Comscore Secures Investment for Stock Deal — The Reston-based media measurement and analytics company is making a cash investment in order to change shares of convertible preferred stock. [Virginia Business]
Library Branches Switch to Curbside Services Only — Beginning Jan. 11, Fairfax County Public Library branches will switch to virtual and curbside services only. [Fairfax County Government]
County Board Asks State Legislators for Flexibility to Recover — “When it comes to what Fairfax County would like to see come out of this year’s state legislative session, flexibility is at the top of the list.” [WTOP]
Police Find Bullet Inside Home — Local police found a bullet lodged inside a home on the 11800 block of Breton Court on Jan. 2. A homeowner called police when they found a shattered glass door and a hole in their curtain. [Fairfax County Police Department]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
I can remember every word of the conversation as if it took place yesterday, but it happened in 1959. I am reminded of the talk as the person speaking to me, Mrs. Lena Kite, passed away last week at age 94. She was the first person to hold the position of guidance counselor at then Shenandoah High School. She called me into her office one day just as I was entering my senior year of high school. She said, “Kenneth (no one called me Ken in those days), it is time for you to think about applying to go to college.” I was dumbfounded! I hardly knew how to respond. I finally uttered, “I cannot go to college; no one in my family has ever gone to college.” She assured me that yes I could go to college.
Mrs. Kite changed the entire trajectory of my life that day. I was about to graduate from high school which was the expectation for me. My parents who taught me so much of the basics of life of honesty, decency, and hard work had themselves finished but a couple of years of schooling. They had not talked to me about college for it was beyond their knowledge and beyond what they thought could be their children’s aspirations. But Mrs. Kite in her new role as guidance counselor knew better and got me to thinking differently about my future. I owe her a great debt of gratitude and told her that the couple of times I saw her over the last decade when we talked about the two degrees I have. Her obituary said that in her role first as a teacher of typing and shorthand and later as guidance counselor she touched the lives of more than 6,000 children. I am sure she had as equally a positive impact on them as well.
In my first years in the General Assembly there was a debate over several sessions about adding guidance counselors in the elementary schools. My experiences personally and as an educator convinced me of the importance of early intervention with children who have needs beyond what classroom teachers have the time or expertise with which to respond. Evaluations of school programs have clearly shown the importance of and value of support personnel in schools to include counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Children in our schools represent the broad cross section of communities. Some have limited exposure to education as I had; others have had traumatic experiences that must be taken into account if their school experience is going to be successful. As we look to end the classroom to prison pipeline as part of criminal justice reform we have come to recognize the importance of early school experiences for students to be successful. Most everyone needs a push or at least a nudge from time to time in order to go in the right direction. I look forward to the continuance of establishing early childhood programs, improved ratios for teachers and counselors, and other improvements to our public schools as the General Assembly convenes next week.
Using a mobile phone while driving will officially be illegal in Virginia starting on Jan. 1.
Current state law prohibits reading a phone and texting while driving and holding a phone while driving through a work zone, but the Virginia General Assembly adopted legislation barring the use of handheld phones while driving a moving vehicle on state highways in March.
While the law was technically enacted on July 1, its effective date was delayed until the new year so that the public could be educated about its provisions and law enforcement agencies could get training on how to enforce it.
Violations of the new law will be punishable by a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 fine for any subsequent offenses.
There are a few exceptions to the ban on using a phone while driving, including:
- Emergency vehicle operators who are performing their official duties, including law enforcement and fire and medical responses
- Drivers who are lawfully parked or stopped
- Someone using their phone to report an emergency
- The use of an amateur or citizens’ band radio
- Department of Transportation vehicle operators who are performing traffic incident management services
According to Drive Smart Virginia, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported that 15% of all fatal crashes in 2018 were related to distracted driving. Fairfax County has the second-most distracted driving fatalities in the state, surpassed only by Prince William County, and the most injuries that result from distraction-related crashes.
