The final advice that might be the hardest for active persons like I am is to stay sane. Wrapping up an amazing and historic session of the General Assembly like this last one has been has kept me busy for several weeks. While I have received more notes of thanks and appreciation than ever after a legislative session, I also want to thank those who have taken the time to send me a note or email. As many have expressed, it was a historic, transformative, and consequential session! I was honored to be part of it.
The session gives us a solid footing upon which we can move forward. Unfortunately, the economic slump we are entering may even be worse than the one in 2008 and may hamper progress in funding very important programs. We must not falter on funding critical health care programs both for physical and mental health. And we must continue our effort to ensure that everyone has access to health insurance. Our current health crisis reminds us that much work needs to be done to provide mandated paid sick leave for everyone.
We got a start on raising the minimum wage, but we need to continue a pathway to $15 per hour. The so-called right-to-work law needs to be repealed to give workers greater protections.
The criminal justice system got attention this past legislative session, but a great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that it is a just system. We need to shut off the classroom to prison pipeline that too often has treated youthful behavior as crimes. Small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized this session, but the entire range of drug crimes and rehabilitation needs review. Likewise, the parole system needs reform with an emphasis on restorative justice. The death penalty that is seldom used needs to be repealed.
A major transportation package that passed needs continuous review. With an increasing number of vehicles using electricity for power, the revenue from the gasoline tax will shrink. We took significant strides in protecting our environment, but there is much work to be done.
Hunkering down gives us time to celebrate our accomplishments, but the time of reflection and contemplation also reminds us that much more is left to be done.
In the closing days of the session that has been marked by historic firsts and transformative changes, the General Assembly took another step that may if approved by the voters put Virginia into the leadership of democratic government. The General Assembly passed for the second time as required for constitutional amendments a proposed amendment establishing a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The proposed amendment will be on the ballot in November for the voters in the Commonwealth to decide if it should be added to the Constitution. The most commonly expressed purpose of the amendment is “to have voters choose their elected representatives rather than to have elected officials choose their voters.” Said another way, its purpose is to get rid of gerrymandering.
I believe it is accurate to say that Virginia will, if the amendment is approved by the voters, be the first state to take such a giant step to get partisan politics out of its redistricting without being required to by court decision or ballot initiative. The partisan grip of one party over the redistricting process has dictated the legislative outcome of so many issues over the decades first by Democrats and more recently in the last two decades by Republicans. This abuse of political power increased in the public mind the need for a change in the process of drawing legislative boundary lines.
The old way of doing business also resulted in overt racial discrimination in the business of government. The new amendment addresses that concern directly: Every electoral district shall be drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, and judicial decisions interpreting such laws. Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.
A unique circumstance brought about what the New York Times described as “a blue-moon step…to largely strip themselves of the power to draw new political maps next year.” When the amendment was first proposed Democrats were in the minority and campaigned aggressively for redistricting reform as it presented a possible avenue for gaining additional legislative seats. Republicans who were suffering decline in political power having lost several elections saw their dominance slipping away. Both parties apparently saw the amendment to their advantage as it passed both houses of the General Assembly overwhelmingly last year. The intervening election resulted in a shift of power as the General Assembly turned from red to blue. No longer do many Democrats feel the need for protection; Republicans no doubt fear Democratically-controlled redistricting when the new census numbers come available. Some in the Democratic majority offered a different approach to the amendment by proposing to redistrict in 2021 with a promise that independent redistricting would be considered for the next decade.
Establishing a fairer way to redistrict has been one of my goals from the time I introduced a bill on the subject in 1982. While my vote to support the amendment in the face of intense lobbying against it has disappointed some people, I remain true to my belief that partisanship needs to be removed as the controlling factor in drawing legislative lines. Ultimately, however, the people will decide the outcome in the election in November.
Readers of this column no doubt have next Tuesday, November 5, marked as election day on their calendars. You are exceptional. If history holds true, fewer than half of registered voters will vote. Getting people to register is a year-round activity but getting registered voters to actually cast a vote is a crunch-time activity for the last couple of weeks before the election.
Tired of all the robo-calls? Slick postcards in the mailbox? Contentious debate on the news media? Endless social media posts? Much of that activity is directed to reminding people to vote and to gain a competitive advantage, but it oftentimes turns off folks who are cynical about the electoral process or who are confused by it all.
