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 are reading this column on Wednesday morning, I will have left home in Reston and be heading south on Interstate 95 for a noon meeting of the General Assembly for its reconvened session, commonly referred to as the “veto session.” A reconvened session can be deemed essential during this stay-at-home period because Article IV, Section 6 and Article V, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia and House Joint Resolution No. 99 (procedural resolution) require that the 2020 Reconvened Session convene on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, at noon, to act upon the Governor’s recommendations and vetoes to legislation passed during the 2020 Regular Session. The constitutional requirement for a reconvened session came about after Virginians started electing a Republican Governor ever so often who would have the audacity to veto bills that had been passed by the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. The constitutional amendment establishing the reconvened session gives legislators the last word as to what bills can become law without the Governor’s signature if a two-thirds vote can be gotten in both houses. Also, the reconvened session provides an opportunity to correct technical glitches or provide clarifying language through amendments suggested by the Governor from the bills that are passed in the fast-paced legislative sessions.
Social distancing will be strictly adhered to for the session which will be a challenge for legislators who are accustomed to a lot of handshaking and hugging. The House of Delegates will convene under a temporary tent covering on Capitol grounds that will provide the space for the 100 members to be at least six feet apart. The Senate of Virginia will meet in a large space at the Science Museum of Virginia that will accommodate social distancing for its 40 members. The usual strict requirement that men wear neckties has been relaxed for apparently ties sweep up too many germs. The Governor and his staff are not wearing ties these days. Face masks will be required, and plenty of hand sanitizer will be available. It is suggested that members bring their own lunches.
The Constitution limits the business of the General Assembly at Reconvened Session to consideration of the Governor’s amendments and objections. Of the 1,291 bills presented to the Governor, he signed 1,188 (92.02%), recommended amendments to 102 bills and vetoed one bill. An official summary of the bills passed during the 2020 General Assembly session is available at http://dls.virginia.gov/pubs/ summary/2020/summary2020.pdf.
The effort that legislators have to make to finish our work for the session pales in comparison to the challenges that people worldwide face every day during the pandemic. I continue to be impressed with the ways that social distancing has brought us together. Every day on social media and other outlets I learn of people who are sewing masks, running food pantries, contributing to charities, and doing good deeds for others. Our medical personnel put their lives on the line every day and cannot be thanked enough. On my website, kenplum.com, there is updated information on the pandemic and ways you can help. Stay safe. I will be heading back home immediately upon the conclusion of the one-day session.
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.
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!
State House Votes to Abolish Lee Jackson Day — Virginia moved one step closer to abolishing the holiday that honors two Confederate generals. The bill would remove Lee Jackson Day as a state holiday and Make Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a state holiday instead. [WAMU]
County Seeks 911 Call Takers — The county is seeking call takers for the emergency line. Applications are due by Feb. 14. [Fairfax County Government]
School Board Approves Capital Improvement Program — “The FY 2021-25 CIP addresses uneven growth throughout the division because of changes in population, new development, and net migration. It continues to include potential capacity and capital solutions to schools which are currently or projected to be over capacity.” [Fairfax County Public Schools]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
The General Assembly has shifted into high gear to get through its agenda of thousands of bills in sixty days. The old saying that you cannot be in two places at one time is disproven every day as the 140 members of the House and Senate scurry among sub-committees and standing committees on which they serve and the subcommittees and committees before which they have to present their bills. By strategically placing an assistant or intern in one meeting while the member moves quickly among several meetings, it may even appear that a member is in more than even two places at one time. The legislature is not a place for lengthy contemplation but rather is a place for action. After all, we ran on a platform of what we promised we were going to do, and the legislative session is the time of action to deliver on our promises.
With such a “meat grinder” approach can we trust the outcome of a legislative session? Consider that in order for a bill to become a law it must meet the approval of a subcommittee and full committee, passage twice in the full house on two different days, the same process in the other house of the legislature, and the signature of the governor. All that time there are hundreds of advocates, constituents, lobbyists and others looking over your shoulder and providing comments on what you are doing. Bills get intense scrutiny before they are passed. It is easier to describe how a bill does not make it than it is to tell how a bill becomes a law. Fewer than half the bills introduced become law.
