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.
My columns written over the couple of weeks after the ending of the annual General Assembly session this year as you may remember were filled were excitement and superlatives about the great work that had been accomplished this year. I even described the budget that was passed for the next two years as being the best on which I had voted over my legislative career. Many goals including to better fund education, mental health, homeless prevention, environment and other areas were not only met but were funded at historic levels.
Then suddenly, “poof,” the good news ended as the world sank into the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting economic collapse. Monies that had been projected to be received to support the very real needs of the Commonwealth as reflected in the budget we passed evaporated. The General Assembly is scheduled to meet on April 22 in a reconvened session to consider the Governor’s recommendations on legislation we passed including amendments that are needed to keep the budget in balance. Extra precautions are being taken for the meeting because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the meeting will be very painful for the decisions that must be made on the budget. There are no good choices.
Virginia has an all-time high in rainy-day reserve funds of about two billion dollars. Those funds are built up in the good times to serve as a cushion in challenging times like now. Ideally, reserve funds would be drawn on over the duration of the recession rather than being fully exhausted at the beginning, but the unknown is the length of the economic recession. Virginia has historically taken a very conservative approach to dipping into its reserves and is likely to once again with the high level of uncertainty about the future of the economy. While federal funds are expected to be made available to the states, the amount and timeline for assistance may be even more unpredictable than the future strength of the economy.
The tendency in budgeting is often to make reductions in those items last added to the budget and to protect more established programs. Such an approach at this time would put in jeopardy an increase in the minimum wage that affects state employees as well as those in the private sector. We are way past time to increase the measly $7.25 minimum wage that we had approved to go to $9.50 in January. I agree with the argument of advocates who insist that increasing the minimum wage would help with economic recovery because that increase would go immediately back into the economy as it is spent on groceries, rent, transportation and other necessities. The same argument applies to salary increases for teachers and state employees. These workers with the lowest of incomes should not bear the brunt of the declining economy.
More difficult decisions face us in a budget that proposes increases to programs that help the homeless, increase funding for preschool education, expand programs for persons with special needs, and expand environmental protection among others. There are no good choices!
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.
The General Assembly is in the final week of its scheduled 60-day annual session–scheduled to adjourn sine die on March 7. The session has already made history with the actions that have been taken, and that history will be added to in its last week. Resolution of remaining issues will determine just how historic the session will be and how strong the forces of “we have always done it this way” are.
A majority of both the House and the Senate members agree that the minimum wage should be increased–actually should have been increased years ago. The current minimum of $7.25 is an embarrassment. But discussions continue to be held on how much the increase should be. Should there be incremental increases over time? Should increases be statewide or regional? What jobs should the increase cover?
Almost every member ran for office with a promise to clean up the environment. How should we get to a cleaner economy in the state? What should be the timeline on environmental legislation as experts advise us on the impending climate change crisis? Are consumers willing to pay more to get cleaner electricity?
How strict should background checks be for firearm transfers? A slim majority support my bill to require a background check on all firearm transfers. Others are vehement about having background checks for only firearm purchases. Should compromises be made on gun safety measures designed to reduce gun-related violence?
Should public employees be allowed to bargain with local governments on the conditions and compensation for employment? Or should they only be able to meet and discuss their wages and conditions with local governments with no power to bargain? Should all employees be required to pay dues to unions that are representing their interests?
How often should vehicles have a safety inspection? For many years the requirement was twice annually. Most recently it has been once annually. Most states have dropped the requirement. Would every other year be adequate?
With gasoline tax revenues declining as automobiles get more mileage per gallon, should the gas tax be increased to make up for the loss? Or should cars be taxed on the distance they travel in a year? And what about electric vehicles that do not burn any gas? Should we be making a greater investment in our transportation infrastructure?
Should a constitutional amendment be approved setting up an independent redistricting commission or is there another way to try make sure districts can be drawn fairly without incumbents alone picking their voters?
I have made my views public on these and other issues over the years. In a legislative session all views must be considered: urban, suburban, rural; Democratic, Republican, Socialist (there is one); conservative, moderate, liberal; etc. In most instances a compromise can be reached in conference committees such as those that are now meeting. Other issues will be put off for another year. Regardless of what happens with remaining issues, the 2020 session will go down in history as truly a remarkable one with the many tough issues that have already been resolved.