Historically there have been many efforts to suppress the vote by passing laws that prevent various classes of people from qualifying to register or that add to the complexities of voting that discourage people from going to the polls. Virginia’s history is filled with numerous examples of laws that reduced the franchise. Literacy tests that were unreasonable or unfairly administered, poll taxes that not only charged for voting but included a time schedule for collection that only insiders could meet, and unusually long residency requirements are but a few examples. For much of our history in Virginia, the majority party in control of state politics worked to keep people from voting!
Against that backdrop of individual cynicism and confusing election laws, what are we who understand the importance of elections to do to increase participation in voting? I believe we need to get past the old adage that it is not polite to talk about politics and religion. Leaving religion for another discussion, I believe more than ever that we need to have a more inclusive discussion that might inevitably lead to a debate about politics and government in our state and in our nation. Keep it civil is the first rule but be sure to end the discussion with a reminder to friends, family and neighbors to vote. Our government is no better than voters decide.
Between 6 am and 7 pm Tuesday, November 5, polls will be open for voting in Virginia. If you are not sure where to vote, go to fairfaxcounty.gov/elections. You can find where your polling place is but also what is on the ballot. All seats in the House of Delegates and the State Senate are up for election as are Constitution officers (for Fairfax that is the sheriff and the Commonwealth’s attorney). At the Fairfax County level, voters elect the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, the supervisor to represent their magisterial district, three at-large School Board members and a School Board member for their magisterial district, three members of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board, and a question on issuing school bonds.
There are few surprises in how I intend to vote. School children often ask me if I vote for myself, and I can assure you that I do. I will be voting for Senator Janet Howell; for Sheriff Stacey Kincaid; for Commonwealth’s attorney Steve Descano; for Board of Supervisor chairman Jeff McKay; Walter Alcorn for Hunter Mill supervisor; Melanie Meren for Hunter Mill School Board representative; for School Board at-large Karen Keys-Gamarra, Abrar Omeish, Rachna Sizemore Heizer; and for Soil and Water Conservation Board Gerald Peters, Chris Koerner, and Monica Billger; and yes on the school bond issue.
If you need to vote early, get absentee voting information at Elections. See you at the polls with your friends and neighbors on Tuesday. Now more than ever, it is important to vote and to take someone to the polls with you!
My parents were not political; they tended to always want to avoid controversy. One exception was their support of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were married shortly before the Great Depression and had a really tough go of it in rural Virginia during the depression. They were convinced that it was President Roosevelt’s New Deal that saved the country, and they never let me forget it! Many historians would agree with them.
While the challenges facing our state today are very different from those that the country faced in the 1930s, there are issues that burden many of our citizens and jeopardize our country’s future that demand a plan and a set of actions not unlike those of the New Deal era. Appropriately the response to these needs is called the Green New Deal. (www.greennewdealva.com)
Many politicians are shying away from the Green New Deal terming it too ambitious, too hasty, and too costly. I support the plan and share its goals of “creating thousands of good jobs addressing climate change and restoring Virginia’s environment.” A long list of groups and organizations supporting the coalition have very thoughtfully put together our immediate need to respond to climate change with the need to put more people to work productively. Green New Deal supporters seek “to develop and implement a comprehensive state-wide energy transformation plan that centers environmental sensitivity, equity, transparency, justice and sustainability in its solution.”
The devil in the myriad of details that must be worked out over the next several years will require listening to each other, respecting the needs and rights of all our citizens, compromising when it moves us towards our ultimate goals, and giving credit to all stakeholders as they make advances supporting the goals.
With the emphasis being put on climate change and the necessity that we move forward on renewable energy, I was pleased that Governor Ralph Northam last week announced what is being characterized as “the largest state renewable energy contract in the Nation.” As the Governor described it, “With this landmark contract, Virginia is leading by example and demonstrating how states can step up to combat climate change and advance a clean energy economy.” Under the contract the partners will supply state government with 420 megawatts of renewable energy, which is the equivalent of powering more than 100,000 homes. It is an important small step forward that puts the Commonwealth on record as being on board with renewables.
Virginia has had a slower start than many of us would like, but I am encouraged by recent developments. The first off-shore wind turbines in federal waters are to be completed by the end of next year leading to full development of 2,600 megawatts of offshore wind that would power 650,000 homes. A press release from the Governor’s Office indicates that since January of 2018 the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued 23 permits for solar projects that will generate more than 800 megawatts of energy, and the agency expects to issue permits for an additional 478 megawatts for seven projects by the end of the year.