Election outcomes do matter for to change the outcome of debate on important issues it may be easier to change the people in the legislature through the ballot box than it is to change the minds of incumbent legislators. A case in point is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that was debated for decades but approved within a week in a General Assembly made up of new members supporting the rights of women. Those same new members, joining the progressives who were already there, have even now approved sweeping new common-sense gun safety laws such as my universal background check bill that had been defeated for two decades by previous members of a subcommittee of the House. Laws that put barriers in the way of women in making choices concerning their own reproductive health are being repealed. Laws that disproportionally affected people of color are being repealed. The criminal justice system is undergoing a major shift to make it work more fairly for all people. Challenges to the environment are being met with meaningful legislation.
It is impossible to list in a short column the thousands of bills before the legislature. You can however review the full list with descriptions and status at lis.virginia.gov and for the first time this year you can see livestreaming of most full and subcommittee meetings at House Chamber Stream and Senate Chamber Stream. And you can visit the Capitol in Richmond; all meetings are open to the public. Some say the process is like making sausage. The important thing is it is doing the people’s business.
With the outcomes of the elections in 2019 Virginia may be considered by some to be in an altered state. While the flipping of the legislature from red to blue will have consequences, actual proposed changes will not be known until campaign rhetoric is translated into legislative languages, a multitude of interest groups and individuals have weighed in, and the level of political will for significant change can be measured by votes in legislative committees and on the floors of the House and Senate. Readers of this column will be getting steady reports over the next weeks and months following the beginning of the next 400 years of the Commonwealth.
In the meantime, it is helpful to step back as much as that is possible and to closely examine where we are today as a baseline in moving forward. The Commonwealth is a wealthy state–twelfth wealthiest among the states. That is not common wealth however. Three regions of Virginia that make up the Golden Crescent from Northern Virginia through Tidewater exceed U.S. per capita income. Northern Virginia jurisdictions have a per capita income level greater than Connecticut which is the highest in the nation. At the same time, three regions of Virginia in Southwest and Southside have per capita income less than Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. Parts of Virginia are the wealthiest while other parts are the poorest in the United States. Even with its great diversity in income Virginia continues to have the lowest state minimum wage in the country at $7.25 which had it simply kept up with inflation would be $10.54.
Virginia is certainly not unique among the states in having broad differences in growth rates and wealth within its boundaries. There are many factors that create differences. From a public policy perspective, it is important that Virginia be viewed in its uncommon aspects as well as generalized as a state on the whole. One size seldom fits all, and certainly the diversity of Virginia requires that its unique regions be considered in any statewide policies and programs.
Unfortunately, the regional differences seen in per capita income are reflected in the growth rate, educational level, life span and many other measures of the health of the state. Northern Virginia grew by about 12 percent in population between 2010 and 2017, central Virginia by about 7 percent while Southside declined by 2.5 percent and Southwest by 4 percent.
A recent national America’s Health Ranking report shows Virginia moving up from 20th to 15th among the states in health rankings. A big drop in persons smoking–29 percent to about 15 percent of adults–helped. At the same time there has been a significant increase in drug-related deaths over the past three years, from 10.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 15.4.
The diversity of the state will impact the business of the legislature. I will discuss these and further aspects of the Commonwealth at a State of the Commonwealth Breakfast this Friday, the 3rd of January, at the Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston at 8 am. RSVP to secure.actblue.com.
In the oddities of the Virginia government calendar, the one-term limited governor spends the first two years of the term implementing a biennial budget proposed by the previous governor and passed by the General Assembly in the first two months of his term.
It is only after serving nearly two years that the governor has the opportunity to propose a budget reflecting the priorities on which he was elected. The governor then has two years to implement his budget before proposing a budget that will be implemented by his successor.
The complexities of changing the calendar are more than is likely to be undertaken at this time. Some like the system for it slows down the process of change for certainly the “Virginia Way” has never been to bring about any change too swiftly!