A bill long championed by Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston) to expand the definition of hate crimes cleared the Virginia House of Delegates with a 60-39 vote on Wednesday (Feb. 19).
If approved by the state Senate, the bill would add gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability as categories covered by hate crimes.
Currently, the law defines hate crimes as an illegal act directed against individuals or property because of the person’s race, religion or national origin.
Plum and Del. Richard Sullivan, Jr. pushed for the measure. Last year, a similar bill proposed by Plum died in a House committee. Republicans on the committee stated that the change would unnecessarily complicate the law, which already punishes violence.
Hate crimes must be reported to the Department of State Police by local law enforcement agencies.
A tradition in the House of Delegates that has come about in recent years is to have a speech at the beginning of each daily session during February about a Black person. Some speeches are about well-known historic figures; most are about lesser-known Black persons who have made contributions to their communities and to the state. After all, the point of Black History Month is to have all of us gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of Black persons’ contributions to our history. The Legislative Black Caucus organizes the event, and I am pleased to have been invited to speak each year at one of the daily sessions. This year I spoke about the late Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour and Washington Week in Review who was the first Black woman to become a national news commentator. I always appreciated receiving the daily news from her in her calm and professional manner. Not all speeches are about historic figures; one delegate spoke this year about his experiences of growing up Black.
I predict that in future years a speech will be made on the floor of the House of Delegates about the 2020 Virginia General Assembly being a transformative event in Black history. Black experience accounts for a major portion of the story in a state that unfortunately has been known for centuries for its racist policies. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, and the slave codes that were enacted to keep them subjected as slaves were inhumane.
When the tobacco fields were no longer productive, Virginia’s chief source of income became the selling of slaves into the deep South. Even the freeing of the slaves with the Civil War did not bring equal rights to Virginia’s Black population. Slave codes were replaced by Jim Crow laws. Voting by Blacks was restricted. Their separate schools and other accommodations were not equal.
Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought about changes that started Black people on the way to greater freedom. A successful lawsuit against gerrymandering in the state along with greater voter participation brought about a record number of Black candidates being elected to the General Assembly. Black legislators took on greater roles of responsibility in the 2020 session of the legislature.
The first Black woman was elected Majority Leader of the House of Delegates, and the first Black woman was elected President of the State Senate. While there had been a few Black committee chairs over the years in the House of Delegates, half of the fourteen committee chairs are now Black. Vestiges of Jim Crow laws that remained in the Code even though they had been over-turned by the courts are being stripped away. Localities are being given permission to deal with Confederate monuments that were the symbols of Jim Crowism.
Laws that were unevenly applied to Black persons are being amended or repealed. Black cemeteries are being cared for as the Confederate cemeteries were for many years. A commission is going to look at the teaching of Black history in our schools to ensure that it tells the whole story. Major strides are being made in this month of Black history!
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president when the entire country was in the midst of what historians term the Great Depression. His solution to the widespread economic and social challenges that existed at the time was the establishment of programs and services that became known as the New Deal.
Virginia had fallen behind in responding to many economic and social challenges until the voters in 2019 signaled with their votes that they were ready for changes. Those changes are coming in what I described in my column last week as “dazzling” speed. This week I will give many more examples. I am highlighting bills that have been passed by the House of Delegates but still must be passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor. I feel certain that there will not be major differences between the actions of the House and Senate.
Virginians supported candidates in the election that wanted to end discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. The House responded last week by passing a bill that ends discrimination in housing, accommodations, employment, and others forms of discrimination. It is the first such bill to pass in a southern state and is one of the most comprehensive of any in the country. I was honored to be a co-patron of the bill and pleased that my bill to extend protections of the hate crime law to all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity also passed.
A bill to raise the minimum wage is making its way through the House with multi-year steps to get to $15 per hour. My minimum wage bill that I have been introducing for many years was incorporated into the bill that is headed for passage. Immigrant workers that need a driver’s permit to get to work will be able to get one under a bill before the House. For the last several decades there have been a series of laws designed to make it more difficult for a woman to have access to an abortion when necessary, but those laws are being repealed. Likewise, a number of laws that have made it more cumbersome and difficult to register and vote have been repealed.