It is time for a new deal in Virginia and a green one at that. Children of the future will appreciate the wisdom of the actions that we are taking today.
Four hundred years ago is a long time, but what happened four centuries ago has implications for us today. Virginia is in the midst of a year-long series of programs and experiences based on events that happened a dozen years after the first permanent English colony was settled at Jamestown in 1607. All the activities taken together are referred to as American Evolution 1619-2019. There are many events scheduled for the remainder of this year.
The planners of the commemoration are to be commended for recognizing that while the historic events that occurred are noteworthy and interesting, the real lessons to be learned come after the actual dates of historic events as we discuss and consider their resulting impact. Many references are made to America’s beginning as being 1776, but it can be argued that the beginning of America as a representative democracy began in the Virginia colony with the meeting of the first representative body meeting in Jamestown in 1619. Remembering that date in 1619 should cause us to reflect on all that has happened after that date that led us to the society and government we have evolved into today.
Similarly, the arrival of 20 or so Africans at Old Point Comfort just down the James River from Jamestown Island four hundred years ago in August of 1619 must be noted. They came not with steamer trunks of fancy dress; they came in shackles having been captured in Africa and brought here at the beginning of a slave trade that would fuel the economy of the colony and then the Commonwealth of Virginia for the next 250 years. To look at African Americans then and now without an examination of what happened in between is to miss a tragic part of our evolving history–the racism that gripped our country for its entire history and is still with us today.
Those Africans who arrived in 1619 were slaves. Soon after their arrival that first legislative body passed laws that defined their enslavement and the limitations on their very existence. The few efforts like Nat Turner’s rebellion that attempted to gain freedom for slaves were put down harshly with further slave codes being passed to limit them from being taught how to read and write and allow for more cruel punishments to keep them in line. When the constitution was written for the new country after the Revolution, slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, despite Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal.” It was not until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that the descendants of the slaves of 1619 could claim anything close to equality.
We did not start with a perfect union; we have not achieved one today. We have been on an arc of history that in another context suggests that it is bent towards justice. The American Evolution 1619-2019 program is providing an important context for understanding the stream of history that is our past and upon which we must strive to build a more perfect union.
In 1996 I had the great learning experience of chairing the Northern Virginia Electric Vehicle Launch Committee through the sponsorship of the Electric Transportation Coalition (ETC) and the US Departments of Energy and Transportation. The national goal to clean up the air we breathe was the impetus to the study we did in our region as was being done in nine other suburban regions throughout the country. The one-inch thick report we produced–“The Path to an EV Ready Community”–provided a guide that is still relevant and valuable today.
General Motors came out with its EV-1 vehicle which I had the pleasure to drive for a day; prospects were looking good for electric vehicles until suddenly the bottom dropped out of the market. All big manufacturers dropped their testing and production of electric vehicles. Our report was clearly ahead of its time.
Fast forward a couple of decades and electric vehicles have come into their own. All manufacturers I know of are predicting that over the next couple of decades electric vehicles will be the only cars and trucks they produce. They are environmentally clean, outperform traditional cars, need less maintenance, and are safer.
Hybrids that use traditional engines with electric assist have virtually taken over the market. Jane and I felt like pioneers in 2003 when we bought our first Prius. It got great gas mileage, required little maintenance, had less harmful emissions, and ran until we finally traded it in with more than 150,000 miles. Our experiences with the Priuses we bought in 2007 and 2012 were the same.
The path to electric vehicles that my earlier study had considered has made huge strides over the past several years. While Tesla is probably the best known of the electric vehicles, most manufacturers have an all-electric option. Chevrolet has the Bolt and Nissan has the Leaf among the better known models. They will help us reduce our carbon footprint, clean up the air, and more easily adapt to the many new automatic features that are becoming available.
But the shift in the power sources of our vehicles brings new challenges, all of which must be recognized and can be met. At a session “Juicing Up for Electric Vehicles” at the recent National Conference of State Legislatures I attended some of the issues were discussed. How should the sale of electricity be provided and regulated if necessary? Will utilities be able to handle the increased demand? How can equity and access be assured for drivers in the market if prices go up?
Coming with the electric vehicles are many automated features that can make driving safer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that of the over 37,000 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, more than 90% had a human error factor. Maybe the new cars will be able to have safety engineered into them.
