The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex has had a long and tortuous history. With the almost daily unfolding stories of abuse of women from lower pay, discrimination in employment, physical and mental abuse and other degradation, it has become obvious that it is about time for the ERA.
Alice Paul of the women’s suffragist movement is credited with writing the first draft of the ERA that was introduced in Congress in 1921. An amendment for submission to the states for ratification as required by Article V of the Constitution did not pass both houses of Congress until 1972 with a deadline of March 22, 1979 for the states to act. That deadline has been extended twice as the required 38 state ratification has never been met.
Currently 37 states have ratified the ERA although several states have sought under questionable legality to rescind their ratification. Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly have never ratified the ERA, but the State Senate has ratified it in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016. The Senate resolutions were never reported from the House Privileges and Elections Committee nor were resolutions introduced by House members ever reported from committee. I have been a supporter of the ERA during my entire tenure in the House of Delegates and co-patron of resolutions to ratify it; I have never had an opportunity to vote on it because the conservative House Privileges and Elections Committee has never had enough favorable votes to report it to the floor.
I am hopeful that the Virginia legislature will step up to be the state to finally ratify the ERA. Even with a favorable vote there are certain to be court challenges to the ratification because of the missed deadlines and because of efforts by some states to rescind their earlier ratifications. Even with these challenges the Virginia General Assembly should take action. The outcome of the 2016 state elections with the increased number of women in the House of Delegates should be enough to nudge Virginia forward. The phenomenal increase in activity by women in various political organizations in Virginia will send a signal to candidates for the House of Delegates in 2019 that they need to support the ERA.
The arguments of the past that women would be drafted into the armed services if the amendment was ratified no longer seem legitimate with women already providing outstanding service in the military. The high-profile stories of women being harassed and abused in work and social situations provide support for the ERA being part of the Constitution.
Virginia’s declaration of rights drafted by George Mason became the model for the Bill of Rights of our federal Constitution. Just as Virginia led in the fight to enumerate our rights, the Virginia General Assembly can lead again albeit a little tardy by being the final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s about time!
While many of us express concern that we do not see as many solar collectors on Virginia roof-tops as we would like, the Commonwealth is showing significant progress on turning sunlight into electrical energy. As with any major change there are some hazy areas that need to be considered as well.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) as reported in the August 2018 issue of Virginia Business magazine, Virginia currently ranks 17th nationally with 631.3 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The ranking is a significant jump from 2016 when the state ranked 29th nationally. Even with the advanced standing, only 0.59 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar. By way of contrast, North Carolina is second in the nation in installed solar capacity with 4,412 megawatts brought about by generous tax incentives. For North Carolina that is nearly five percent of their electricity supply.
Virginia’s future with solar appears bright with 59 notices of intent with the Department of Environmental Quality to install 2,646 megawatts of solar according to the Virginia Business article. Driving the expansion of solar energy is a sharp drop in price from $96 in 1970 to 40 cents per kilowatt this year and an insistence on the part of technology giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, all of whom have a presence in Virginia, that their electric power come from solar systems. The Grid Transformation and Security Act passed by the General Assembly this year requires 5,000 new megawatts of solar and wind energy to be developed. Included in that total is 500 megawatts of small, roof-top panels.
Middlesex County Public Schools opened this year with two of its three schools powered by solar energy. Although a small, rural school system, Middlesex has the largest ground-mounted solar system of any school division in the state and is expected to save over two million dollars per year. Excess electricity generated is sent to the grid for credit for any electricity the schools takes from the grid at night through a net-metering arrangement.
Some shadows along the way can be expected with such a massive shift in the way electricity is produced. It takes about eight acres of land for each megawatt produced. Solar farms take up large amounts of land. Just last week the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors voted to deny a conditional-use permit for a 178-acre utility scale solar facility in the County. The supervisors indicated that they had questions about the project for which they did not receive adequate answers. One factor is likely to have been the results of a study by the American Battlefield Trust that indicated the project would be visible from some of the half-dozen signal stations around Culpeper County that were used during the Civil War to detect troop movement. The County depends on a high level of tourism based on its Civil War battlefields and apparently does not want to jeopardize its attraction to Civil War buffs.