The distracted driving ban is perhaps the most significant legal change coming to Virginia on New Year’s Day, but it is not the only new law that will take effect on Jan. 1.
Here are some other measures to be aware of when the new year arrives:
- HB 264: requires in-person training for concealed handgun permits, removing online or electronic courses as an option for demonstrating competence
- HB 1211: enables undocumented immigrants to apply for new driver privilege cards so they can legally drive
- HB 66: prohibits health insurance companies from charging more than $50 per 30-day supply for prescription insulin
- HB 789: sets a 36% annual rate cap on the interest and fees charged for a short-term loan, which can now go up to $2,500
- SB 172: protects people who receive emergency services from an out-of-network healthcare provider from unexpected medical costs
- HB 1407: prohibits employers from misclassifying employees as independent contractors
- HB 742: gives localities the authority to regulate the takeoff and landing of unmanned aircraft on public property
Photo via Alexandre Boucher on Unsplash
In accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a “new deal” for the “forgotten man.” In the midst of the Great Depression the country responded to Roosevelt’s promise by electing him president four times. The ensuing legislation in the first hundred days of his administration and throughout the subsequent years as president produced a new deal that transformed the government from a laissez-faire approach to a broader role of government in the economy.
Dozens of bills over as many years set up new agencies of government including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put people to work on public projects, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) that provided cash subsidies to farmers while controlling the production of staple crops, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that provided cheap electricity and flood control over seven states. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) acts moved the federal government actively into monetary policy. There are many more.
Increasing concerns in recent years over climate change and economic inequality have led to a call for a “green new deal.” While there have been many statements at the national and state levels as to what constitutes a green new deal, the most comprehensive definition is a resolution introduced in Congress in 2019 that calls for transitioning the United States to use 100 percent renewable, zero-emission energy sources, including investment into electric cars and high-speed rail systems, and implementing “social cost of carbon” policies as part of addressing climate change. The resolution also addresses universal health care, increased minimum wage, and preventing monopolies as well as the needs of poor and disadvantaged people.
The Green New Deal Virginia is a coalition that includes environmental organizations as well as civil rights and social justice groups and community-based organizations. For the groups that make up the coalition as well as their objectives, go to greennewdealva.com. A recent article on the movement written by some of its leaders explains that “Virginians right now are facing a multitude of crises that Green New Deal Virginia directly addresses, including the economic downturn, racial and social inequities and the public health emergency. The Green New Deal is innovative because it is not trying to address each crisis in isolation, but instead it is building community around a collective response to these problems, and prioritizing community voices. . .”
In many ways the challenges facing our country and our state–climate change, income inequality, hunger, COVID-19 and health care generally, criminal justice reform and others are somewhat different but at the same time of a similar magnitude as those faced by President Franklin Roosevelt when he promised a new deal to the nation. I support a Green New Deal and like the first New Deal it faces many years of legislative action to be accomplished. A single omnibus bill that promises to meet all its objectives in one action will not be successful. A commitment now to recognize the problems we face and taking the multiple steps to deliver a green new deal can be successful even faster than the dozen years it took President Roosevelt to deliver on his promise.
The Constitution requires that after the federal census every ten years there is to be a reapportionment of legislative districts based on population growth and shifts reflecting “one-man, one-vote.” Virginia voters made history this year by approving a constitutional amendment establishing a Redistricting Commission. With Virginia having elections in odd-numbered years including in 2021 elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and members of the House of Delegates, Virginia is on a fast track to get the Commission underway.
In the special session that ended in October, the General Assembly passed enabling legislation to establish the Commission by November 15. Already the eight legislators who will be on the Commission have been named as well as the retired judges who will participate. In all instances of appointing members, consideration shall be given “to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.” The partisan leadership in the House and Senate who made the appointments were prohibited from appointing themselves.
Applications are being accepted through December 28 from citizens who would like to serve on the Commission. Persons who have been involved in partisan political activity or who are relatives of members in office or those involved in partisan political activity are not eligible to serve on the Commission. For details on who is eligible for membership and details on applying, go to redistricting.dls.virginia.gov.
