday, but it happened in 1959. I am reminded of the talk as the person speaking to me, Mrs. Lena Kite, passed away last week at age 94. She was the first person to hold the position of guidance counselor at then Shenandoah High School. She called me into her office one day just as I was entering my senior year of high school. She said, “Kenneth (no one called me Ken in those days), it is time for you to think about applying to go to college.” I was dumbfounded! I hardly knew how to respond. I finally uttered, “I cannot go to college; no one in my family has ever gone to college.” She assured me that yes I could go to college.
Mrs. Kite changed the entire trajectory of my life that day. I was about to graduate from high school which was the expectation for me. My parents who taught me so much of the basics of life of honesty, decency, and hard work had themselves finished but a couple of years of schooling. They had not talked to me about college for it was beyond their knowledge and beyond what they thought could be their children’s aspirations. But Mrs. Kite in her new role as guidance counselor knew better and got me to thinking differently about my future. I owe her a great debt of gratitude and told her that the couple of times I saw her over the last decade when we talked about the two degrees I have. Her obituary said that in her role first as a teacher of typing and shorthand and later as guidance counselor she touched the lives of more than 6,000 children. I am sure she had as equally a positive impact on them as well.
In my first years in the General Assembly there was a debate over several sessions about adding guidance counselors in the elementary schools. My experiences personally and as an educator convinced me of the importance of early intervention with children who have needs beyond what classroom teachers have the time or expertise with which to respond. Evaluations of school programs have clearly shown the importance of and value of support personnel in schools to include counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Children in our schools represent the broad cross section of communities. Some have limited exposure to education as I had; others have had traumatic experiences that must be taken into account if their school experience is going to be successful. As we look to end the classroom to prison pipeline as part of criminal justice reform we have come to recognize the importance of early school experiences for students to be successful. Most everyone needs a push or at least a nudge from time to time in order to go in the right direction. I look forward to the continuance of establishing early childhood programs, improved ratios for teachers and counselors, and other improvements to our public schools as the General Assembly convenes next week.
In two weeks the General Assembly will convene for its annual session that will mark 50 years since the people voted to ratify revisions to the Jim-Crow-laden Constitution of 1902. Up until those revisions, the state legislature met only every other year. The revised Constitution provided for annual sessions to be sixty days in the even-numbered years and thirty days in the odd-numbered years with a provision that any session could be extended up to half its length by a two-thirds vote of the members. Full sixty-day sessions have run over a day or so but have not been extended; thirty-day sessions have always been extended to 45 days to get the work done. The minority party leadership in both houses has indicated that they will not vote to extend the session this year. Not only will the session be shorter, but it will also operate under the restrictions of the pandemic. The House will meet virtually by Zoom, and the Senate that has the smaller number of members will meet partly in Richmond and partly by Zoom. Much business is on the agenda, and careful planning is essential to having a successful session.
The agenda will be full. The budget will need to be revised to reflect the changes brought on by the pandemic. Criminal justice reform that got underway this year has remaining work to be done. Climate change continues, and we must do our part to combat it. Help needs to be given to the unemployed and the homeless or those under threat of eviction. The list is long.
Your help with the planning is essential if the General Assembly is going to be responsive to the needs and interests of the people. Several opportunities exist for you to participate in that planning.
Senator Janet Howell and I will be holding our annual pre-session town hall meeting virtually this coming Tuesday, January 5, 7 to 8:30 p.m.. To take part, register at Virtual Town Hall. After you register you will receive a link by which to join the virtual town hall meeting. You may join to simply listen, but we encourage you tell us your priorities and recommendations. Remember we will have a time crunch during the session that means we will be dealing only with priority items.
Senator Howell and I will also be participating with the Northern Virginia members of the General Assembly in a virtual public hearing on Saturday, January 9 from 9 a.m. to noon. Look for a registration link to be publicized soon so you can participate in the hearing.
I also encourage you to participate in my online voter survey that is accessible on my website, www.kenplum.com. While some complex issues have been simplified to the survey form, I encourage you to fill in the details of your recommendations in the comment section of the survey or in an email to [email protected] While time does not permit me to respond personally to every survey submitted, I do consider your ideas and recommendations.
We will get the New Year underway with challenges and hope. By planning together we can be successful. Happy New Year and thank you for your help!
In accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a “new deal” for the “forgotten man.” In the midst of the Great Depression the country responded to Roosevelt’s promise by electing him president four times. The ensuing legislation in the first hundred days of his administration and throughout the subsequent years as president produced a new deal that transformed the government from a laissez-faire approach to a broader role of government in the economy.
Dozens of bills over as many years set up new agencies of government including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put people to work on public projects, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) that provided cash subsidies to farmers while controlling the production of staple crops, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that provided cheap electricity and flood control over seven states. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) acts moved the federal government actively into monetary policy. There are many more.
Increasing concerns in recent years over climate change and economic inequality have led to a call for a “green new deal.” While there have been many statements at the national and state levels as to what constitutes a green new deal, the most comprehensive definition is a resolution introduced in Congress in 2019 that calls for transitioning the United States to use 100 percent renewable, zero-emission energy sources, including investment into electric cars and high-speed rail systems, and implementing “social cost of carbon” policies as part of addressing climate change. The resolution also addresses universal health care, increased minimum wage, and preventing monopolies as well as the needs of poor and disadvantaged people.