The clouds will pass, and Virginia is on its way to a bright future with solar energy.
Sorry, but this is yet another column on the continuing effort to de-gerrymander House of Delegates districts in Virginia as directed by the federal courts. In this instance, it was the Republican Party who in the majority after the 2010 census drew district lines that were designed to keep them in the majority until the next census in 2020 when lines must be drawn again. They ran into trouble when to dilute the votes of African Americans who traditionally vote Democratic they packed them into eleven districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions. A panel of federal judges found the practice violated the constitutional rights of the individuals involved and ordered the districts to be redrawn. The Governor called the General Assembly into special session last week to carry out the court’s directive. The legislature went home without success after one day of effort.
Why is the Republican majority failing to do as the court directed? The reason is quite simple. If it took an unconstitutional drawing of district lines to maintain their majority in the House of Delegates, an undoing of those lines would likely take away their majority. Is the court favoring Democrats in what they are doing? No, the court is protecting the constitutional rights of individuals. The court does not take into account partisan outcomes. You simply cannot deny equal representation in the legislature of a class of people without running afoul of their constitutional protections.
When the court found Virginia’s Congressional districts to be unconstitutional several years ago, the remedy of that situation was new districts that resulted in the election of an additional African American congressman from the state that up to that point had only one. Both happen also to be Democrats.
The court has denied an appeal from the Republicans of their directive to resolve the unconstitutional districts. If the General Assembly fails to carry out the court’s mandate, the court will redraw the districts themselves. Presumably there would be special elections held right away in the new districts.
In the meantime, House Democrats have proposed a redrawing of the legislative lines to make the districts constitutional which unsurprisingly could result in the election of as many as five new Democrats. The authors of the new maps insist that they did what needed to be done to follow the court’s directive and not what would give them more seats. The day of the special session was spent with the Republicans picking apart the proposed map in an attempt to show that it was too partisan.
Republicans called the map hypocritical, and one of my Democratic colleagues, Delegate Steve Heretick, called it a “self-serving political power grab.” I draw two conclusions from the last several months: The court needs to take immediate remedial action to correct the constitutional problems with the current districts, and the General Assembly at its next legislative session must pass a constitutional amendment establishing a truly independent commission to do redistricting. The amendment would need to pass a second session of the General Assembly and a referendum of the people. Legislative bodies simply cannot rise above their own self-interests to do the job fairly.
On August 30, I and my colleagues in the General Assembly will return to the State Capitol in Richmond at the request of Governor Ralph Northam to un-gerrymander eleven House of Delegates districts that have been found by a panel of federal judges to be unconstitutional. The court’s action was based on a finding that the districts as drawn violated the equal protection of the law afforded to everyone by the United States Constitution.
In the redistricting of 2011, the Republicans who had a majority in the House of Delegates packed African Americans in the Richmond-Hampton Roads regions into the eleven districts that have been found unconstitutional. From a partisan perspective the packing resulted in African Americans who historically vote Democratic to be limited in their influence over voting outcomes throughout the region. From a legal perspective African Americans were denied their constitutional protection from the gerrymandering that put them into fewer districts over which they might have an influence.
The requirement to un-gerrymander legislative districts in Virginia is not new. Most recently and earlier this year the congressional districts in the Richmond-Hampton Roads region were found to be unconstitutional. When the districts were redrawn Democrats won an additional congressional seat with an African American candidate.
Unraveling a partisan gerrymander is not easy. With the congressional districts, the courts had to redraw them because the General Assembly could not come to an agreement as to how it should be done. There is serious concern as to whether the General Assembly will be able to redraw the district lines for the House of Delegates or whether it will revert to the courts for correction. With any of these revisions there are likely to be winners and losers, and legislative bodies have not shown the ability to draw lines that will disadvantage a member(s) in re-election. With the congressional redistricting, for example, one member of Congress lost a seat to the African American candidate who ran in a newly redrawn district.
To correct the clear racial discrimination in the eleven districts that have been found to be unconstitutional, it will be necessary to redraw more than thirty district lines as currently constituted. As the redrawing takes place some voters will find themselves in new districts as will some incumbent legislators. The election outcomes are likely to be different as the racial bias of how the districts have been drawn is removed.