Continuing my story about electric vehicles that began more than two decades ago, Jane and I purchased a Tesla a week ago. It is environmentally friendly, has many safety features, and will be very comfortable for my numerous trips to Richmond!
The General Assembly went into Special Session yesterday, July 9, at the call of Governor Ralph Northam to address gun violence after a shooter with a silencer on his pistol murdered a dozen persons in a municipal building in Virginia Beach. The outcome of the session in which legislators introduced eight different bills at the request of the Governor is unknown as I write this column. I introduced the bill that I have introduced at other sessions to expand criminal background checks for all firearm transactions or universal background checks.
Virginia has had a criminal background check for gun purchases for 30 years. The system was put in place after a bill that was heavily debated and that seemed certain to be defeated was passed with the support of a senior delegate, Vic Thomas, who was an avid NRA supporter. He concluded that it was a bill the public clearly wanted and should pass because it did not interfere with the Second Amendment. In what may have been the last time the NRA took such a position, it did not support but it did not oppose the bill’s passage. Governor Gerald Baliles signed the bill into law even though he had earlier opposed any gun control legislation.
The resulting instant background check system that was put into place continues operating today. It was the promise of an instant background check without the need to wait for days for approval that was the feature that led to the bill’s passage.
There was then that continues today a major flaw in the law as originally passed that supporters had hoped to correct but have not been successful in amending. The law only applies to purchases made with federally licensed gun dealers. That’s about half the gun sales in the state each year although exact statistics are unknown because of statutory limitations on gathering information about gun sales put in place with NRA advocacy. This flaw in the law created what is referred to as the “gun show loophole.” At any of the numerous gun shows that are held throughout the Commonwealth one can purchase a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer with an instant background check; at the next table at the show a person can purchase a gun from an unlicensed dealer with no identification needed and no questions asked.
The astonishing statistic is that in 2018 the Virginia State Police conducted 446,333 firearms transactions involving licensed dealers with 3,457 of the transactions denied because of previous criminal behavior. Had the loophole in the law been closed there may have been as many as a half million more checks with a proportionally high number of persons with criminal records being denied another weapon.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, as I have always been told. With a successful system for background checks in place for thirty years without opposition or hiccups, all gun sales should go through the system with minor exceptions related to family members. According to many polls, the public supports universal background checks at levels around 90 percent. It is time for the legislature to act or be able to explain to the public in the coming political campaign why this old adage is not being followed.
While I would never recommend reading the Code of Virginia for pleasure, as it is filled with legalese intended for trained lawyers and judges to debate its intended meaning, it can be a useful document to understand the history of an era.
Because court decisions at the state and federal level can change the application of a law, the words that are in the Code may have been superseded by such a decision or by later enactments of law.
If all that is not enough to confuse us non-lawyers, there are the “notwithstanding” clauses that effectively say that whatever else the law may provide the effective meaning follows the clause.
Laws can be read to help understand the community mores and values of the past. This session saw a meaningful number of bills passed that reflect a cleaning-up of the Code to reflect changing community values.
Some of these include repealing remnants of Jim Crow laws of racial oppression of the past. Thanks to Del. Marcia Price and State Sen. Lionell Spruill, the provisions in Code that exempted Virginia’s minimum wage requirements for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters, all of which were occupations that were most likely held by African Americans, were repealed. The old law made it legal to discriminate through wages. A new law will require employers to provide pay stubs as a way to assist low-wage workers to manage their money and be treated fairly.
Up until action of the General Assembly this session, if you owed court fines and fees in Virginia, your driver’s license could be suspended unless you established a payment plan. As the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy that advocated strongly for a change in the law explained it, one in six Virginia drivers (approximately 900,000 people) has had his or her license suspended because of owing court fines and fees. Almost any poor person who has interacted with the criminal justice system owes some court fines and fees.
Essentially, by taking away someone’s license and therefore likely preventing the person from finding or keeping a job, the state denies the person opportunity to escape from poverty (and ever pay back those fines and fees). This policy was a “debtors’ prison” approach. There is no evidence that suspending people’s licenses increases the rate of payback for fines and fees. The issue disproportionately affected low-income workers, and its repeal this year was past due.
Virginia has historically had one of the highest rates of rental evictions in the country. Laws that disproportionally favored landlords over tenants caused this situation that was disruptive to families. A series of revisions to create a better balance in the law and that provides more options for tenants should make the laws operate more fairly.
