Several weeks ago, at the invitation of their leader, I spoke to a group of Boy Scouts about government and the responsibilities of citizenship. Talking with me helped the Scouts meet one of their requirements for a merit badge.
One of the Scouts asked me about the most important legislation I had ever gotten passed. I told him about multiple issues on which I had worked, but I focused on one that I thought he might know little about but would show the range of issues with which legislators deal. I told him about my work to expand infant screening in the Commonwealth.
Prior to my election to office, I served on the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. A member of that Board whose adult son was a resident at the Northern Virginia Training Center told me of the great hope there was in detecting health issues in infants at the time of their birth with blood screening. At the time Virginia had only three tests, one of which was PKU testing. I remembered our conversation after I was elected, and I got new tests added as scientists developed them.
Metabolic disorders that can be discovered from a pinprick of an infant’s heel can generate early and sometimes simple treatments that can lead to a healthy child and adult. Without treatment, numerous medical conditions can develop including severe developmental delays and chronic illnesses. Metabolic disorders affect the chemical processes in your body that must work together correctly for you to stay healthy.
I was honored to work on legislation that added most of the 30 tests that are done in Virginia on that same spot of blood from an infant to detect these disorders. Last week, I was reminded of the experience that I had working with Dr. Barry Wolf of the then-Medical College of Virginia, who had discovered that the disorder in which the body is unable to recycle the vitamin biotin can lead to developmental delays in children, hearing and vision loss, breathing problems, and problems with balance and movement. When discovered early such as through a screening test, the disorder can be treated with nutritional supplements that can result in a normal life for the person.
With Dr. Wolf’s research and my legislative proposal, in 1984 Virginia became the first state in this country to begin infant screening for biotinidase deficiency. Since that time, every state and many foreign countries have started the screening. The March of Dimes recognized us for that accomplishment.
The reminder of this story came from a local doctor in Reston who was a medical student at MCV at the time and knew of Dr. Wolf’s research and my bill. She wrote to us both, telling us of a teenage patient she had just met who at birth had been found to have the deficiency but, with treatment, was living a normal life. She wrote to both of us that “because of researchers like you and advocates like you… our world is made a little better for all, and lives are saved for some precious few. That’s something to be proud of.”
I hope the Boy Scouts understood why I consider the work on infant screening to be among the most important I have done.
Virginia has the distinction of having had the first mental health hospital in the country, although it was called an insane asylum, which more correctly described the work it did.
From colonial days to the present, the role of the state in providing treatment and services for those with mental illness has been widely debated, filled with different theories and approaches, and always critically underfunded. It took a massacre of students at Virginia Tech and a state senator’s son attacking his father with a butcher knife, then shooting himself, to bring a higher level of urgency and seriousness to the discussion. A commission has been meeting the past couple of years and will continue to meet for at least a couple more to develop recommendations on what the state should do.
In the meantime, some hopeful progress is being made. After the Virginia Tech shootings, state appropriations for mental health programs were increased dramatically, only to be reduced again after the onset of the recession. Funding for programs for those with mental illness has been slowly increasing again but still does not come close to the levels requested by professionals in the field. Additional funding was provided in the most recent General Assembly session to allow for transitional housing. Statewide, there has been more clarification of the role of the Community Services Boards for the treatment of mental illness.
The practice of “streeting” persons, by putting them back on the street when there was no treatment option available to them, has largely been stopped. Emergency and temporary custody orders can be issued to ensure that those needing emergency care will receive it. Crisis treatment centers are being opened around the state.
We are blessed in Fairfax County that local government has for decades been offering mental health treatment and services well beyond that provided in most parts of the state. The most recent example is the Diversion First program, which just issued its first annual report. The program came about from the recognition that more than a quarter of the inmates in local jails have mental illness. They came into contact with law enforcement because of a behavior that needed treatment, not incarceration.
Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, the Fairfax County Police Department and the Community Services Board cooperatively put together a program that offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low-level offenses. As stated in their annual report, the goal is to intercede whenever possible to provide assessment, treatment or needed support in an appropriate setting for those who struggle with mental illness, developmental delays or substance abuse, instead of jail being the default solution. In its first year of work, the program diverted 375 persons from jail into treatment programs. Both money and lives are saved with the shift of emphasis.
More about this important new service made possible by Fairfax County government officials working together is available at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/DiversionFirst.