The courts have not taken up cases of gerrymandering when allegations of partisan discrimination are alleged. The courts are interested in issues of constitutional protections most often found when racial discrimination can be shown. Issues of removing partisanship from the redistricting process, as some have expressed it–to have the people choose their elected representatives instead of legislators choosing their constituents–have been resolved in other places by having an independent, nonpartisan commission draw the lines. I first introduced a bill to establish such a commission in Virginia in 1982 and have introduced such a bill many times.
The General Assembly must carry out its responsibility to undo the racially discriminating districts that currently exist. Additionally, it should take the next step to put an independent non-partisan commission in place.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of my grandsons’ school, and I was genuinely impressed. Parents were invited to come by last week to meet the teachers because his school started on August 15. It was one of the friendliest environments I have experienced–smiles everywhere, genuinely warm greetings for all, and an obvious feeling of caring for all children and parents and grandparents coming into the school. My grandson was clearly eager to get back to school and to see his teachers. He has some special needs that require additional understanding and assistance, and he is clearly getting it in his school setting.
The teachers and administrators wore the school’s special tee shirt and were giving high-fives all around. As one who taught in the classroom for several years, many old memories came back to me. I remember the need to always be “on” in the school day for students who needed help or attention. In most careers we can coast on a bad day and make up for it later; not so with teaching. You are always the center of attention and must be appropriately responsive to student needs whenever they occur. Students can learn as much about life from your body language and attitude as they can from the subject you are teaching them.
While teachers are assigned a grade level or a subject area, ultimately teachers are teaching children more than just content. I am convinced my son who teaches students in automotive technology is teaching as much about attitude, work habits, developing confidence and being a good citizen as he is about an automobile. Our daughter who teaches multiply challenged children at the elementary level is demonstrating for parents, the school, and the community the inherent value and potential for every student regardless of the challenges they might face. My wife who was a preschool teacher and director demonstrated how important it is that young children get off to a good start and is now teaching other teachers to do the same.
Increasingly school divisions are getting an exception to the “Kings Dominion Law” requiring that schools begin after Labor Day. Fairfax County Public Schools is one district now starting before Labor Day. I have always opposed the current law and have voted to repeal it many times. A bill carried over from the past session for further consideration would leave the decision of the starting date for schools up to the local school division based on the unique circumstances of the community.
The legislature can do much more to support the education of our children than dabble in the starting date for schools. Pay for Virginia teachers lags below the national average by about $4,000. Clearly, teachers do not stay in the profession for the money, but they should not have to suffer with low pay because they chose to educate our children. At least in the community, we can express appreciation and offer our thank you to our teachers for the important work they do!
The only common requirement for holding elective office is that one be a registered voter in the state meaning then of course that you must be at least 18 years of age.
You do not need to be a resident of the district you hope to represent although you will have to move into the district if you win. The concept of a citizen legislature is that it is made up of people from all walks of life in the community who can collectively speak for the community at large.
Supposedly there would be no professional politicians–just regular every-day folks. Such an approach should work out well to have the community broadly represented.
In the past, because of laws and practices, most legislatures have been filled mostly with old white men. Recent years have seen a shift including in Virginia as more women are running for office and getting elected. This year has more women, young people, and people of color running than ever before.
With the diversification of who sits in the legislature the challenge becomes taking people of many different backgrounds, perspectives and constituencies and bringing them together to work for consensus on legislation to get a majority vote. While skills acquired in business and civic activities teach many of the soft skills of interpersonal relationships and team building that are transferable to a legislative body, there are unique differences that are important to recognize.
Most legislatures with whom I am familiar have orientation programs to acquaint new members with where the bathrooms are, rules of order in committee meetings and on the floor, and operating procedures around the capitol. Putting legislation together, developing a strategy for its passage, and keeping constituents back home happy are most often handled by the political party caucuses or helpful mentors.
Another source of in-service training I have found invaluable are conferences put together by professional associations, specifically the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). I am at their national conference this week. NCSL keeps up with what is happening in state capitols around the country and through publications, conferences and consultancy keeps legislators informed. The association is truly non-partisan, although its leadership–chosen from among state legislators across the country–maintain their party allegiance while the staff is able to stay out of the partisanship.