Bills to clean up our environment are passing this year including a bill I introduced to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The Governor’s goal for the state to become carbon neutral by 2050 is being incorporated into energy legislation that makes way for more solar and wind power. Some advocates called their efforts the “Green New Deal.” While the omnibus bill that incorporated their goals into a single piece of legislation did not pass as it was found impossible to determine its fiscal impact, I believe that most if not all of their goals will have been met when the many other bills with a narrower focus that have passed are considered. The advocacy of the Green New Deal members was very important in getting the many other single-purpose bills passed.
I have not exhausted the list of good bills that are passing. What is happening in Richmond this session is a really good new deal for people in the Commonwealth!
Lake Braddock Secondary Schools to Work with ARTSFAIRFAX — “Students at two Fairfax County public schools will explore a deeper engagement with the arts as part of the ARTSFAIRFAX Artist Residency Program. Rocky Run Middle School and Lake Braddock Secondary School art students will work with artists who connect 3D art exploration through mosaics and dance to history, language arts, and creative writing for engaging, unique, and innovative learning experiences.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]
Potomac River Cafe Honored — The cafe was among nine winners in the county’s Carrot Gold Food Safety Excellence Award. Winners were chosen from more than 3,800 permitted establishments inspected annually. [Fairfax County Government]
New State Laws on the Horizon — “In the 35 days since the 2020 legislative session began, Democratic lawmakers in Virginia advanced laws to restrict access to guns, raise the minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana and ease restrictions on abortion. They sprinted to pass hundreds of bills before a deadline: February 11th, ‘crossover day,’ when all bills must be passed by at least one chamber or be scrapped.” [WAMU]
Staff photo by Jay Westcott
A bill to reduce the use of styrofoam use by food vendors in Virginia cleared the state House with a 55-44 vote on Tuesday (Feb. 11).
Introduced by Del. Paul Krizek (D-Alexandria) and backed by Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston) who introduced a similar measure this session, the bill requires some chain restaurants to stop using styrofoam containers by July 1, 2021. All food vendors must phase out the use of the containers by July 1, 2025.
Plum proposed a similar measure that was incorporated into Carr’s bill.
Styrofoam products — which are also known as polystyrene — are not biodegradable and take up a significant percentage of space in the state’s landfills.
Environment Virginia, an advocacy organization that is part of Environment America, applauded the vote:
A lot of waste comes from things we don’t need and we know we shouldn’t use, such as foam cups and take-out containers. This trash ends up in our open spaces and waterways, where it endangers wildlife. Polystyrene never breaks down, so it harms our environment for decades. Nothing we use for five minutes should pollute our planet for generations to come.
Environment Virginia has talked to tens of thousands of Virginians about plastic pollution and polystyrene and has collected more than 50,000 petitions calling on our leaders to take action on this crucial issue. Virginia’s leaders in the House of Delegates listened today and we look forward to our leaders in the Senate doing the same.
The ban will not apply to public schools and correctional facilities. Localities can also step in and provide one-year exemptions to individual food vendors if the proposal causes “undue economic hardship.”
All violators will be charged a $50 fee for each day of violation, which would be reused for lottery control and recycling projects.
The state Senate will consider the bill at a date that has not been announced yet.
A bill that no longer requires voters to provide an excuse to cast an absentee ballot cleared the Senate this week.
The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) allows registered voters to cast an absentee ballot in any election where the voter is qualified to cast a ballot.
Howell’s bill was part of a package of bills that tweak the voting process in Virginia.
Other proposals, which got a green light from the Senate earlier this week, include designating Election Day as a state holiday and extending the deadline for the receipt of military and overseas absentee ballots.
Proposals in the House and Senate to remove photo ID requirements were killed in committee.
The proposals would have allowed voters to show registration statements, bank documents or other government-issued paperwork with the name and address of the voter.
Howell’s bill passed in the Senate by a 31-9 vote.