The enabling language for the Commission includes extensive requirements for public participation in the redistricting process. “All meetings and hearings held by the Commission shall be adequately advertised and planned to ensure the public is able to attend and participate fully. Meetings and hearings shall be advertised in multiple languages as practicable and appropriate.” At least three public hearings are to be held. The legislation also requires that “All data used by the Commission in the drawing of districts shall be available to the public on its website. Such data, including census data, precinct maps, election results, and shapefiles, shall be posted within three days of receipt by the Commission.”
The Commission is required to submit to the General Assembly plans for districts for the Senate and the House of Delegates of the General Assembly no later than 45 days following the receipt of census data and for Congressional Districts by 60 days. If the Commission is unable to agree on districts, the responsibility for drawing of district lines goes to the state Supreme Court. The law requires that the Court shall appoint two special masters to assist the Court in the establishment of districts. The two special masters shall work together to develop any plan to be submitted to the Court for its consideration. Special masters have been used by the courts to resolve district conflicts in the past including related to Virginia past redistricting.
The timing on the process is limited between the availability of census data and primary elections that could result in a delay in primary elections and reduced time before the general election. Virginia voters have spoken, and a complex process is underway to ensure that voters pick their representatives rather than legislators picking their voters.
So it is in the Commonwealth of Virginia: the action of governance goes on. Since 1619 there has been a form of representative government in first the colony and now the state. The legislative branch, the General Assembly, has since 1971 been meeting every year; prior to that time the House of Delegates and the Senate met only every other year. The legislative sessions convene as prescribed in the Constitution on the second Wednesday of January for sixty days in the even-numbered years and for thirty days in the odd-numbered years unless at least two-thirds of the members agree to extend the session for not more than thirty days. The sessions have always been extended but by not more than 15 or so days. There is talk by the minority party of not agreeing to any extension of the session scheduled to start on January 13, 2021.
In addition to the regular session, there is a reconvened session beginning on the sixth Wednesday after the adjournment of the regular session to consider any bills returned by the governor with amendments or with a veto. The governor may call a special session “when in his opinion the interest may require” or when two-thirds of the elected members of both houses request it. There is a regular beat to the work of the General Assembly: regular session, reconvened session, special session. For even a part-time legislature, the work goes on!
But there is much more to legislating than the formal and now virtual floor sessions of the House and Senate. Earlier this week there was a deadline to request drafting of legislation to be pre-filed before the session. There is a limitation on how many bills a legislator can introduce especially after the convening of the legislature. For members of the legislative staff who actually draft the bills, this is the intense period between Thanksgiving and the opening of the session when 140 members present their best ideas to be crafted into a form that would be suitable to go into the Code of Virginia. The entire support staff of the legislative branch could not be more helpful and deserve our thanks for helping get us through the stressful period of the session.
Pre-session work also includes meetings with advocacy groups (virtually now), monthly meetings of the Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission and other committees on a less regular basis until the session gets underway, and caucuses with our party colleagues. Constituent inquiries and recommendations are very helpful and take time to read and consider.
Prior to the pandemic there was a need to find housing in the Capital city and to arrange to be away from home for the week. The session beginning in January will be virtual so there is the need to make sure your home office has the broadband that will support daily committee and floor sessions. The work is demanding, but I am honored to be part of it. As the song continues, “drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain.” The work goes on!
With more than two months remaining in 2020, I can already say that it has been an amazing year in Virginia’s history. When the events of 2020 in the Commonwealth are reviewed in the future by historians in the context of the state’s history, the conclusion is going to be that Virginia underwent a consequential and transformative period equal to or superior to any other period of its history. For a state that is so rich with history I realize that might seem like an overstatement, but I believe my conclusion is fully supported by the facts.
I am not talking about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic or enduring what is likely to be called the absolute worst presidency in the history of the country, as important as both these situations are. I am talking about what went on with the Virginia General Assembly and its future impact on the state.