Virginia of course had the first representative legislature in the western world beginning in 1619. Not everyone followed the Virginia model however in writing their constitution of organizing their legislatures. I continue to be amazed as I work with colleagues from around the country as to the number of different ways that legislative bodies can organize themselves and do their business. No one has a corner on the best way to do the people’s business, but we can learn from taking a look at how other states conduct their business.
NCSL refers to the states as the laboratories of democracy. The description is appropriate as we all face mostly the same challenges. Our responses are different, however. By getting together for what some would call a conference, but what I think is more appropriately called in-service training, we can do a better job for the people we represent.
This past week was horrible for our country! How much longer can we sustain the decline of our liberties and way of governing? I feel a sense of despair.
But, at the same time, good things are happening. I am going to focus on them in this column but with the assurance to you that I am not giving up on helping to turn our country around.
I shook hands with Bryce Harper last week! My grandson assures me that is a very big deal. Harper was in our community for the dedication of the Bryce Harper Sports Complex at the Fred Crabtree Park by Crossfield Elementary School. I know that the late Fred Crabtree who was a friend of mine would have been elated as he spent his life working to ensure that children have a place to play ball. I was impressed with Harper’s message to the young people who were there to be the best they can be whether it is playing baseball, soccer, piano or dancing. Harper went on that evening to win the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby.
Two weeks ago, my two sons who are now in their fifties (!) invited me to go with them to visit the area near Shenandoah, Virginia, where I grew up and that they remember visiting as young children. Nothing stays the same. The home that my Mom and Dad kept immaculate with the grass mowed and a garden full of vegetables is now a shambles for lack of maintenance and the accumulation of junk. Regardless, we had a good time sharing stories about their grandparents and their growing up.
President Obama gave a speech last week in South Africa, and it was marvelous! His understanding of the broad course of history, appreciation of human struggles and their outcomes, and his dedication to our institutions and moral values continue to give me a sense of hope. I have listened to his speech twice so far and will no doubt listen to it more times in the future. It is available online through several sources.
Special Olympics celebrated its 50th anniversary. How inspiring to hear the story of its founding, its amazing success, and the tireless effort of so many volunteers who make possible the activities for some of the most challenged among us. Thanks to all who are so unselfishly a part of such a wonderful program to help others.
Herndon-Reston Indivisibles, who organized soon after the last election, went to Lafayette Park at least three evenings in a row in addition to many other vigils and marches to publicly express their displeasure at the policies of the current administration and the need for citizens to stand up to the damage being done. They are inspiring to me and will ultimately be an important part of getting our country back on track.
I have to remind myself of all that is going on in our families and our communities that is really good and that demands protecting. After this inspiring break to remember the good things I need now to get back to work saving our governmental institutions and moral values! Thanks to all who provide the good news and the inspiration.
It is somewhat ironic that Loving Day in Virginia, celebrated annually on June 12, has nothing to do with the famous “Virginia is for Lovers” public relations slogan but has much to do about ending a period in history when Virginia was less than loving. Loving Day in Virginia relates to an interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, who were married in the District of Columbia and tried to live near where they grew up in Virginia. They were found guilty of violating state law and banished from their home state for twenty-five years.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in Virginia prohibited marriage between persons classified as white and people classified as colored. Although Mildred and Richard were residents of Caroline County, they went to the District of Columbia to get married to get around this anti-miscegenation law. They returned to live in their home but were arrested because Virginia law did not recognize the D.C. marriage, and furthermore it was also against the law to go outside the state to be married and return as an interracial couple.
The laws under which the Lovings were convicted were eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. One of their lawyers with whom I was later to serve in the House of Delegates, Bernard “Bernie” Cohen, told the Justices that Richard Loving had sent a message to them. “Tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court invalidated the Virginia law and all other state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The case (Loving v Virginia) decided in 1967 is considered a landmark civil rights case that helped to dismantle Jim Crow laws and establish a precedent that was cited in 2015 to invalidate laws prohibiting same-sex marriages.