A fix that would take care of part of the snail pace of doing business in the Commonwealth would be to allow the governor to run for a successive term. I support such a change for it would allow the voters to decide if an individual should be granted a second term.
One area in which there is a need for haste in taking action is related to the environment and the role the state will take in reducing carbon emissions and responding to climate change and all of its ramifications.
Gov. Ralph Northam ran on a platform promising more protection for the environment. He and his staff worked busily on his new budget that was announced yesterday before this column was written. In the weeks leading up to his announcement, the governor held press conferences around the state on various parts of the budget including one on his environmental proposals.
The budget and legislative proposals he announced on environmental protection are the strongest ever proposed by a Virginia governor. He said of his proposals that “these significant investments in environmental protection, environmental justice, clean energy, and clean water will combat climate change and ensure we maintain our high quality of life here in Virginia.”
To reduce carbon pollution the governor recommends removing budget language added by the Republican legislature two years ago prohibiting Virginia from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). He instead proposes legislation making Virginia a part of the regional effort to reduce carbon emissions by requiring the purchase of credits that through the marketplace will make fossil fuels more expensive than solar and wind sources of energy. The proposal is already being attacked as a “carbon tax.”
The governor’s proposals include $400 million for the Chesapeake Bay clean up that will keep that effort on track. Significant new investments in state agencies with environmental responsibilities will provide the staffing and resources for doing a more effective job in enforcing environmental regulations, improving public engagement, and ensuring environmental justice.
An investment of up to $40 million to upgrade the Portsmouth Marine Terminal will support the offshore wind supply chain and the development of offshore wind energy generating capacity to achieve 2,500 megawatts by 2026. Additional funding will also be provided for land conservation. This additional focus on the environment is sorely needed in Virginia.
Taking down Confederate monuments is but one part of a continuing story in Virginia as the Commonwealth tries to come to grips with its racist history. The story is in no way a pretty one. Africans who were brought to the colony as enslaved people were kept in bondage with cruelty and repression. They were stripped of their names and given names that had no meaning to them. Slaves were for the most part not taught to read and their ability to congregate together was severely restricted. They were overlooked in the Declaration of Independence and considered only three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. When Virginia plantations no longer found their labor needed with the depletion of the soil in the state, slaves were sold into the deep South with their families being broken up. The Civil War brought emancipation, but repression of Black people continued with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans started to realize what equal protection of the laws really meant.
During this history the General Assembly of Virginia passed laws that make those of us interested in the state’s history hang our heads in shame at the racism they embodied. Earlier this year Governor Ralph Northam appointed The Commission to Examine Racial Equality in Virginia Law to take a look at the language and intent of legislative actions in The Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia. The interim report issued this past week was shocking to those of us who study this issue for its sheer volume as well as for the stark language it uncovered of racism in the laws. Take a look for yourself at Racial Inequity Report.
Passed as recently as 1956 was a law, part of Massive Resistance, that provided that “no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.” The Commission found that “Virginia policymakers engaged in deliberate and coordinated legislative strategies to deny equal educational opportunities to black students…” There are numerous examples of laws including the poll tax that were intended to keep black people from voting.
Though most of the laws identified by the Commission are outdated and have no legal effect, they remain in the law. The Interim Report states that “the Commission believes that such vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.” Laws that have been found to be unconstitutional or otherwise been invalidated should be repealed to ensure that they “could not be revived with a change of law or interpretation by a different leadership or court.”
The Commission found that “white and nonwhite Virginians face starkly disparate outcomes in health, educational attainment, financial stability, and access to justice. Any assessment of their disparities must take into account Virginia’s haunting legacy of coordinated, intentional, and official acts of forced segregation and overt racism.” The past is for recording in history books and not in official laws of today. The General Assembly meeting in January must take the important step of wiping the slate clean!