The year opened with a regular General Assembly session with many new faces from the 2019 elections. Never has there been a House of Delegates that was younger with more racial and sexual diversity. A Jewish woman took over the reins of power in the House of Delegates. More women and Blacks became committee chairs than ever before. And there was a determination to deal with unresolved issues that had plagued the state for decades and in some instances for centuries. The Governor was clearly on board to lead such a session.
Gun safety measures that had been talked about for years even as gun violence and mass murders had increased were enacted and signed by the Governor. Some had suggested for years that terrible things would happen if all gun transfers required a universal background check, but that system is now in place as a result of a bill I introduced that passed and was signed by the Governor. The more than 22,000 gun advocates most of whom were armed that assembled around the Capitol did not deter the Assembly from doing what it knew had to be done.
Non-discrimination legislation passed with the Virginia Values Act being one of the most comprehensive in the nation. Voting laws were changed to make voting easier and more accessible as voters are now learning as they cast their votes in this election. Many Jim Crow-era laws were repealed.
The special session called to deal with budgetary and other issues related to the pandemic built on the successes of the regular session with a pivot to criminal justice and policing reform. Civilian review boards have been empowered to investigate police-related complaints. Chokeholds were essentially eliminated as were rubber bullets and military-type equipment in local policing. Traffic stops for minor offenses–a big part of racial profiling–are now banned. Jury sentencing has been eliminated in what some are describing the most significant criminal justice reform. And there is even more that I will detail in future reviews.
Benjamin Franklin was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government we have. He responded, “A republic, if we can keep it.” In Virginia, we can say that we now have one of the most progressive governments in the country. To keep it, however, will require future vigilance and work. Many of the advances I celebrate here will become the stuff of future political campaigns where bigotry and fear will be used to try to turn the state back.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) conducts program evaluation, policy analysis, and oversight of state agencies on behalf of the Virginia General Assembly as authorized by the Code of Virginia. A highly professional staff of attorneys, social scientists, economists, and researchers conducts rigorous and objective studies on the operation of state government in a totally nonpartisan way guided by the public interest. I am honored to serve as chairman of JLARC with Senator Janet Howell serving as vice-chairman.
The agenda of the meeting of JLARC this week provides an example of the kind of work the Commission staff has been doing for many years. This past Monday the staff presented to the fourteen legislative members of the Commission reports on studies that had been completed this past year and progress reports on on-going studies. Copies of these and previous reports are available at http://jlarc.virginia.gov/.
The Commission systematically reviews agencies of state government and reports on their operations and performance. This week’s meeting included a report on the “Operations and Performance of the Virginia Department of Education” that administers the state’s role in public education. Public education K-12 takes the greatest share of the state’s general fund budget at more than $6.5 billion, nearly 30 percent of state-tax-supported revenue. In total appropriations including state tax and non-general funds, the budget for K-12 education is exceeded only by the cost of Medicaid program services. The report included 17 recommendations and 6 policy options for strengthening the department.
The Commission also received the latest “Update on VITA’s Implementation of a Multi-Supplier Service Model.” The Virginia Information Technology Agency has undergone major changes in recent years from a centralized, single-source, private-sector service provider to a multi-supplier service model. Such a change is challenging for any large organization and especially for a $63 billion state government that provides a wide array of services to the public. Anyone who has experienced “the computer is down” as an explanation of why information cannot be secured or services cannot be provided at a particular time will understand its importance. The good news of the report is that the transfer to the multi-supplier model has been completed and that VITA can shift more of its focus to increasing its services to its user agencies.
The Commission has on-going responsibilities, including monitoring the Virginia Retirement System and reporting on state spending trends. The reports give legislators a pulse of how state government is performing based on good data and outcome measures. The “State Spending: 2020 Update” presented this week provides an overview of the $62.6 billion state budget for FY20. Nearly half of the total appropriations were in three agencies: Department of Medical Assistance Services, Department of Education, and Department of Transportation. Adjusted for growth in population and inflation, the total state budget grew by an average of 3.3% per year during the last decade; the general fund tax-supported budget increased by 2% on the average.