Reston Dad’s Idea Selling Around the World — Swipe and Feed is an attachment parents can put on their smartphone, allowing them to feed their babies at night while still comfortably holding the phone. Its creator, Reston’s Tim Causa, says he is selling to customers in multiple countries. [Northern Virginia Magazine]
Howell, Plum to Meet with Constituents — Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) will host a town-hall meeting tonight from 7:30-9 p.m. at Reston Community Center at Lake Anne (1609 Washington Plaza N.) along with Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax). [Sen. Janet Howell]
Campaign Starts for County Residents to Go Solar — The Solarize Fairfax County campaign begins tomorrow and goes through June 30. Fairfax County citizens are invited to sign up for a free solar assessment and to attend an information session to better understand pricing and financing options, as well as meet contractors. [Fairfax County]
Book-Signing Luncheon Slated — The Reston-Herndon Area Branch of American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Reston/Herndon Section of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) are sponsoring a Mother-Daughter and Friends book-signing luncheon. The guest speaker will be Paula Young Shelton, author and daughter of civil rights activist, congressman and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young. The event takes place Saturday at Mon Ami Gabi (11950 Democracy Drive) in Reston Town Center. For more details, call 703-620-9873. [Reston-Herndon AAUW]
Nearly two hours of the eight-and-a-half-hour reconvened session of the House of Delegates of the General Assembly were taken up last week by speeches from retiring members and acknowledgement speeches by others about their service and achievement.
The length of the tribute time was driven in large part by the fact that eight members, all of whom are Republicans, are retiring. Heading the list is the Speaker of the House, followed by a senior member who chairs the important Courts Committee. For some, like the Speaker, the longevity of service was a key factor. Others cited family and financial concerns. Another one or two may re-appear running for another office. Legislative service that is considered part-time with a low level of remuneration but takes full-time commitment always has some turnover, but the number this year is significant.
Another factor that may have influenced some decisions is the sense of changing political winds in the Commonwealth. Never in my years of service have I gotten as many phone calls, postcards and emails as I have this year. Traditional groups have gotten re-energized, and many new groups have formed. Activism is in the air.
For me, it has been reassuring. As a progressive, I feel less like I am speaking into the wind and more like there is a force of people behind me. For years I worked on the redistricting issue almost alone and now thousands of people are contacting their legislators asking that they support redistricting reform. The public has become keenly aware of the adverse impact that gerrymandering has had on the Legislature.
The signs of change were evident in the reconvened session last week. While the House of Delegates did not respond favorably to my plea that we approve an amendment by the Governor to expand Medicaid, there was discussion by majority party leaders in the House and Senate that a new group is going to be looking at how medical services can be expanded to the poorest in our state. I continue to be amazed at the argument that leaving $40 billion on the table in federal dollars could somehow be considered “fiscally responsible.”
The majority party may have felt somewhat humbled by the fact that the Legislature upheld 40 vetoes of bills by the Governor, extending the record of his administration to 111 with none being over-ridden. Of course, a two-thirds vote is required, but in the House only a couple of deflections by Democrats would have made an over-ride possible. The vetoes by Gov. Terry McAuliffe have kept Virginia out of the news with crazy legislation that has passed in other states.
Certainly there is also an eye to November, with 77 Democrats lining up to challenge 49 Republican incumbents. As that number is reduced by primaries and conventions, it leaves hotly contested races that could dramatically change who is in charge in the House, and/or the attitude of those left in charge. Democrats have challengers to incumbents in the 17 districts held by Republicans that were won by Hillary Clinton. For those who continue to ask what they can do, there is a clear sense emerging that much can be done this year to put Virginia on a more progressive track.
There may be a sense of frustration and concern regarding ongoing construction of Metro’s Silver Line, area elected officials said Thursday, but its great potential must be remembered.
Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins and state delegates Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) and Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax/Loudoun) talked about Metro and the surrounding future development during a legislative panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and hosted by Dominion Virginia Power in Herndon. Plum, the former state chair of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, said it is important to put the status of Metro’s Silver Line in perspective.
“We really ought to stop for a moment and celebrate where we are,” Plum said. “For 25 years of my life I worked on that project, and it was announced to be dead half a dozen times, at least. … Now, by 2020, we’re going to have it all the way out into Loudoun County. And we have an incredible opportunity with that.”