Virginia has also had a very bad record in the management of its foster care program. Children were shifted from family to family with limited stability in their lives. Major changes in the laws related to foster children should greatly improve the situation.
It is critically important that we clean up the Code from time to time.
The House of Delegates and the State Senate were in session yesterday (April 3) for the annual reconvened session as required by the constitution. Often referred to as the veto session, part of its business is to consider bills vetoed or with amendments proposed by the governor.
During the regular odd-numbered short session that adjourned on Feb. 24 after 46 days, there were 3,128 bills and resolutions considered. Setting aside resolutions that do not have the force of law of bills, there were 883 bills that passed the legislature all of which must have the signature of the governor in order to become law. The governor’s veto can be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses.
The governor in Virginia has the unique ability among executive officials to propose amendments to bills that previously passed but then must be approved by the General Assembly in the reconvened session with the amendments proposed. This ability for the governor to make corrections or to change the provisions of a bill gives the governor important legislative powers and enhances the importance of the reconvened session that typically lasts for a single day but can go up to three days.
Among the bills on the docket for this reconvened session is a bill that had passed both houses of the legislature but died at the last moment of the regular session. The dispute was over legal language to prohibit the use of cell phones that are not hands-free. The bill will be back before the legislature thanks to an amendment by the governor, and it is likely to finally pass.
I expect to support the governor in his vetoes of bills. One bill that he vetoed would limit his authority to involve Virginia in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that mandates emission reduction in the power sector. Virginia’s involvement in this program is among the most important steps the state can take in reducing greenhouse gases and tackling climate change.
Governor Ralph Northam has also vetoed a bill that I had opposed during the regular session that would force law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions of federal immigration law that are part of the current immigration hysteria. He also vetoed a bill that would have limited the ability of local governments in making decisions about their local employment and pay consideration.
Included among the bills that passed are bills that passed in identical form but were only introduced in one house. Some advocates and legislators believe that there is more certainty that a bill will finally pass if it moves through the legislature on two separate tracks. The governor signs both identical bills to keep from choosing among competing bill sponsors. No one that I know has taken the time to count these bills, but I believe that more than half fall into this category. I question that approach — it seems like unnecessary duplication in an already complex system.
Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in a unique position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds.
As the fall elections approach, the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly, taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased — it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.
An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education.
Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.
Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.
The budget presented to the General Assembly by Gov. Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.
There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain the advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.
March is Women’s History Month. Before women had the whole month, the U.S. recognized Women’s History Week; before that, a single International Women’s Day.
Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements was seen “as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions,” according to an article in Time magazine. The first Women’s Day took place on Feb. 28, 1909 to honor the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes in New York when thousands of women marched for economic rights and to honor an earlier 1857 march when garment workers rallied for equal rights and a 10-hour day, according to the article.
Recognizing the achievement of Virginia women goes beyond naming a month. A monument is under construction on Capitol Square, “Voices from the Garden,” which will be the first monument of its kind in the nation. Representative of the state’s regions, the monument recognizes the 400-year history and the diversity of achievement, ethnicity and thought that women have made to the Commonwealth.
Even more significant in recognizing women in Virginia is the fact that there is historic representation of women in the Virginia House of Delegates, including the election of 11 new women members in 2017, all of whom ousted male incumbents. The House Democratic Caucus is almost 45 percent women, including 11 women of color. The House Republican Caucus is less than 10 percent women. Caucus Chair Charniele Herring is the first woman to chair a caucus in the House of Delegates throughout its 400-year history. Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is the first woman to be elected leader of a caucus in the General Assembly.
Recently I served on a panel, “Can Women Save Democracy? We’re counting on it!” at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University along with Herring, iller-Corn and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. There was a clear consensus in the room that women will play a pivotal role in getting our country back on the right track. Witness this year’s state and local elections when there are record-breaking numbers of women lining up to run in primaries and the general elections.
Not only are women running and winning races, but they are determining the outcome of elections with their tireless work in making calls, knocking on doors, and working on behalf of the candidates they support. Organizations like Indivisibles, with Herndon-Reston Indivisibles being a model organization, and Moms Demand Action among others are making their influence felt on policy issues like ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The big disappointment in celebrating women in history is the refusal of the Virginia House of Delegates to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification failed on a tied vote on a procedural matter that makes it even more frustrating that the amendment was not allowed to be debated on the floor of the House of Delegates. There is more women’s history to be written in Virginia, and I suspect the next step will be the election of even more women this fall and ratification of the ERA next year!