After intensive lobbying by some local governments and private investors during the 2019 session, the General Assembly passed a bill requesting the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) on which I serve to conduct a review of the impact if resort-style casinos were to be built in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These locations represent a pattern only of local governments that are interested and /or private investors who want to invest there. The JLARC staff along with assistance of private consultants who specialize in gambling operations reported to the Commission last week. A copy of the report is available at jlarc.virginia.gov/landing- 2019-gaming.
Gambling has long been prohibited in Virginia, with the exception of the lottery, charitable gaming such as bingo, and wagering on horse races. Virginians currently wager over $1 billion annually on these forms of gaming, generating about $600 million in revenue for various purposes, primarily K-12 education. Nearby states permit more forms of gambling than Virginia does, including casino gaming, sports wagering, and online casino gaming.
According to estimates from The Innovation Group, a national gaming consultant who assisted JLARC staff with the study, resort-style casinos could be built and sustained in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond. These estimates assume an initial $200 million to $300 million capital investment and an annual gaming revenue state tax rate of 27 percent (the national median). Casinos in these five locations are projected to generate about $970 million annually in net gaming revenue and approximately $260 million in gaming tax revenue for the state. For comparison, the Virginia Lottery generates over $600 million annually after prizes are paid out. About one-third of total casino revenue is projected to be generated by out-of-state visitors.
The projected median wage of $33,000 for casino employees would be below the median wage in the five localities. Not all casino jobs would represent a net gain of employment for the localities, and nearly half of the jobs would be low-skill and low-wage. Casino gambling would reduce the revenues in existing forms of gambling such as the Lottery that generates money for the schools.
According to the study, the prevalence of problem gambling in Virginia has not been measured, but evidence from national studies and states with a broad array of gaming options suggests that an estimated 5 to 10 percent of adults may experience gambling problems. The introduction of casinos would make more people at risk of experiencing problems as gambling opportunities increase.
The negative impacts of gambling are not limited to problem gamblers. The report indicates that research consistently shows adverse effects on others, most often a spouse or partner, but also the parents and children of problem gamblers, as well as other family members and close friends. The negative effects of problem gambling can be severe in a small portion of cases and include financial instability and mental health and relationship problems.
I am skeptical of introducing additional gambling opportunities in the Commonwealth. From what I have been able to learn, the modest revenues are not worth the risks involved. Is there something I am missing?
Women first came to the English colony at Jamestown Island in 1619–400 years ago, and hence their arrival is part of the American Evolution 1619-2019 commemoration going on throughout the Commonwealth. As with the other events that marked the historic significance of this year and that I have written about in this column, the real meaning of the events comes about in examining the decades and centuries that followed from 1619. There is no surprise that the land developers who were making investments in the new colony would advertise free voyage to women to come to this new land of potential opportunity and freedom from poverty and oppression they may have felt at home. If the colony was to have success in developing economic opportunities and stability that families would bring, it needed women to come and find themselves adventure…and a husband.
English women who came were not slaves although they no doubt had to work hard to start a life and a home in the wilderness. If they came with an indenture to pay off their voyage fare, they could work off their obligation over a number of years. But just like in the society they left, even with the indenture paid off, women were not free or in the same category as men. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence nearly a century and a half later, he proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” We speculate that if he were writing a document today that he would say “all persons,” but his writing at the time reflected women’s lesser role in society. The story of women’s rights continues to evolve even until today.
The capital of Virginia moved to Richmond in 1780, but it was not until this week that a memorial noting the contribution of women to the Commonwealth’s history was finally dedicated on Capitol grounds. The twelve women chosen to be depicted as bronze statues in the Virginia Women’s Monument represent women from all corners of the Commonwealth, both widely-celebrated women, as well as those with previously unknown but equally important stories. Many more women will be memorialized on the Wall of Honor and in the accompanying virtual educational modules. To get to know these women, most of whom I dare to say few have heard of, visit Women’s Monument.
Also recognizing the struggle of women for their rights, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSM) is building a national memorial to American suffragists–with a special focus on those imprisoned at Occoquan, VA, who endured harsh conditions and abuse to win voting rights for American women. For more information on the women who led the suffragist movement and the hardships they endured, visit suffragistmemorial.org. The nineteenth amendment ensuring women the right to vote was not ratified until 1920. Virginia rejected it in 1920 and did not vote for ratification until 1952.