A large amount of development has happened or is in the works in the area of the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, the current western terminus of the Silver Line. Other projects are also springing up near the line’s future stations in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
The Metro Washington Airport Authority’s Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, which is overseeing construction, announced recently that Phase 2 work to extend Metro through Reston into Dulles Airport and onward to Ashburn is more than 56 percent complete. However, deficiencies in Metro’s budget and decreasing ridership have raised a number of questions in recent months about the future viability of the transit system.
Boysko, whose district includes Herndon, praised the state’s creation of the Metrorail Safety Commission to examine how Metro is being organized and managed. She said as Phase 2 of the project continues, it is imperative that safety issues as well as financial and operational performance are properly monitored and addressed.
“People say this is the least functional transit system in the country,” she said. “We have such a great opportunity as we are expanding into Phase 2, [but] it has to be a success. We have really focused our economic development around Phase 2 being successful.”
Hudgins, who is also a member of Metro’s Board of Directors, said this is a conversation she “live[s] every day.” She said Metro is unique in many ways, most notably in its partnership between multiple jurisdictions as well as in its infrastructure itself.
“I think people need to understand, it is a different kind of railroad,” she said. “That system is one of the most difficult systems [to maintain] of all those in the country.”
Plum said Metro needs to be revitalized, and in order for that to happen, it needs to continue to receive the support of the surrounding community.
“Please, don’t wash your hands of Metro,” Plum said. “It’s vital to the economic development of our region and I think we all recognize [that].”
The legislative recap event sponsored by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce is a chance for local businesspeople to keep abreast of important issues in the community, said Mark Ingrao, GRCC president and CEO.
“We’re a catalyst for business growth and entrepreneurship in this area of Fairfax County,” he said. “We think that we have the type of programming our members are looking for to connect them with other businesses [and] to educate them on legislative things like this.”
While a governor is the chief executive of a state responsible for seeing that the laws are carried out, the governor plays a crucial role in the legislative process with the requirement that all passed bills must be signed before they become law or not signed and vetoed to keep such bills from becoming law. There is no better example of the significance of the governor’s power to veto laws than in Virginia.
Next week, on Wednesday, April 5, which is the required sixth Wednesday after the adjournment of the regular session of the General Assembly, the Constitution requires a reconvened or commonly called “veto session” to consider only vetoes or amendments made by the governor to bills that had been passed in both houses of the General Assembly earlier in the regular session. The requirement for the reconvened session was added to the Constitution in 1981 because without it, the governor was able to veto bills after legislators went home without any opportunity for them to override the veto.
With the fast pace of nearly a thousand bills being passed in a session of 45 to 60 days, the reconvened session provides an opportunity for the governor to send down amendments that are found to be needed that might clarify or correct language in bills.
Most importantly, a governor can play a role in the legislative process by vetoing some really bad bills that may have narrowly passed the legislature but are not in the best interest of the state. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has used his veto pen very effectively in vetoing bills that respond to special interests but do not serve the public good of the Commonwealth. By the end of the reconvened session next week he will have set a record of vetoing more than 90 bills without legislators being able to get a two-thirds vote in both houses for the bills to become law without his signature. I am especially pleased that he has never vetoed a bill that I had not already voted against in the regular session.
As in previous years, he has vetoed bills that would legalize discrimination against LGBT citizens. He has regularly vetoed bills similar to HB2 in North Carolina, which has brought such bad publicity to that state for upholding discrimination and that resulted in the state losing businesses and major sports events. Without Gov. McAuliffe’s courageous veto, Virginia would be in the same category of discrimination as North Carolina.
Gov. McAuliffe has once again vetoed a bill that would deny public funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides critically important health services to women over an ideological dispute as to who should make reproductive health decisions for women. He is again vetoing a series of bills that would make guns and switch-blades more accessible to persons in emergency shelters including children. He vetoed a bill that would have expanded eligibility for concealed handgun permits.
What a difference Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made with his veto pen in keeping some really bad bills from becoming law.
Explanation of the recently announced American Health Care Act usually starts with an expressed need to clean up the mess that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — or Obamacare — had made.
Most all agreed that the massive transformation the program of health care had brought about could use some tweaking and refinement, but clearly a seven-year campaign against the Affordable Care Act left a blurred view of what the program did for consumers. If the ACA had created a mess, the recently proposed replacement of it will certainly create an even messier and unfair situation.