The Virginia General Assembly was adjourning for the year as the film “Green Book” was receiving “Best Picture” recognition at the 91st Oscars. While the story line of the movie may have been fictional, the Green Book was reality in the Jim Crow South.
Segregated facilities of hotels, restaurants, public bathrooms and transportation in Virginia and throughout the South necessitated Black travelers having a guide like the Green Book, a small book with a green cover, to let them know where they could stop to use the bathroom, eat a meal or spend the night. It was not unlike a AAA travel guide except that its listings were just for Black travelers. The movie — without exaggeration — lets recent generations know just how segregated the South was.
As part of the Black History Month celebration in the House of Delegates, a different delegate speaks each day about a famous Black person, an interesting Black person from the past who may not have made the history books or the experience of growing up Black.
One day this session. Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton spoke of her experiences growing up Black in segregated Virginia and her family’s use of the Green Book in their vacation travels. There were special challenges to be met when public bathrooms or restaurants were further than needed.
Other symbols of the challenges of growing up Black in a racist society like Virginia and the South were shockingly brought to our attention this legislative session. The cruel part that blackface played in white entertainment may have been unknown to many younger persons or forgotten by others but must be acknowledged and dealt with in repentance by those who took part including the governor and the attorney general.
To include white robes and hoods in entertainment is to overlook that these are symbols of hate, violence, cross burning, lynchings and white supremacy. Public officials must disavow these symbols unequivocally and provide leadership in healing the communities that have been wounded by signs of white supremacy.
Outside the capitol near the governor’s mansion is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. It features the walk out of Prince Edward schools led by 16-year old Barbara Johns, a factor in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Public schools were not simply segregated, but they were totally unequal.
This legislative session we were reminded by the work of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis of the differences that continue to exist among white and minority facilities, programs and services. The approved budget made some improvements in reducing the inequities among facilities and services that have disadvantaged Black people. There is a new awareness of the work that needs to be done to overcome our racist past.
Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk spoke out forcefully on the floor of the House of Delegates reminding us of our history and the need to take action in the future. The speech of this young Black delegate is worth a listen for it is a powerful statement of the need to overcome our racist past.
Virginia’s state law-making body, the General Assembly, adjourned sine die — until another day — this past Sunday — one day later than its scheduled adjournment date. With more than 3,000 bills and resolutions considered, it is somewhat miraculous that the body came that close to its scheduled 45-day end date.
There were positive accomplishments. Legislation designed to curtail record levels of rental evictions was passed. Major reforms to the foster care program were enacted with Del. Karrie Delaney providing leadership in this area. The legal age for buying cigarettes and vaping products was raised from 18 to 21 — a remarkable achievement in a city that was once the cigarette making capital of the world.
A bill I introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation passed and will increase the persons authorized to administer the miracle drug Naloxone that can save the lives of persons suffering from drug overdoses. The concern about coal-ash ponds has been resolved with a requirement that clean-up occur on the property of utility without transport and in ponds that are sealed at the highest level of environmental protection.
Revisions that were made to the biennial budget that we are now half-way through bring lots of good news. Monies were increased for public education, including districts that have the highest levels of poverty and most need. School counselors were increased in numbers, although not at the level sought by the governor. Most taxpayers will get some money back as a result of the impact of federal tax cuts on state revenue.
A resolution that could lead to a constitutional amendment if passed next year would result in a redistricting commission. While the commission is not as strong as I and the independent redistricting advocates had hoped, it will increase public input into the process of drawing legislative boundaries. A week of no-excuse absentee voting before elections that was passed is much less than in other states, but it will start the process of opening up elections in the future.
Up until the final hours of the session, it appeared that the current limitations on holding a phone while driving would be strengthened, but the bill died for failure to agree to language that would be enforceable.
The ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that I thought was going to occur was defeated by a mostly partisan vote. When the legislation was passed by the Senate and defeated in a House committee, there was an effort to change the rules to allow a vote by the entire House. The rules change was defeated by a 50-50 tied vote with one Republican who had narrowly won re-election in 2017 voting with the Democrats.
All gun safety measures were defeated, including my bill to require universal background checks. My bills to raise the minimum wage and to establish an earned income tax credit system were also defeated.
I am available to speak to groups and organizations about the session; just email me at [email protected] Future columns will discuss the session further.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
As you read this column the Virginia General Assembly will be nearing its adjournment sine die for the 400th year of its existence, having first met in the church on Jamestowne Island in 1619.