It is important to recognize Loving Day for the courageous action on the part of Mildred and Richard Loving to allow their case to go forward with the help of the ACLU to challenge an unjust law. Some of our greatest gains in civil rights have come through the courts as legislatures have too many times lacked the political will to do what is right when it might not be popular with some people. It can also be chilling to recognize that this step forward took place just over fifty years ago. We need to study our history and carefully review our current political and societal mores to ensure that such discrimination is not continuing today. Overcoming discrimination and racial biases are not topics of the past but continue to today. We need to support those like the Lovings who stepped up to undo an injustice.
Some long for the “good ole days.” My reading of history suggests that better days are ahead of us. A divided and discriminatory society of the past is not to be celebrated. Virginia needs to be a Commonwealth of lovers of justice, equality and peace.
The Commonwealth of Virginia made a significant step last week in setting the record straight on the settlement of the land area now known as Virginia by dedicating a memorial to the earliest Virginians on the grounds of the State Capitol in Richmond. Too often discussions about the settlement of Virginia start with English settlers landing at Jamestown in 1607. While that event is most important, it should not over-shadow the fact that indigenous people lived in the region for 12,000 to 17,000 years before that depending on the archeologists with whom you speak.
How they got here is also discussion as to whether it was a northern route through what is now Alaska or east from Europe. Their population at the time the English arrived is estimated to be about 50,000. They had a system of governance built around 30 tribes in a confederation under the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. They had a system of agriculture, held religious beliefs built around nature, and were good stewards of the environment.
During two periods of history Virginia Indians were almost obliterated. The English settlers brought diseases against which the indigenous people were not immune and superior weapons that killed or drove off the Indians. In 1924 with the passage of the Racial Integrity Act in Virginia, Indians were no longer recognized. That law made you either white or if you had one drop or more of “colored” blood you were non-white. Current day Virginia Indians have great difficulty tracing their lineage because of this law that did not recognize their ancestors.
After a couple decades of study and advocacy the federal government on January 29, 2018 officially recognized seven Indian tribes along with an additional four tribes that had been recognized by the state. Only two of the tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, have retained reservation lands assigned by treaties made with the colonists.
Last week Governor Ralph Northam led the ceremony on the grounds of the State Capitol dedicating Mantle, the Virginia Indian Tribute monument. The name Mantle is taken from the deerskin decorated with beads and shells that Chief Powhatan wore around his shoulders. The monument is like a labyrinth viewed by the many Indians as a sacred symbol. It is shaped like a nautilus, a growing symbol of strength. The area is naturally landscaped with a meditation area and infinity pool. Learn more at indiantribute.virginia.gov/monument.
The General Assembly held a successful Reconvened Session last week in which the Governor’s vetoes were sustained. The Special Session in which the General Assembly continues to work on a budget for the next two years has not adjourned. A budget that includes a plan for Medicaid expansion for persons who cannot afford health care is likely to be completed in the next couple of weeks. Significant progress is being made on a very important step for all Virginians.
Legislators who were in Richmond on April 13 for the Special Session to complete work on the biennial budget interrupted their work on April 18 for the Constitutionally required Reconvened Session commonly referred to as the “veto session.” In 1980 the State Constitution was amended to provide that on the sixth Wednesday after the adjournment of a regular session the General Assembly is to reconvene “for the purpose of considering bills which may have been returned by the Governor with recommendations for their amendment and bills and items of appropriation bills which may have been returned by the Governor with his objections.” Prior to the establishment of a reconvened session, a Governor could veto bills without concern that the vetoes would be over-ridden.
Governor Terry McAuliffe set a record with nearly a hundred vetoes all of which were sustained by the General Assembly even if by the narrowest margin. Governor Ralph Northam has exercised his veto powers on eight measures that are highly unlikely to be challenged with the almost even distribution of partisan representation in both the House and Senate. A two-thirds vote is required to pass legislation without the Governor’s approval. In the case of Governor McAuliffe and now Governor Northam, vetoes by the other branch of government–the executive branch–have kept the General Assembly from enacting some of the more divisive laws on social issues proposed by extremely conservative legislators.