Want to learn more about the details of Virginia government and its operation? Visit the JLARC website listed above and review its archive of reports.
Protesters are asking that we say her name, “Breonna Taylor,” as well we should in reminding ourselves and others as to how unfairly laws can be applied. Breonna was a young Black woman in her mid-20’s who worked as an emergency room technician before she was tragically killed by police in a raid on her apartment for reasons that did not involve her. Louisville, Kentucky police got a “no-knock search warrant” to enter her apartment for they suspected that her boyfriend who was in the apartment with her was dealing in drugs. The no-knock warrant was justified by the police as necessary to keep the suspected dealer from having time to destroy evidence. That’s the police view of events.
From inside the apartment in the dark after midnight on March 13 this year there was the sound of the front door being knocked down, and three plain-clothed men entered the apartment. The boyfriend responded by firing a shot that he maintains was in self-defense and that hit one of the policemen in the leg. Under the legal concept of “castle doctrine” in common law and many state statutes a person can use deadly force to protect oneself from an intruder in their home who could cause bodily injury or death.
The boyfriend said he fired that single shot in self-defense. The police responded to his self-defense by firing 32 times into the apartment in self-defense against his self-defense. The boyfriend was not hit, but Breonna Taylor who was an innocent unarmed bystander was killed by the six shots that hit her. No one has been charged with her murder! Any wonder why criminal justice reform advocates have taken to the streets once again?
Clearly the job of maintaining safe communities is a challenging one, but since when is intercepting an alleged drug dealer more important than the life of such an innocent and promising young woman? Since when do we prioritize the arrest of a possible drug dealer over the sanctity of someone’s home with an unannounced, middle of the night raid when the home that is raided is not even that of the person who is the subject of that raid?
I am pleased that the Special Session of the General Assembly now convened is taking on the difficult issues related to public safety and criminal justice reform and the racism that too often has driven policy in the past. While many of these tough issues are still being debated between the House and Senate, I am confident that we will get rid of no-knock warrants in the state, that we will expand police training and civilian oversight of police activity, and that we will reduce the classroom to corrections situations that have caught too many young people of color. We will maintain law and order in our communities without locking up persons of color for minor offenses for unjustified lengths of time.
We need to say the name of Breonna Taylor to remember her murder, but hopefully in the future her death will represent the beginning of real criminal justice reform.
The year 2020 has been filled with major ups and downs, but nowhere has the good news been clearer than in the Virginia legislature. The General Assembly session in the opening months of the year and more recently the Special Session have been transformative in making the Commonwealth a truly progressive state. The voting system has been made easier and more accessible than ever before. Discrimination in all forms has been outlawed and hate crime laws have been strengthened. ERA was ratified. Laws to end gun violence are now on the books. Minimum wage has been increased and predatory lending heavily regulated. Details on criminal justice reform are still being resolved in the Special Session, but major steps in criminal justice and public safety reform will be taken before the session adjourns.
A major step forward in making Virginia a truly progressive state is up to the voters on November 3. Two successive sessions of the General Assembly have passed a Constitutional amendment to rid the state of gerrymandering, but the amendment needs to be approved by voters before becoming part of the Constitution. The amendment is question #1 on the ballot. I hope you will vote yes.
The subtitle of Virginia historian Brent Tarter’s book Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2019) summarizes the unfortunate consequences of a state that has been a victim of extreme gerrymandering throughout its history. Little wonder that Tarter supports the Constitutional amendment as being long overdue.
The language of the amendment provides protection against racial abuses of the past, saying “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.”
The director of Princeton University’s Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Dr. Samuel Wang, and colleagues recently wrote that “we are proud to endorse Amendment 1 because never before has the Commonwealth seen such an open and transparent redistricting process. Such citizen involvement will help protect communities that have been split up in the past.”