During this commemorative year, there will be many opportunities to learn more about Virginia and to reflect on how its history influences it to today even in the current legislative session and in what on another occasion was referred to as its “recent unpleasantries.”
That first session of what became known a century and a half later as the General Assembly was composed of a representative of the 22 plantations that had sprung up along the major rivers of the state as there were no local government, political boundaries or transportation networks in existence. The representatives were all white males who were landowners.
African Americans had to wait for the outcome of the Civil War and women had to wait for the twentieth century before they became part of the electorate. While the right to vote has begrudgingly expanded, over time there continues to be a resistance to making it easier to vote.
In the current session, there were proposals to allow people to vote early or vote absentee without an excuse and to make election day a holiday for the convenience of voters, but it does not appear that any will become law. Establishing a fair way to draw legislative boundaries has been hotly debated, but the decision to establish an independent redistricting commission will await the closing hours of the session.
Slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619 to work the tobacco fields that were the mainstay of the colony’s economy. They had none of the rights that Englishmen claimed and beginning in the 1640s were subjected to “slave codes” that defined them as property to be bought and sold with no access to learning to read and write or to move about freely.
After the Civil War, these restrictive laws became the Jim Crow laws that continued to limit the rights of black people who were kept in line by the Ku Klux Klan and by public lynchings. White supremacy reigned with black-face entertainment intended to degrade black people through crude humor.
Happenings during this legislative session showed how little we have progressed on issues of human rights and respect, but there is hope. The reminder to the governor of his racist past will make him an even more enlightened person who if he continues can provide important leadership to dismantling racism in the state.
The incredible people of color who were elected to the House of Delegates in the last election bring strong voices to the need for greater equity and justice in the Commonwealth. Some limited reforms that will help establish equity and remove racism in the criminal justice system are on their way to passage.
Women first came to the Virginia colony in 1619. While rights of women have expanded slowly over the centuries, having Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is still in doubt. May the lessons of this historic legislative session move us forward in future years.
To check on the fate of specific bills, go to lis.virginia.gov.
Despite all the distraction associated with events in Richmond these days, the General Assembly is staying on task dealing with legislative and budgetary issues it faces.
Each house of the legislature has started to work on legislation passed by the other with conflicts resolved in conference committees made up of members from both houses. The really big conference committee is working to resolve differences on the budget. The big differences on the budget are between the Democrats and Republicans and not the two houses — how to deal with additional revenues coming to the state from the federal tax changes. Stay tuned for the differences on the budget because they will not be resolved until the last few days of the session that is scheduled to adjourn on Feb. 23.
Some good news is emerging from the session. Requiring hands-free phones in cars has been required in most other states many years ago and may finally be coming to Virginia. Research shows that the greatest cause of auto accidents is distracted driving with calls and texting being the chief reason.
I remember the many sessions that it took to pass requirements for smoke-free areas. Richmond as the cigarette manufacturing capital was finally over-ridden by popular sentiments, and smoke-free areas were legislated. Amazingly but happily the age to buy cigarettes and the latest craze of buying electronic vaping devices is being raised from age 18 to 21.
Efforts to legalize gambling establishments in areas of the state as diverse as Portsmouth, Bedford and Danville failed this year in favor of a year-long study to determine state policy. I predict we will see casinos established in the state in a few years as some regions see them as economic development and a source of new revenue offsetting anemic state funding. I voted to let a study go forward but would not support public financing of a stadium or gambling establishment.
Bills that would have decriminalized marijuana did not make it out of committee in either house. My bill introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation to make Naloxone more available to reduce deaths from drug overdoses passed.
Different bills passed that purport to create a fairer way to draw legislative district boundaries, but neither comes close to the independent processes that the public has been seeking to end gerrymandering.
On the environment, bills to require Dominion to clean up their coal-ash ponds passed both houses with endorsement by major environmental groups. A bill I voted for that would have established an ambitious agenda for cleaning up the environment in Virginia failed in the House.
The Senate passed a bill to require public schools to teach a class on the Bible! I will not be voting for it if it makes its way through committee.
All the gun safety bills were defeated in both houses. A bill to make it easier to get a concealed weapon if you are from another state passed with a likely veto by the governor.
Yes, there are other big challenges in the capital these days. I will be addressing them in future columns as the facts involved become better known.