Photo by Catherine Moran
Virginia’s government has been termed representative since its start-up in the church in Jamestown in 1619. It took 400 years to achieve true representation as it has this year–more persons of color than ever before, a multi-fold increase in women to 41 of 140, and more ethnic diversity than ever before. While the flip from red to blue partisan control is often mentioned, the more dramatic change is the shift from male to female dominance in leadership. Making up the leadership is the first woman Speaker of the House who happens to also be the first Jewish speaker, the first woman floor leader of either party who happens also to be a woman of color, the first woman clerk of the House of Delegates, the first woman President of the Senate who happens also to be a woman of color, and the first woman chair of the Senate Finance Committee who happens to be my good friend Senator Janet Howell. What a way to start a new session and a new era! We are making herstory!
My committee assignments have changed reflecting the fact that I am once again after two decades serving in the majority party. I will continue to serve on the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee as I have for 38 years except that now I will be chairing the committee. I expect significant environmental protection legislation will be forthcoming this year. I am returning to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee on which I served for many years before being removed when partisan control of the House changed. I will continue to serve on the renamed Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee of which I was co-chair when it was first organized as the Science and Technology Committee a couple of decades ago. I will also be serving on the newly designated Public Safety Committee taking over the jurisdiction of the former Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee. I am on the Gun Safety subcommittee that I know will be passing meaningful gun safety laws including my universal background checks bill.
Social media posts indicate that there will be more people coming to Capitol grounds this year especially on January 20 to protest the bills that have been introduced to end gun violence. Under rules adopted by the new majority, guns will not be allowed in the Capitol or the Pocahontas Building where legislative offices are. More security measures have been put into place than ever before. Be aware that your visit to the Capitol may take more time with the additional security precautions that are being taken.
There are multiple ways to keep up with what is happening during the session. Daily meetings of the full legislative sessions are live-streamed at House Chamber Stream and Senate Stream. Progress of legislation can be tracked at http://lis.virginia.gov/. Clips of newspaper articles from news sources around the state can be found by signing up at the Virginia Public Access Project website, https://www.vpap.org/about-us/ subscribe/. Communicate with me at [email protected] or 804.698.1036.
Last Sunday I made my annual winter trek south to Richmond for the General Assembly session. My two-hour trip is not far enough to get me to sunny weather, but it is far enough for me to be in some hot debates. I stay in a hotel with such proximity to my office that my daily commute is just a walk of a couple of minutes. Going south in the winter may be a vacation for some, but for the next 60 days it is the most intense period of work that one can imagine. Fortunately, I get home most weekends for a brief reprieve.
This trip south has been one filled with great anticipation. For the first time in two decades I am not in the minority! I chair a committee now, the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, that will be acting on many environmental bills. I can expect that bills I introduce will get a fair hearing and most of them will pass. My colleagues and I reflect the population of the Commonwealth more than any previous General Assembly session ever. Not only do we have more women in the legislature, but we have the first ever woman Speaker of the House!
Being a member of the majority party brings enormous responsibility. As the party “in power,” we must exercise our duties in ways that are judicious and fair. There is no time for political pay-back. We must shift from campaigning mode to governing mode. Although it may be tempting to do otherwise, we must conduct ourselves in ways towards the minority party members that would be the way we want to be treated in the distant future when we may find ourselves the minority again. Yes, the golden rule should apply even in the legislature.
How exciting it is to realize that in a few short months we will be able to add Virginia to the list of states that have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment even if we are the last needed for ratification. We will strengthen our existing antidiscrimination laws and add to them. We will make our communities safer from gun violence. We will add essential funding increases to our educational and human service programs. We will make critical decisions on protecting our environment and responding to climate change. And more. When all this work is done we have a governor who has pledged to sign our bills into law!
Last Saturday’s public hearing by the Fairfax General Assembly delegation reminded us that there is not total accord on what we will be doing. About half the audience of around 300 people in attendance seemed to be there to shout down those with whom they disagreed. Their efforts to show support for what they define as their second amendment rights was to violate the first amendment rights of others. The lack of civility in public discourse across the country has found its way to Virginia. What a shame!
I am honored to be here, and I am going to do my best to fairly represent your interests. Make a trip south to see me and the legislative process over the next couple of months. To live-stream the legislative sessions, go to House of Delegates and to Senate. To follow the progress of bills, visit lis.virginia.gov.