A fitting tribute to Virginia women 400 years after their arrival would be passage of the Equal Rights Amendment by the General Assembly at its next legislative session.
Last week while Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives were attending a 9/11 remembrance service, Republicans called a surprise vote to overturn the Democratic governor’s veto of the state budget. While Democrats and media were told that there would be no voting during the morning session, Democrats’ attendance at the vigil allowed Republicans to get the three-fifths vote needed to over-ride the veto.
Reaction to the maneuver has been harsh. The Charlotte Observer in an editorial said that “the verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders–not actually leaders but connivers–are beyond shame.” The paper described what happened as a “stunning display of contempt for democracy…but this isn’t a case simply of hardball politics and sly legislative maneuvering. This is a case of breaking faith with the people…” The Senate must concur on the over-ride before it becomes effective.
Before Virginians get too smug about what happened in North Carolina we must remember what happened in the Virginia General Assembly about a month ago. With the continuing string of mass murders in the country–beginning about the time of the massacre at Virginia Tech that for a while was the largest ever and continuing through a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building–Governor Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to consider several bills intended to reduce gun violence. The special session convened on July 9 to take up bills related to gun violence but without notice to Democrats or media the Republican majority adjourned 90 minutes later without taking up any of the bills and with a return date scheduled after the elections.
There were no bills among those introduced to respond to gun violence that would have confiscated guns or altered the Second Amendment. They were common-sense bills that according to all public opinion polls I have seen are supported by more than 80 percent and some by more than 90 percent of the public. The experience in Virginia can be described by the same terms of that in North Carolina: contempt for Democracy, a travesty of the process, legislative deceit. You may have seen news reports that the Republican floor leader in the Virginia House received a $200,000 campaign contribution from the NRA several weeks later.
Partisan control of the Virginia House and Senate are on the line this November 5 as all 140 seats are on the ballot. There are numerous critically important issues on the ballot that it would take several columns to enumerate. I do want to add one that gets too little discussion and that is legislative reform. Such reform includes independent drawing of legislative district lines, or getting rid of gerrymandering, that allows the abuses of legislative power in North Carolina and Virginia that are discussed here. As the Charlotte Observer said of the situation in North Carolina, “It was an illegitimate majority acting in an unethical way.”
What happened in both states demonstrates once again that the speakership be defined not as the head of the majority party but as an impartial and fair leader. In both instances the speakers of their respective houses should have stopped these episodes of legislating by skulduggery.
Lane and Ramp Closures This Week — Lane, shoulder and road closures are planning on several local roads this week due to work on phase two of the Silver Line. Impacted roads include Sunset Hills Road, Sunrise Valley Drive, and Herndon Parkway. [Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project]
Committee Takes On New Development Proposals — The Reston Planning & Zoning Committee meets tonight to vote on three developments in Reston: Isaac Newtown Square, changes to Halley Rise, and Reston Station Promenade. [Reston Planning & Zoning Committee]
Hopes for the Silver Line and Revenue Boosts — “Diminishing fuel-tax returns of about 45 percent have hampered Virginia’s infrastructure-funding efforts, but higher tax rates approved by the General Assembly this year will boost those efforts, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine told the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce at an Aug. 7 panel discussion.” [Inside NOVA]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
In last week’s column I suggested that the record-breaking for brevity, 90-minute session of the General Assembly came about because of a dysfunctional House of Delegates and a lack of leadership by the Speaker of the House. Further evidence unfolding since I wrote that column strengthens my concern and adds to it the problem that in the Virginia House of Delegates the “fox is guarding the chicken coop.”
The Special Session of the General Assembly that was called by Governor Ralph Northam in response to increasing gun violence should have provided a forum for debate to determine a response by the legislature to keep the people of Virginia safe. Few sessions general or special have attracted as much public attention as this one with hundreds of advocates at the Capitol representing all sides of the issue.