Virginians in particular will suffer a double hit on health care, especially for those most in need. The General Assembly would not approve an expansion of Medicaid that would have brought health care to as many as 400,000 uninsured most in need in the Commonwealth and would have expanded the health care network with the $4 billion that would have flowed into the state. While the new program would eliminate Medicaid expansion in 2020, persons would have been able to get health care in the interim rather than to go without or have to seek help at free clinics or one-time-a-year Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinics. States that have expanded Medicaid would continue to get full coverage for persons already enrolled but would get a lesser amount for new enrollees beginning in 2020. That provision alone would add to the $4 billion loss already incurred in Virginia.
There are 327,000 Virginians who gained coverage under the ACA as it expanded access to affordable health care. The proposed replacement to the ACA would do away with federal health insurance subsidies that helped people afford their monthly premiums and lowered out-of-pocket expenses. Subsidies would be replaced with tax credits. Currently insurers can charge older customers up to three times what they charge younger customers; under the new plan that would increase to five times.
Although some would never acknowledge it, there are features of the despised Obamacare program that were maintained. Insurers would still be banned from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions. Dependents would still be able to stay on parents’ insurance plans through age 26. Caps on annual or lifetime coverage would still be banned.
Clearly fewer people will have access to affordable care under the AHCA. Virtually every developed country in the world with the exception of the USA has decided that access to health care is a basic human right. What is the biggest objection to the program enacted under President Obama? It included targeted taxes on investment income and wages for the very high income individuals and couples. The new AHCA eliminates many of the taxes. The wealthiest 400 households including the billionaires in the new administration would get an average tax cut of $7 million per year while taxes for many low-income working families would increase. Eliminating the two taxes on very high-income households would cost the federal government $275 billion over 10 years.
Most Virginians will lose under the replacement proposed for the ACA. Only the very rich will gain. Maybe that is what the debate is really about!
More Attention for Town Center Parking Debate — Reston Town Center merchant Aaron Gordon was on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on D.C. radio station WAMU on Tuesday speaking about paid parking at the Town Center. Supervisor Cathy Hudgins was also on the show to give her thoughts. [WAMU/player.fm]
Whole Foods Purchases to Benefit Fairfax County Charity — Five percent of purchases today at Northern Virginia locations of Whole Foods — including in Reston at 11660 Plaza America Drive — will benefit Firefighters and Friends to the Rescue, which partners with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue to provide coats, books, toys and needed supplies to families. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue]
Elected Officials to Discuss Economic Growth in Area — Supervisor Cathy Hudgins and delegates Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax/Loudoun) and Kathleen Murphy (D-Fairfax/Loudoun) will be among the speakers at a forum on economic drivers and opportunities March 30 in Herndon. [Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce]
County Officials Worry About Effects of Immigration Fear — At Tuesday’s meeting of Fairfax County’s Public Safety Committee, officials discussed concerns that members of the immigrant community will become afraid to report crime, ask for help or provide police information. They say that distrust may jeopardize overall safety in the county. [WTOP]
Lieutenant Governor in Reston Tonight — Ralph Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor and a Democratic candidate for governor in the 2017 election, will be a guest speaker tonight at a meeting of Herndon-Reston Indivisible. Other speakers will be Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) and Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax/Loudoun). The meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. at Sunset Hills Montessori School (11180 Ridge Heights Road). [Herndon-Reston Indivisible]
Bulova: ‘Painful Cuts’ in Proposed Federal Budget — The chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors says she is hopeful the local congressional delegation will address what she sees as a number of problems with the Trump administration’s budget proposal, unveiled last week. [Sharon Bulova/Facebook]
Arrests Made in Chantilly Gun Store Heist — Two 23-year-old men and a 19-year-old man have been arrested in connection with the theft of 35 guns from a Chantilly store earlier this month. The men are also charged in the theft of firearms from two shops in Fredericksburg. They each face up to 10 years in prison. [U.S. Department of Justice]
Digital Marketing Agency Opens New Office — Baltimore-based Jellyfish has opened a new office at RTC West (12120 Sunset Hills Road). The office will house more than 20 employees and serves as the development and technology hub for the agency. Five job openings are available. [Jellyfish]
A headline in The New York Times in December 1992 proclaimed that “Virginia Aims to Shed Image as a ‘Handgun Supermarket.”’ The Commonwealth got that reputation when a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms study found that one of every four guns used in a crime whose origins could be determined had been bought in Virginia stores. In Washington, D.C., one in three traceable guns had been bought in Virginia.