Political scientists and law professors from Virginia’s leading universities collaborated on an article that appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch earlier this year in which they wrote, “as scholars of elections and redistricting, we believe this amendment represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Virginia’s democracy–one that we cannot afford to miss.”
David Daley, senior fellow with the elections think-tank Fair Vote and an author of books on the subject wrote in the Washington Post that “politicians usually do a lousy job of regulating themselves. But if this (Amendment # 1) moves forward it would be the strongest set of redistricting reforms to ever emerge from a state legislature in American history.
Amendment # 1 is a big deal for democracy in Virginia. It is controversial for those who see themselves as losing power, but it is time to put gerrymandering on the trash heap along with Jim Crow laws and granite monuments. The decision is in the public’s hands. Please vote yes!
The House of Delegates is probably half-way through its virtual Special Session. At least the House has debated all the bills introduced by its members with the exception of the budget that is always last to be considered. Those bills have been sent to the Senate and await their consideration while the House will now begin deliberations on the bills the Senate has passed.
As I have indicated in recent columns this Special Session has been a busy one as Special Sessions go. Even more unusual, it has been conducted for the first time ever in a virtual environment. The House has passed 37 bills, all of which are of considerable importance and consequence. These bills will fund safe and secure alternatives for Virginia voters to return absentee ballots during the upcoming 2020 general election, implement housing protections for Virginia families negatively impacted by COVID-19, ban the use of no-knock warrants and neck restraints, require law enforcement officers to intervene or report when they see wrongdoing from colleagues, and streamline the process for localities to remove, relocate, or alter Confederate statues and other war monuments on public property.
To understand fully what some of the bills, described here in generalities, will do, go to https://lis.virginia.gov to review the specific language and provisions. To make voting easier during the pandemic, HB5103 permits localities to establish ballot drop-off locations, supports pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, and makes it safer and easier to vote absentee. HB5116 requires large employers to provide limited paid quarantine leave for Virginia workers. HB5028 establishes a presumption of worker compensation eligibility for first responders, teachers, and other high-risk essential workers who die or become disabled due to COVID-19. HB5047 combats price gouging for personal protective equipment. There were other COVID-related bills.
Some of the bills passed in the House in the area of police and criminal justice reform are far reaching. HB5013 eliminates qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. HB5043 created a statewide Marcus Alert system for those in a mental health crisis. HB5045 bans sexual relations between officers and arrestees. HB5058 eliminates certain pretextual police stops. HB5049 demilitarizes police departments by prohibiting the acquisition and use of certain weapons by police departments. HB5090 expands disclosure of law enforcement criminal incidence information files for closed or cold cases under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. HB5148 increases earned sentence credits for incarcerated persons. HB5099 prohibits the use of no-knock warrants. HB5146 reforms state law related to expungement of police and court records. HB5069 bans the use of neck restraints by law enforcement. HB5098 expands the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls. HB5109 standardizes and enhances training by criminal justice academies and establishes required in-service training standards for law enforcement officers.
These are some of the bills that have passed the House at half-time. All have been subject to compromises of the legislative process and require a careful review of the current text to understand their implications. They are still subject to the scrutiny of the State Senate, possible conference committee action, and signature of the Governor.
Until the early 1970s the Virginia General Assembly met every other year in the even-numbered years. For the very conservative state that it was, every other year was deemed adequate to limit the power of government. With all the changes that had occurred in the world with wars, growing and competitive economies among nations and states, and increased expectations from the citizenry particularly for more educational programs, Virginians approved a Constitutional amendment in 1971 that added a “short” session in the odd-numbered years, so called because it is 45 days in contrast to the regular session that is 60 days. In the 1980s another Constitutional amendment added a “reconvened” session each year after the regular session to deal with the governor’s amendments to legislation. This happened because the state became more competitive between the major political parties, and the party controlling the General Assembly could no longer be counted as controlling the governorship as well.