One side got high-level special attention. Ordinary citizens and state-wide and national groups concerned about gun violence attended a rally at the Bell Tower in Capitol Square and spent the rest of the morning visiting legislative offices and milling about the street between the Pocahontas Building where legislative offices are and the State Capitol. The National Rifle Association (NRA) representatives were in the Speaker of the House of Delegates Conference Room picking up their red caps and tee shirts and no doubt getting reassurances that everything was going to be alright.
A website inviting NRA members to the event encouraged their attendance: “Governor Ralph Northam and his gun ban allies are ready to push their extreme anti-gun agenda when the General Assembly convenes its special session tomorrow–July 9th. Your NRA is calling on members and Second Amendment supporters to join in the fight against Gov. Northam’s misguided gun control proposals by coming to Richmond on July 9th to personally urge their elected officials to stand up for our rights and oppose the Northam gun ban agenda.”
The most astonishing part of the announcement came in the details of the event: “WHERE: Pocahontas Building, 6th Floor, House Conference Room.” That just happens to be the Conference Room of the Speaker of the House of Delegates!
On this topic the Speaker effectively relinquished any impartial role of conducting the business of the House and became the host for those opposing common-sense gun safety laws that according to dozens of public opinion polls are supported by an overwhelming majority of Virginians. It brings back memories of the time this same Speaker moved from his position as Speaker to take the floor of the House of Delegates to speak passionately against a women’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive health.
The announcement included some red meat to encourage participation: “Our members are concerned that Gov. Northam’s special session is a political stunt aimed at distracting from his scandals…”
With the cooperation of the Speaker of the House of Delegates we clearly have the fox guarding the chicken coop in Virginia.
The House of Delegates broke all records for brevity last week when it adjourned 90 minutes after convening. It was not because the 100-member body had become so efficient that it got all its work done; to the contrary it demonstrated how dysfunctional the body has become over the last several decades.
Brought together at the call of the Governor as he is constitutionally authorized to do, the House and the State Senate were asked to enact legislation in response to the gun violence that takes the lives of more than 1,000 citizens of our state each year including the most recent tragic mass murders of a dozen people in a Virginia Beach municipal building. The Republican majorities in both houses instead chose, on a partisan vote, to adjourn the Special Session before legislation on gun safety could even be discussed. Tellingly, the Special Session is adjourned until November 18 which happens to also be past the date of the next election.
The charade of sending the eight bills the Governor had recommended, along with the two dozen or so others that had been introduced, to the Crime Commission for study is laughable. All these bills had been introduced before and defeated in small subcommittees. There is little more that can be said about these bills other than they become more popular with the public as gun violence increases. The bill I introduced on universal background checks has been thoroughly examined over many years and in public opinion has an approval rate among voters hovering around 90 percent.
The argument that there was not time to hear the bills doesn’t ring true when you consider that a regular session of the General Assembly earlier this year considered more than 2,500 bills and resolutions in about a month and a half. All the weaving and bobbing and flimsy excuses are intended to cover up that the House of Delegates and the State Senate under present leadership have become dysfunctional.
The rules under which the Special Session was to be conducted were kept from the members and the public until the session convened even though the leadership had known the date for weeks from the Governor’s call for the session. Even more the sinister plan to do nothing by adjourning both houses came as a surprise to everyone but the smallest number of members in the Republican leadership.
One of the biggest problems in the House with its organization and operation is that the Speaker serves not as Speaker of the House but as head of the Republican majority. As a result there is no neutral arbiter to convene and conduct the business of the House. When I talked with the Right Honourable John Bercow M.P. of the British House of Commons a couple of months ago he spoke of his role as a neutral person who ensures that the House operates fairly. There is no pretense in the Virginia House that the Speaker is anything other than head of the majority party and operates the House not in fairness or impartiality but to the advantage of the majority even if that majority is secured by only one or two votes.
The House is dysfunctional as it currently operates and needs reform in the role of the Speaker.
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.