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was quoted in the news story as saying that “Virginia is the No. 1 source for handguns on the East Coast, and we must stop the trafficking or become known as the ‘Grim Reaper State.'” The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia at the time was reported as saying that, “No other East Coast state has gun laws as lax as Virginia’s laws — not South Carolina, not Georgia, not Florida. Nobody. This has to stop!”
I was in the House of Delegates and supported Gov. Wilder in getting a one-gun-a-month purchasing limitation law passed in 1993. I have been in the House in the period since then and have watched in opposition as the gun supporters passed exemption after exemption to the limitation until in 2012 they repealed the law, with Gov. Robert McDonnell signing the bill to repeal it.
Last week, an Associated Press headline brought back the theme from 1992: “NYC cops thwart gun ring that exploited looser Virginia laws.” Twenty-four people, including 22 from Virginia, were charged in a 627-count indictment for trafficking guns bought in Virginia and sold in New York.
The traffickers were caught on wiretaps. One was quoted by New York authorities as saying, “There’s no limit to how many guns I can go buy from the store. I can go get 20 guns from the store tomorrow. I can do that Monday through Friday. They might start looking at me, but in Virginia, our laws are so little, I can give guns away.”
As we work to build the image of the state to attract business and industry and to break free from an Old South reputation, events like last week bring back references of Virginia being the gun-running capital of the East Coast. The repeal of the one-gun-a-month law is but one example of a series of bills that have been introduced to weaken Virginia’s gun safety laws. There were other bills that nipped away at the few gun safety laws that remain. Fortunately in the last three years and again this year, we have had Gov. Terry McAuliffe to veto these bills.
The influence of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is enormous. With few exceptions, the members of the majority party fall in line to support or defeat bills as directed by the gun lobby. My background check bill supported by about three-fourths of voters and the governor cannot get past a subcommittee, where it is continually defeated on a straight party-line vote, four to one. Too bad we have not learned from history!
To better appreciate the debate that goes on about gun laws in Virginia, watch the gun bill debate video.
The best way I can describe the 2017 session of the General Assembly is to call it a mixed bag. Some good work was done for sure, but if not for the governor’s veto pen, it would have been marred by some backward legislation. Most disappointing are the missed opportunities that were not addressed in the 46-day short session.
Although budget matters are supposed to be dealt with only in the long, even-year session, there are budget adjustments that creep into the short session as well. The good news is that the Assembly passed amendments to the biennium budget to bring it back into balance from a $1.2 billion shortfall in revenue. There were reductions, but the governor proposed and the Assembly agreed to keeping 3 percent salary increases for state employees who have been without a raise for many years. Funds were provided for the state share of a 2 percent raise for teachers. Additional funds were provided to deal with the critical needs in mental health care.
Four bills were passed to deal with the opioid epidemic. They established needle exchange programs, increased access to the overdose drug naloxone, increased services to infants exposed to opioids in utero, and strengthened opioid prescription policies. Five million dollars was appropriated for permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless because of mental illness. A bill to require insurance companies to cover a 12-month supply of prescription birth control also passed.
Of the bills I opposed, most will be vetoed by the governor. Not only did a committee in the House defeat my bill to require universal background checks for gun purchases, but it passed several bills to make access to guns easier. The Republicans do not have the supermajority that is needed to overturn the governor’s veto of these bills. Likewise, the governor is expected to veto a bill that would prevent localities from becoming “sanctuary” zones. He has already vetoed a bill that would have denied funding to Planned Parenthood, and the House was not able to override his veto.
Despite public support for establishing an independent system to draw legislative boundary lines, my bill and several others with that goal were defeated in a House committee. Bills that passed the Senate on this issue were defeated in the same House committee. The public support for legislation that would prevent legislators from being able to pick their own voters was as strong as I have seen on an issue in recent years.
Beware that a new law passed that creates a fine of $100 for failing to drive on the right side of the road. The intent of this new law is to prevent slow drivers from driving in the left lane. Legislation that would have created a bill of rights for college student loan borrowers did not pass.