In any year, the governor has the constitutional power as does the General Assembly to call a “special” session to deal with unique needs. Although the regular “long” session held this year along with its reconvened session were considered among the most productive ever there was general agreement among political leadership and the active community at large that a special session would be needed. As the Commonwealth faced the devastation of an international pandemic, a crashing economy as great as the Great Depression, and social unrest that demanded that issues overlooked or delayed for decades had to be faced, a Special Session was called by the Governor.
In his proclamation of July 17, 2020 calling the General Assembly into Special Session, Governor Ralph Northam stated its objectives as being “for the purpose of adopting a budget based on the revised revenue forecast and consideration of legislation related to the emergency of COVID-19 and criminal and social justice reforms.” Never has a Special Session of the past had such broad intent with any one of the purposes being more than adequate to have the legislature’s attention.
The session is special also in that the General Assembly for the first time in its history is meeting virtually. The Senate has some social-distanced meetings at the Science Museum, but as a House member I meet almost daily in virtual meetings of committees on which I serve and every several days with the entire 100-member House. I have a single-purpose secure electronic device that permits me to cast my votes electronically.
The Special Session must grapple with a $2.7 billion shortfall in revenue as a result of the tanking of the economy. The Governor’s proposals that leave more than a billion dollars in a “rainy-day” fund require close scrutiny.
Finally, the most important “special” feature of this session is that issues related to fairness and safety in voting and police and criminal justice reform are being addressed. In a future column I will enumerate these special bills as they are passed by the House and Senate and signed by the Governor. I am proud to represent my constituents in such an historic and special Special Session!
While serving as vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote down rules of parliamentary procedure as remembered from his days studying parliamentary rules while a student at William and Mary and from his experiences as serving as president of the United States Senate. Over the years “Jefferson’s Manual” became the standard by which legislative bodies, including the United States House of Representatives and the Virginia General Assembly, turned to for guidance on parliamentary procedure. Even today Jefferson’s Manual is considered along with Roberts Rules of Order in resolving parliamentary issues in the Virginia and many other legislatures.
Even with Jefferson’s wisdom and his knowledge of legislative practices throughout history there can be no expectation that he could have anticipated the challenges of making laws and passing budgets amidst the double whammy of a pandemic and an economic depression. The 2020 session of the General Assembly ended in early March just as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was being realized. The reconvened session for the House of Delegates was held in a tent on Capitol hill with plenty of space for distancing and a breeze that took care of air circulation. The Senate met in the spacious lobby of the Science Museum of Virginia that had adequate space for distancing.
A Special Session of the General Assembly was called by the Governor and met on Tuesday of this week. It was deemed essential to make significant adjustments to the budget for the next two years based on declining revenues and the urgency of revising criminal justice practices that are racist. The Senate is back at the Science Museum, and the House recognizing that a tent would not be practical in hot weather met instead on the basketball court of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The first order of business of the Assembly was to pass rules beyond those embodied in Jefferson’s Manual to accommodate legislating with the limitations of the pandemic. Although the legislature in the past had allowed limited attendance of official government meeting by telephone, a quorum was required to be physically present. The Senate rules allowed limited voting by proxy, but that applied only to committees that were actually meeting. New rules will allow committees to meet virtually and to take votes of members visibly present on the virtual system employed. Legislation introduced in the special session, and there will be many bills related to police and criminal justice reform, will be heard in virtual meetings of committees over the next several weeks and reported to full houses of the legislature for consideration early in September.
The process will allow the business of government to go forward even if Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol cannot accommodate distancing required during a pandemic. It will modernize the rules of Jefferson’s Manual to recognize that technology enables the legislative process to go forward with all citizens being able to view the deliberations even if legislators are not at the same place. The bills that are being considered will also move Virginia beyond inequities of the past.
Readers of this column are certainly aware that on more than one occasion I have praised the work of the 2020 General Assembly session as being historic and transformative.