Two of the bills Governor Northam vetoed related to voter registration records that would unnecessarily burden the registration and voting process under guise of preventing fraud and abuse. Virginia has not had a problem with voting irregularities; the state’s problem has been to get more people to vote since Virginia has among the lowest levels of participation in the nation. Efforts to make it easier to vote such as “no excuse” absentee voting have been defeated in the General Assembly.
The Governor vetoed three bills that would limit the powers of local government when the local governments are in the best position to know what would best serve the people of a locality. One bill would have prohibited local governments from requiring contractors to pay more than minimum wage for work for the locality and another would interfere on local governments establishing property tax rates for country clubs. A bill that would prohibit “sanctuary cities” of which there are none in Virginia was also vetoed.
The Governor vetoed a bill that would have prohibited state participation in adopting regulations on carbon dioxide cap-and-trade programs thereby limiting Virginia’s ability to deal with climate change. He also vetoed a bill that would have allowed legislators to change legislative district lines between the federal census dates.
In considering bills passed by the legislature, all of which must be signed by the Governor to become law, the Governor can propose amendments. Of the dozens of amendments proposed by Governor Northam, most are technical corrections in language passed in the fast pace of the legislative session.
After the likely one-day Reconvened Session is adjourned, the General Assembly will return to the Special Session to complete the budget. I believe there will be good news to report on the budget very soon!
Celebration of the first day of spring had to be delayed last week with a record-breaking spring snow fall. The unusually wet snow that clung to the trees and filled the branches of evergreens with a holiday-like cover was spectacular even with the inconveniences it brought with it. The earliest spring flowers have a way of surviving late season cold snaps and some snow. When the spring flowers emerge, they will be as beautiful as they always are even if a bit delayed.
Spring is not the only thing that is late this year. Completion of the state budget continues to be delayed, although a date has now been set for a special session; the special session will be held in the State Capitol on April 11. The immediate outcome of that session is predictable. The House and Senate will replace the budget that has been sent down by Governor Ralph Northam with the budgets each passed at the end of the regular session, each will reject the budget of the other, and we will send both budgets to a conference committee to resolve the differences.
The big spring snow of last week melted in a week to let spring emerge. It is difficult to envision the thaw that will happen to let a budget be adopted. The major difference is the Senate leadership’s refusal to agree to any form of Medicaid expansion regardless of facts or reason that are presented.
Recently The Commonwealth Institute found that Medicaid expansion in Virginia “would improve the lives of more than 118,000 women in the Commonwealth who are uninsured …Expanding Medicaid would not only save the state millions of dollars, it could save an invaluable number of women’s lives.” That is on top of the mound of evidence that has been presented already for the economic and quality of life advantages of Medicaid expansion.
More than 600 members of faith communities from throughout the Commonwealth have been advocating for the House version of the budget as it contains Medicaid expansion. Last week three former Republican members of the House of Delegates who among them have 60 years of combined experience in the legislature–Tom Rust, Joe May and Harvey Morgan–endorsed the House budget in a newspaper column: “The House budget proposal meets any common definition of conservative budgeting.
It is a Republican-led fiscal plan that makes responsible use of public resources. It funds core services and creates conditions for the private sector and general population to succeed and thrive, while limiting the reach and power of government…This is prudent budgeting in action. It deserves the support of every Virginian, officeholder or not, who professes to favor a responsible philosophy of government.” (Richmond Times Dispatch, March 21, 2018) I too support the House budget and am doing all I can to get it passed! It is a bipartisan effort.
If you would like to join the advocacy effort for Medicaid expansion, I invite you to go to virginiainterfaithcenter.organd look at the suggestions for your involvement. Act now to ensure that the legislature considers your position by April 11. In the meantime, enjoy the emerging spring!
Last week Democrats in the House of Delegates were able largely to sit on the sidelines as Republicans debated among themselves whether Virginia should expand access to medical care through the federal Medicaid program. Arguments that had been used by Democrats to support Medicaid in the past were now being used by Republicans to support their newly found support for expansion.
The news is good since Medicaid expansion could only come about with bipartisan support. When the final vote was taken on the issue, only 31 Republicans voted “nay” and all Democrats voting “aye” with 20 Republicans making the total for passage 69 votes. There was a sense of relief as a goal for which we had been working for more than a half dozen years moved closer to realization.