Comments Sought for Plum’s Pre-Session Survey — Del. Ken Plum is seeking residents’ feedback on priorities and issues facing the Virginia General Assembly this year. The 2020 session begins next week. [Ken Plum]
Group of Men Assault Victim in Herndon — Police believe a victim was assaulted by a group of up to seven males on Dec. 28 on the 12000 block of Alabama Drive. One of the men hit the victim in the head with a bottle. The case is under investigation. [Herndon Police Department]
Fairfax County General Assembly Public Hearing Set for Saturday — The local delegation’s hearing is set for Saturday (Jan. 4) at the Fairfax County Government Center (12000 Government Center Parkway). Only county residents may register to speak. [Fairfax County Government]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
The Fairfax County delegation to the General Assembly will hold a public hearing for the upcoming 2020 session.
The hearing will take place on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 9 a.m. in the board room of the Fairfax County Government Center (12000 Government Center Parkway).
Residents interested in speaking at the hearing should register online or contact the county’s Department of Clerk Services at 703-324-3151 by Thursday, Jan. 2.
Only county residents can speak either on behalf of themselves or an organization serving county residents. All speakers will be allocated three minutes to address the delegation. The hearing will be streamed online.
The 2020 session convenes on Wednesday, Jan. 8. More information about key dates is available online.
Photo via Fairfax County/Facebook
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Mr. Jefferson would have been pleased with the voter rebellion of 2019 that shifted power in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in two decades.
With all the history-making details of the outcome of the 2019 elections, some of what happened is a repeat of past events from which there is a great deal to be learned. In my first term in the House of Delegates in 1978 there were 78 Democrats; that number dwindled to 47 in 2000 when Republicans assumed control of the House.
Republicans had been treated shabbily under Democratic majorities, and they never passed up an opportunity to point out the arrogance and unfairness of the Democratic majority. For decades Democrats had not put Republicans on committees that met.
When Republicans took over the majority in the House, they told stories over and over of Democratic abuses of the past to justify minimizing Democratic participation in the legislative process. Republicans were doing the very things about which they had complained for decades. To the victor goes the spoils. It was time for revenge
Republican campaigning to take the majority never fully transitioned to fairly governing the Commonwealth. Retribution was sought for past grievances. I and many others were removed from major committee assignments. Committee operations were changed to keep Democratic bills bottled up with no recorded votes. In all ways the Republican majority was no better than the Democratic majority had been.
Some examples of abuses: Gerrymander districts to protect Republicans and to reduce chances of Democrats getting elected; Stack committee membership to ensure that their bills were the only ones to get passed; Add subcommittees without adhering to proportional membership or recorded votes to dispose of bills on gun safety, ERA ratification, or nondiscrimination in a way to leave no fingerprints or blame.
Democratic legislators have many stories they can relate about their suffering over the last couple of decades under Republican dominance. The campaigns that just ended were full of dirty tricks. Democrats may well be in the mood to seek revenge; payback can be so sweet.
I believe, however, Democrats must act as though we have learned from past mistakes. Winning the majority puts Democrats in the position to bring about critically needed reform in the legislative process and to act on legislation for which they were not able to get a hearing over the last couple of decades.
Flipping the General Assembly should be more than a color change from red to blue: it needs to be a change to a more open and transparent government. I believe that voters do not want political wrangling; they expect reform of the way business has been done in the past. The majority must provide leadership for meaningful reform while ignoring temptations for revenge. A history of bad deeds should not be repeated.
Del. Ken Plum, who represents the 36th district, has introduced a state bill that would institute universal background checks.
His proposal, which was filed on Monday, is part of a push by Democrats — who clinched the majority in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the first time in 26 years — to introduce gun safety bills.
Plum’s measure requires background checks for any firearm transfer and directs the state’s police department to create a process for transferors to obtain background checks from licensed firearms dealers.
Additionally, a transferee that receives a firearm from another person without undergoing a background check will be considered guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. A number of exceptions are outlined in the proposed legislation.
State Sen. Richard Saslaw filed four bills in the Senate to limit handgun purchases by establishing an age requirement for gun use, prohibiting the sale or possession of an assault firearm and enforcing background checks.
Plum’s bill has been prefiled. Referral to a house committee is pending.