The General Assembly has adjourned its annual session. In future columns, I will write about bills that survived the governor’s veto pen and those that did not.
In the final days of the session, we honored once again a then-young woman named Barbara Johns, who contributed so much to the history of Virginia. On Feb. 23, Gov. Terry McAuliffe dedicated the renovated former Richmond Hotel and now Office of the Attorney General as the Barbara Johns Building. Barbara is also honored on the grounds of the State Capitol with a statue of her, prominently part of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial.
Her story is a very meaningful one in the civil rights movement in Virginia, and her example of leadership is one that must be emulated today. Barbara attended Robert Russa Moton High School. While the white children in the community went to a brick school, her school was an overcrowded, dilapidated, tar-paper shanty. She was frustrated with the conditions of the facility. She dreamed of a school where the students did not have to keep their coats on all day to stay warm and where classes were not held in the auditorium.
In April 1951, before Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.’s movements, 16-year-old Ms. Johns organized a strike at her school. She felt her idea to strike was divinely inspired and sought no outside validation for her actions. She was just a junior in high school when she met with several of her classmates to organize. On April 23, 1951, more than 450 Moton High School students walked out of their school and marched to the courthouse and to the homes of local school officials to protest the conditions of their school.
A few days into the strike, the students contacted the NAACP for legal counsel. Civil rights lawyers from the NAACP filed a lawsuit asking for full integration of the county’s public schools. The students who wished to file suit combined their names into a list, and Dorothy E. Davis, the daughter of a local farmer, was the first to add her name. One month later, the NAACP filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in federal court. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court combined its ruling in the Davis case with four other similar cases to form the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that declared the segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
Although the Davis case did not result in the desegregation of Prince Edward County’s public schools — it took 10 years and 40 lawsuits to overcome Massive Resistance — Ms. John’s actions were vital for the future of civil rights movements.
In the words of Gov. McAuliffe, “Ms. Johns’ history is a lasting reminder to inspire men and women to fight for justice and equality and reminds us of the enormous impact one person can have when they fearlessly stand up for what they believe is right.”
Barbara Johns stood up to what she knew was wrong. Her example is one that those who ask “what can I do?” must follow today.
In a previous column, I addressed in part the question I get from more and more constituents about what they can do to be more active in public service. Their concern, of course, comes from the outcome of the presidential election and the unbelievable events that have occurred since that time.
Adding to that December column, in which I highly recommended membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center and involvement in the gubernatorial election of 2017 in Virginia, I have decided to further facilitate individuals seeking to find a place in which they could become involved in civic affairs.
I am sponsoring an event at Langston Hughes Middle School on Saturday, March 11, from 9:30 a.m.-noon. “What Can I Do? A Civic Engagement Workshop” is designed to bring people who want to be more active in their community and in civic matters at all levels of government together with individuals and organizations that can provide opportunities, direction and assistance in becoming an activist, advocate and participant in their community.
There will be no formal program or speeches. Rather, representatives of at least 15 different organizations who are known for their civic involvement will be there to answer questions and give advice on how persons can get involved. It will not be necessary for participants to attend the entire time. No registration is required. Attendees can “shop” from among the organizations represented to explore their interests and get to know the representatives who themselves are already actively involved in the community.
Issues and interest areas to be represented include voting, redistricting, elections, immigration, political campaigning, women’s rights, poverty, gun violence prevention and others. Groups from both political parties have been invited, as the event is nonpartisan. Participants include the AAUW, Centreville Immigration Forum, Community Matters, Cornerstones, Emerge Virginia, Equality Virginia, Giving Circle of HOPE, Herndon Reston Indivisible, League of Conservation Voters, League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area, Moms Demand Action, NAACP of Fairfax County, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, Reston-Dulles Section of National Council of Negro Women, New Virginia Majority, OneVirginia2021, Reston Environmental Action and SALT.
I share the concern and fears expressed by many people about the future direction of our country. I am greatly disturbed about the negative impact that evolving events are having on my neighbors, our children and grandchildren; our form of government; and the culture of inclusiveness we have spent centuries building. It is time for the people to take back their government with a strong and informed voice.
To the extent to which the workshop contributes to empowering more people to become involved in their government, I feel it will be a success. Plan to participate and invite your neighbors and friends to come as well.
