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.
The Speaker of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain, the Right Honourable John Bercow M.P., spoke in the chamber of the House of Delegates in the State Capitol in Richmond recently. His speech was not to the members of the House of Delegates specifically although I and several other members were in attendance. He was addressing persons participating in the events as part of American Evolution, Virginia to America 1619 – 2019, the celebration of the 400th anniversary of historic events in the Virginia colony including the meeting of the first representative legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere at Jamestown in 1619.
Speaker Bercow lived up to his reputation of being a very entertaining speaker with lots of stories and humorous details of his service in Parliament with its centuries of traditions and customs. Many routines in the House of Commons or the House of Lords can be explained by happenings centuries ago and by interactions with the British monarchy. Speaker Bercow clearly knows his history and uses it to create a context for understanding the operation of Parliament today.
Ironically the Speaker of the House of Commons — who clearly loves to speak — has a role that does not require him to speak often or engage in debate in the House. He explains his role as being obliged to be impartial in debate and to be a kind of referee to ensure that debates are held fairly for all participating parties. While he is a member of Parliament and is a member of a political party, he sets aside partisanship in his role as Speaker. His success in the role is evidenced by his continued unanimous re-election as Speaker by the members of the House of Commons.
In the earliest years as the parliamentary system of government evolved in Great Britain the speaker’s role was to be the person who spoke in the Parliament on behalf of the monarch. He made the king’s interest known to the law makers. As the form of government evolved, however, and with the decline in the power of the monarch, the speaker became the person to make the views of the members of Parliament known to the king. It was a bit of a role reversal as Parliament gained power with the ministers of government as part of its membership and the monarch assuming more of a ceremonial role.
The Founding Fathers writing the constitutions for the colonies as they became states and for the United States as a nation rejected the strong monarchical and parliamentary system of government in favor of separation of powers and checks and balances.
Speaker Bercow is a strong believer in the necessity of his being impartial in his role as Speaker of the House. At the same time he makes clear that he is in no way impartial in his support for representative government and is passionate about liberal democracy. Certainly the Speaker of the House of Delegates in Virginia could lead to more effective government in the Commonwealth were the person occupying the position an impartial leader and not the leader of the majority party.
Later today I will be renewing my application with voters in the 36th legislative district to keep my job as their representative in the Virginia House of Delegates. My campaign kick-off reception will be from 6 p.m to 7:30 pm at The Lake House of Reston at 11450 Baron Cameron Avenue, across the street from the entrance to Lake Anne. All are welcome to attend this free event with special guests former Governor Terry McAuliffe and House Democratic Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41st).
A question I have gotten every odd-numbered year I have run for office since 1973 is what got me interested in working for the people as an elected representative in the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly. As clear an answer I can give is to explain that history was always my favorite subject in school. A field trip to Jamestown when I was in fourth grade really piqued my interest. I came to learn that otherwise ordinary people we studied about shaped our history through their service in government and in the community. At that very young age I started dreaming about serving in the legislature and went on to study history through graduate school to prepare myself to serve. Since my election in 1981 I have been in office continuously making me now the longest serving member in the House of Delegates.
We hear calls for “term limits,” but Virginia has a very definitive term limit system. To be a member of the House of Delegates one must stand for election every two years and win a plurality of votes in the district to stay in office. This is my 20th such re-application to continue the work I have been doing. While I clearly have a lot of experience, I offer an informed vision for the future of the Commonwealth as my strongest asset.
It is not certain yet if I will have an opponent in this year’s election. Even if I run unopposed, I still intend to campaign in a way that takes advantage of voter interest to talk about the advances we have made in the Commonwealth and the miles we still need to go. My efforts will not be confined to my district as I will be campaigning in other districts on behalf of level-headed, socially progressive, and morally strong candidates who can contribute to a majority in the House of Delegates to accomplish needed changes that I write about almost weekly in this column.
Join me this evening if you can. I want to be able to tell you directly how honored I am to work for you and how earnest I am in reapplying for the job. Please be in touch with me at [email protected] with your questions and concerns.