I believe historians will agree with my assessment of the work of the legislature in the early months of 2020 to rid the state of discrimination of all kinds, but I wonder how they will explain the subsequent phase within several months of its adjournment. Within just a few months, the legislature was faced with the need to take even more historic steps to transform the state and to do so with a sense of urgency.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is an historic event that overlays what was happening in the social and political structure, it played a minor role. If anything, the pandemic demonstrated that the federal government under the current office holders is incapable of taking responsible actions regarding the coronavirus or the social and political unrest that abounds in this country. The pandemic has shown that state governments must step up in leadership related to the health crisis and to the stark inequalities in our society.
The pleas of George Floyd that he could not breathe were echoed by Black persons in Virginia and throughout the country that they could no longer live under the suppression of a knee on their necks that they have endured for centuries and has kept them from realizing equality under the law and in society. That is why the Virginia legislature cannot rest on the important steps it took in the opening months of this year towards a more just society but rather now must take significant next steps in the closing months of this year.
The House Courts of Justice Committee and the Public Safety Committee on which I serve will be identifying the next steps that must be taken beginning in a special session of the legislature in the next month or two. The Legislative Black Caucus has outlined next steps, with which I concur.
These steps include declaring that racism is a public health crisis in the state, reinstituting parole, creating a civilian review board of police actions with subpoena power, defining the use of excessive force including banning the use of chokeholds and ending no-knock warrants.
The Caucus also proposes the important step of investing more in community and less in law enforcement, funding mental health professionals to respond to those who may be having mental health crises, replacing resource officers in schools who are often police personnel with mental health professionals, restricting the use of militarization tactics and weapons against citizens and expanding the use of body cameras.
In issuing its agenda, the Legislative Black Caucus said in a printed release, “And on a larger scale, this moment is calling on leaders to combat institutional racism and societal discrimination that exists in the criminal justice system, economic structures, housing, education, in healthcare, mental health, in environmental policy and many other areas.”
Your suggestions on next steps are welcome, [email protected]
Black lives matter. Period. No further explanation or expansion of the phrase is needed. Do not try to switch the subject by wanting to suggest that all lives matter. For more than four centuries the lives of black people have been degraded. There have been numerous instances during that time when events would have suggested that there might finally be a recognition that black lives do matter. With the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that all men are created equal one might have concluded that black Americans might finally achieve some semblance of equality, but they did not. With a constitution for the new country, blacks were counted as worth only three-fifths of a person. Virginia and the Southern states seceded from the Union and fought a civil war to be able to keep black people in bondage. After more than 250 years of slavery black people were given a hollow promise with the Emancipation Proclamation. Jim Crow laws replaced slave codes. Many ingenious ways were contrived to keep black people from voting. Lynching was among the ways used to instill fear in black people to keep them “in their place.” Police too often became less public safety protectors and more keepers of a divided society where black lives have less value than that of others.
With all this history and more is there any wonder why leaders who are willing to take a stand are insistent that we keep the message clear: Black Lives Do Matter! Too much has happened to turn our backs on much-needed changes in so many aspects of our society and our governance. When a cop feels that he can grind his knee in the back of the neck of a black man until he dies while three other cops look on, we know that the time has arrived for change. No excuses. Enough is enough.
The General Assembly will take up significant reforms to our policing and criminal justice system when it meets in August. I look forward to cosponsoring and voting for meaningful bills that will redefine policing, shift resources from policing to community and social services, and reform our criminal justice system. The needs are so extensive that one legislative session will not be adequate to deal with all the needed reforms, but there can be no delay in taking the first very big step forward.
Make no mistake thinking that all that is talked about will be popular. Some will think that if black lives matter their lives and their security will somehow be lessened. Politicians will jump on the divisions that exist in our society and suggest that everyone will somehow be less safe if changes are made. They will twist the meaning of the movement to reform policing, referred to as “defund police” by some, as leaving communities unsafe. The white supremacists among us, and they are more numerous than we might like to realize, will be marching and protesting any changes.
Black lives matter. We are on the verge of making the statement a reality. We cannot falter in our resolve to make it true!