Although the “short sessions” of the General Assembly held on the odd-numbered years are about two weeks less in length than the regular session in the even-numbered years because they do not consider a biennium budget, the fact is that the budget is adjusted at every session of the General Assembly.
Revenue projections that are made over a couple of years’ time frame almost always need to be adjusted. Revenues come over or under projections, necessitating corresponding changes to the budget. Recession-level declines like that in 2008 required severe budget reductions. The economic recovery has been slower than in the past, resulting in some tweaking being needed every year. The Commonwealth operates on a balanced budget with funds going into a rainy day fund when economic growth is strong, and the fund being used to smooth out declines from loss of revenue.
The House and Senate approved different versions of a revised budget for the next fiscal year without prolonged debate, which has been a part of these deliberations for many years. The governor presented a revised budget that brought the next year into balance and funded some high-priority items, upon which there was bipartisan agreement. Differences do remain that will be ironed out by a conference committee over the remaining weeks of the session.
Highlights of the budget include important new funding for mental health services. Although the needs in mental health have been recognized for a long time, it took advocates many years and the suicide of a senator’s son to finally get agreement on funding critically needed services. An important aspect of the new services will be to get mentally ill persons out of jails, where they have found themselves in recent years when they acted out and there was no other place for them to go.
State employees will finally be getting a raise after many years of waiting. The situation has become increasingly desperate with a high turnover rate. Teachers who are employed by local school boards will not be getting a direct appropriation for a raise from the state, but hopefully the modest increase to localities can be used in part to fund teacher pay raises that are likewise long overdue.
Although the action in the short session on the budget will get us through the next fiscal year, there are long-term structural issues that remain — particularly in funding education. While the division between state and local funding had historically been 60 to 40 percent, the actual division in recent years has been closer to 40 percent state and 60 percent local. The result has been that increasing costs have fallen on local property taxpayers.
Virginians like to brag about their low per capita state taxes at $2,275, 36th-lowest among the states. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that per capita local taxes in Virginia are $1,928, or 15th-highest among the states. We are going to balance the budget for the short run this session, but we need to do a lot more work about more fairly balancing the budget for the long term.
Most people can remember the flowchart from high school civics class that graphically showed how a bill becomes a law.
According to the chart, a legislator gets an idea for a bill that is drafted, introduced into one house of the Legislature where it is heard by a committee, sent to the floor for a vote if approved, and sent on to the other house for the same routine. Generally, that is what happens in the best of circumstances, but reality is much more complicated.
I can best make my point about what really happens in too many cases by reviewing the erratic course of a couple of bills in this session of the Virginia General Assembly that will not become law.
There is an increasing realization that many legislatures — including the General Assembly in Virginia — are not as responsive to public opinion as would be expected from democratically elected bodies, because of the way that legislative boundaries are drawn. An intense campaign by an organization named OneVirginia2021 has made many people aware that under the current system of having the Legislature drawing its own district boundaries, legislators are picking their voters rather than voters picking their representatives.
By comparing voting histories with census numbers, district boundaries can be drawn that are safe for incumbent legislators. The likelihood of incumbents being defeated is so slight that they go unchallenged. I have been working on this issue throughout my political career and once again introduced legislation to establish an independent legislative redistricting commission. My bill was sent to the Privileges and Elections Committee, where it was assigned to a subcommittee. The subcommittee allowed me and others with similar bills to make presentations with comments from the public.
A survey of my district indicates that about 80 percent of my constituents support a nonpartisan approach to drawing district lines. Other legislators introduced bills to accomplish the same result. My bill and all the others were swept together in one motion and defeated by a vote of four to one. On this important issue, four legislators made the decision for the entire 140 members of the General Assembly.
This is not an unusual situation. My bill that would have required universal background checks for gun purchases had the support of the governor and 90 percent of my constituents. It was sent to the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee and then to a subcommittee of five legislators, four of whom have an A+ rating by the National Rifle Association. There was little surprise when my bill and all the other common-sense gun safety measures were defeated by a vote of four to one.
Under the Rules of the House, the Speaker of the House makes all committee assignments. Rather than a balance of points of views, the committee membership is stacked to reflect his position of the majority party. The Speaker also decides which committee will consider which bills. The rigged committee membership makes it easy to explain how a bill does not become a law in Virginia.