The Green New Deal Virginia is a coalition that includes environmental organizations as well as civil rights and social justice groups and community-based organizations. For the groups that make up the coalition as well as their objectives, go to greennewdealva.com. A recent article on the movement written by some of its leaders explains that “Virginians right now are facing a multitude of crises that Green New Deal Virginia directly addresses, including the economic downturn, racial and social inequities and the public health emergency. The Green New Deal is innovative because it is not trying to address each crisis in isolation, but instead it is building community around a collective response to these problems, and prioritizing community voices. . .”
In many ways the challenges facing our country and our state–climate change, income inequality, hunger, COVID-19 and health care generally, criminal justice reform and others are somewhat different but at the same time of a similar magnitude as those faced by President Franklin Roosevelt when he promised a new deal to the nation. I support a Green New Deal and like the first New Deal it faces many years of legislative action to be accomplished. A single omnibus bill that promises to meet all its objectives in one action will not be successful. A commitment now to recognize the problems we face and taking the multiple steps to deliver a green new deal can be successful even faster than the dozen years it took President Roosevelt to deliver on his promise.
The Constitution requires that after the federal census every ten years there is to be a reapportionment of legislative districts based on population growth and shifts reflecting “one-man, one-vote.” Virginia voters made history this year by approving a constitutional amendment establishing a Redistricting Commission. With Virginia having elections in odd-numbered years including in 2021 elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and members of the House of Delegates, Virginia is on a fast track to get the Commission underway.
In the special session that ended in October, the General Assembly passed enabling legislation to establish the Commission by November 15. Already the eight legislators who will be on the Commission have been named as well as the retired judges who will participate. In all instances of appointing members, consideration shall be given “to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.” The partisan leadership in the House and Senate who made the appointments were prohibited from appointing themselves.
Applications are being accepted through December 28 from citizens who would like to serve on the Commission. Persons who have been involved in partisan political activity or who are relatives of members in office or those involved in partisan political activity are not eligible to serve on the Commission. For details on who is eligible for membership and details on applying, go to redistricting.dls.virginia.gov.
The enabling language for the Commission includes extensive requirements for public participation in the redistricting process. “All meetings and hearings held by the Commission shall be adequately advertised and planned to ensure the public is able to attend and participate fully. Meetings and hearings shall be advertised in multiple languages as practicable and appropriate.” At least three public hearings are to be held. The legislation also requires that “All data used by the Commission in the drawing of districts shall be available to the public on its website. Such data, including census data, precinct maps, election results, and shapefiles, shall be posted within three days of receipt by the Commission.”
The Commission is required to submit to the General Assembly plans for districts for the Senate and the House of Delegates of the General Assembly no later than 45 days following the receipt of census data and for Congressional Districts by 60 days. If the Commission is unable to agree on districts, the responsibility for drawing of district lines goes to the state Supreme Court. The law requires that the Court shall appoint two special masters to assist the Court in the establishment of districts. The two special masters shall work together to develop any plan to be submitted to the Court for its consideration. Special masters have been used by the courts to resolve district conflicts in the past including related to Virginia past redistricting.
The timing on the process is limited between the availability of census data and primary elections that could result in a delay in primary elections and reduced time before the general election. Virginia voters have spoken, and a complex process is underway to ensure that voters pick their representatives rather than legislators picking their voters.
So it is in the Commonwealth of Virginia: the action of governance goes on. Since 1619 there has been a form of representative government in first the colony and now the state. The legislative branch, the General Assembly, has since 1971 been meeting every year; prior to that time the House of Delegates and the Senate met only every other year. The legislative sessions convene as prescribed in the Constitution on the second Wednesday of January for sixty days in the even-numbered years and for thirty days in the odd-numbered years unless at least two-thirds of the members agree to extend the session for not more than thirty days. The sessions have always been extended but by not more than 15 or so days. There is talk by the minority party of not agreeing to any extension of the session scheduled to start on January 13, 2021.
In addition to the regular session, there is a reconvened session beginning on the sixth Wednesday after the adjournment of the regular session to consider any bills returned by the governor with amendments or with a veto. The governor may call a special session “when in his opinion the interest may require” or when two-thirds of the elected members of both houses request it. There is a regular beat to the work of the General Assembly: regular session, reconvened session, special session. For even a part-time legislature, the work goes on!
But there is much more to legislating than the formal and now virtual floor sessions of the House and Senate. Earlier this week there was a deadline to request drafting of legislation to be pre-filed before the session. There is a limitation on how many bills a legislator can introduce especially after the convening of the legislature. For members of the legislative staff who actually draft the bills, this is the intense period between Thanksgiving and the opening of the session when 140 members present their best ideas to be crafted into a form that would be suitable to go into the Code of Virginia. The entire support staff of the legislative branch could not be more helpful and deserve our thanks for helping get us through the stressful period of the session.
Pre-session work also includes meetings with advocacy groups (virtually now), monthly meetings of the Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission and other committees on a less regular basis until the session gets underway, and caucuses with our party colleagues. Constituent inquiries and recommendations are very helpful and take time to read and consider.
Prior to the pandemic there was a need to find housing in the Capital city and to arrange to be away from home for the week. The session beginning in January will be virtual so there is the need to make sure your home office has the broadband that will support daily committee and floor sessions. The work is demanding, but I am honored to be part of it. As the song continues, “drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain.” The work goes on!