The news was not so good on the other side of the Capitol. The Senate passed a budget that did not include further Medicaid expansion. While there was an effort to amend the Senate bill to include the expansion of access to health care, it failed along a straight party line vote. Final passage of a budget for the next two years requires that the bills passed in each house be identical. A conference committee made up of House and Senate members must resolve the largest imbalance in the budget that I have ever seen before its final adoption.
If I had predicted before the session where we would be at this point I would have said that the Senate would have passed a version of Medicaid expansion but the Republicans in the House were maintaining their opposition. At least that’s what the public pronouncements and the rumor mill suggested.
How could we have been so wrong? I believe that the predictions on the outcome of the session left out one very important consideration: the results of the 2016 elections. The House’s 66 to 34 Republican control was diminished to a close margin of 51 to 49. For weeks it appeared that Democrats might take control. Among the losses were senior members and committee chairs who were opponents of Medicaid expansion and were expected to win re-election easily. The Speaker who opposed expansion retired.
The voters in 2016 sent a clear message that they supported Medicaid expansion. For most it simply did not make sense to leave more than ten billion federal dollars on the table when there were so many people without access to health care. Many more people went to the polls than usual to send the message to legislators. Whether it was public opinion polling or common sense that showed the Republican majority they were in trouble and needed to change the stance on issues, the public speaking through the ballot box brought about this very important change for Virginia.
How to explain the Senate vote? Senators with four-year terms have not been before the voters since 2014. They have not had a recent message from the electorate and could be in for a big surprise if they do not re-evaluate their positions. The real heroes in all this are the Indivisibles and other groups that mobilized voters in 2016 to elect responsive candidates. These new members are bringing balance to public policy as well as to the budget.
“Enough is enough” is a slogan adopted by many advocates for action to end gun violence, but with 290 school shootings in the U.S. since 2013 clearly we are to the point that the shootings that have occurred in schools and numerous locales are more than enough.
Last Wednesday started off as a usual day at the legislature with the added feature that it was Valentine’s Day with lots of red decorations in the hallways and an abundance of chocolate available. It was also the first day of Lent with ashes offered at several nearby churches.
The day took a sharp turn in the late afternoon as the news media brought early reports of another instance of school shootings; this time at a school in Parkland, Florida. The timing was critical in that the General Assembly had over the past several weeks defeated with minimal debate and consideration more than 30 bills intended to reduce gun violence. My bill for universal background checks was among those.
The process for considering these bills was the same for all of them regardless of their approach. In the House the bills were assigned to the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee and then to a subcommittee on guns composed of six members–four of whom have perfect NRA ratings. The outcome of the hearings is predictable. The advocates make many good and passionate arguments on behalf of common sense gun violence prevention legislation.
The NRA representative states the organization’s opposition along with someone from the Virginia Citizens Defense League with little argument or comments. The vote is always two for and four against. As important as the bills are to many people they are defeated; four members of the House of Delegates with their minds already made up decide for all 100 members of the House. There are few voting records to check because most members never get the opportunity to vote on gun regulation issues.
The strong concern among members of the press and on social media makes it clear that the legislature is going to have to respond to gun violence issues. Unfortunately, the schedule for introducing new bills in this session has passed; otherwise bills would have been introduced in response to the Florida shootings. Legislators would have had to confront the reality that there has been more than enough gun violence.
A New York Times article offered some direction as to how legislatures might proceed. An article “How to Reduce Mass Shooting Deaths? Experts Say These Gun Laws Could Help” first appeared on October 5, 2017. It found that there is no way to eliminate the risk of mass shootings, “but there are a handful of policies that could reduce the likelihood of such events or reduce the number of people killed when such shootings do occur.” These include denying purchases by anyone convicted of certain felonies, universal background checks, limiting the sale of certain types of weapons and ammunition, and waiting periods for purchases.
In the next cycle of elections, positions of candidates on gun violence will play an even greater role in who gets elected. If minds of incumbents do not change, voters are likely to change their elected officials. The public has had more than enough.
One of the first tasks in a new session of the Virginia General Assembly is to decide who is going to run the show. In the Senate of Virginia, the decision is made by the voters of the Commonwealth when they elect the Lieutenant Governor whose principal duty is to preside over the Senate. In the House, the Speaker of the House is the presiding officer who is elected by the members of the House.
The political party with the most members has control of the House and elects the Speaker. Republicans control of the House is 51 to 49 this session, a sharp drop in the 66-34 control of recent years. The closeness of the balance of power led to some meaningful discussions that should result in more transparency in the operation of the House.
My interest in becoming the presiding officer of the House by being elected Speaker was well known. Once the two disputed delegate elections where decided in favor of the Republicans there was no way I could reasonably expect to win. Only the Republican who had worked in his party and in the legislature for decades was nominated, and he was elected unanimously. That helped the session get underway in a cooperative spirit. There will be ample opportunity for debate when the many bills that reflect the issues before the General Assembly are considered.
What does a Speaker wannabe do when his party does not gain control of the legislative body? I have decided for myself that if I cannot be the formal Mr. Speaker of the House of Delegates then I can return to my role as Mr. speaker (small “s”) speaking out on tough issues that some may want to duck, and I can speak out on institutional practices that are not transparent or fair.
In this way, I can best serve my constituents and the long-term interest of the Commonwealth. I can also serve as a mentor to the many new exciting members that are joining the House of Delegates, and I can help to reduce any feelings of intimidation they might be experiencing. Certainly the legislature provides experiences that are not replicated in any other role in life.
The techniques of mass communication through phone calls, postcards, rallies, opinion writings, and other practices that were so successful in helping to get candidates elected can be utilized in the legislative process to help influence the outcome of legislation. I have already been seeing groups shifting from advocacy for individual candidates to advocacy for issues. On issues like expansion of health care and independent redistricting, a strong public voice and advocacy are necessary for success.
There will be more opportunities for the public to follow the legislature in real-time this year than ever before. Video streams of meetings of House Full Committees can be accessed online. Download an instruction sheet at Live Stream Instructions.
For many years into the future the example of one vote making a difference will be the House of Delegates election in the 94th House district in Virginia. After all legal issues are resolved, a winner will be finally announced. The winner will have won by a single vote or by a drawing of lots as Virginia law prescribes. You simply cannot get an election outcome closer than that! Every vote does count. But the importance of that one vote goes beyond deciding who will represent the people in that district; it will also decide which of the two parties will have a majority in the House of Delegates or whether the parties will be tied! Too bad for the people who might have an interest in the outcome but did not bother to vote.
The one-vote outcome along with a wave of voter participation transformed the Commonwealth’s legislative control in the House from Republican dominance of 66 members to 34 Democratic legislators to an even division or an advantage of one depending on that one final vote. Legislation of importance like expanding health insurance to those in need to adequately funding schools and encouraging gun safety that could not make it through the majority party that has been dominated by ultra-conservatives is much more likely to receive a hearing with a greater chance of a favorable hearing.
I do not sense an appetite from the people with whom I have talked for political posturing and grand-standing. To the contrary, I believe there is a public expectation that we work out whatever we need in order to proceed with the business of the legislature and to resolving issues that have been left unaddressed for too long. The one-upmanship that too often dominates the political world needs to be set aside. There is important work that needs to get done.
A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that between 1970 and 2003 there have been 32 tied legislatures in 22 states. The report described various ways that states have dealt with the situation. The North Carolina House of Representatives resolved a tie in 2002 by having two speakers of the house, one from each party who alternated each day. Similar agreements were used in the Indiana House in 1988, the Michigan House in 1992 and the Nevada Assembly in 1994.
Wyoming’s law provides for a coin toss to pick the majority party. Indiana, Montana and South Dakota break a tie by selecting the party of a top official like the governor, the NCSL report said. Washington State had co-speakers for a session that was described as cumbersome but workable. When the Florida Senate tied, one party’s leader served as chamber president for the first year of the term, followed by the other party’s leader the second year.
The people have made their voices heard in a historic election turnout in 2017. Campaigning has ended; it is time to start governing. A power-sharing agreement can be worked out. Virginians will be the winners when a power-sharing agreement is in place.