Before we tear off the remaining couple of pages on the May calendar, I want to address the important recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month. While Virginia is credited with having the first mental health hospital, or asylum as they were called in the 18th century, the Commonwealth has had difficulty in recent times coming to grips with the enormity of the need and the provision of funds to respond to those needs. In fact Virginia is ranked 40th in the nation in mental health care according to the results of a national study of the issue. It took a state senator’s mentally ill son attacking his father with a knife to shock the state to greater action. That father now chairs the Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health Services in the 21st Century, or the Deeds Commission, that includes Sen. Janet Howell as a member and has made critically important recommendations on which the state has made significant progress.
Special thanks go to The Commonwealth Institute for documenting recent progress and remaining opportunities in behavioral health in a recent edition of The Half Sheet. The Institute, which is a nonprofit organization focusing mostly on human service needs, used the term “behavioral health” to be more comprehensive than “mental health” to include mental health services and supports such as substance abuse treatment. The Institute recognized accomplishments this past year to include a 21 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement to encourage more licensed mental health professionals to accept Medicaid thus increasing access to services for people with low income. Additional funding for emergency opioid kits will expand the access to and availability of Naloxone, which is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The General Assembly also passed and the Governor signed my bill to expand the health care providers authorized to dispense Naloxone to make it more readily available.
Increased funding was provided to increase staffing at state mental health facilities that are struggling to keep up with demand. Funding was also approved to replace the aging mental health facility Central State Hospital. In addition, monies have been made available for transportation of persons needing mental health hospitalization from having to be transported by law enforcement.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services indicates that there is a need for 5,000 permanent housing units for those who need supportive housing in the state. This year’s funding along with an increase last year will provide 1,300 units of supportive housing. Obviously, there is a severe need to do more in this area with a price tag of about $47 million.
Challenges remain to be addressed in providing greater access to programs and services for those who live in rural areas and to those who have experienced the trauma of having been exposed to the immigration and refugee system. A task force is looking at ways to increase the number of mental health professionals in the state.
Our awareness of mental health needs cannot end with the month of May. More needs to be done!
Advocates on behalf of cleaning up our environment got further strong evidence of the need for “bold, swift action on behalf of our environment,” a phrase used by many who have recently written letters to me. A 1,500-page report based on thousands of scientific studies by hundreds of international experts has concluded that “humans are transforming earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plants and animal species are now at risk of extinction posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival.”
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that produced the report for the United Nations found that “piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient.” Instead, they call for ‘transformative changes’ that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agricultures and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.” The writers of the assessment are hoping that policy makers will see the importance of nature to the health of people and local economies and will able “to strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.”
As Virginia advocates point out in their plea, “it will now be up to the 2020 Virginia General Assembly to stand up for our health and the environment, for clean energy, and to protect Virginians from the ravages of climate change of which we are already feeling the effects.” The most recent session of the General Assembly demonstrated that the legislators in charge can make all the difference. In a strictly partisan vote, the Republican majority had language inserted in the budget that restricts the Commonwealth’s ability to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that will be a critical avenue for reducing carbon emissions in the state and addressing the negative effects of climate change on the health and safety of the people.
While the language by the Republicans was not subject to a line item veto by the Governor because of past court decisions, the Governor nonetheless has pledged to move forward with new regulations much the same as would be part of RGGI to make significant reductions in carbon pollution from fossil fuel fired power plants. The Governor has made it clear that the budget he prepares next year will delete the Republican language. With the probable change of control of the House of Delegates and State Senate this year the language will not be carried forward in future budgets.
It is unfortunate that the actions of the Governor on this and other items in the budget have been sharply criticized because of a misunderstanding on the part of many that the Governor’s line item veto power is not unlimited — supported by court decisions but still controversial. The good news is that the Governor has indicated in many other actions that he recognizes the need for bold and swift action to protect our environment. I look forward to working with him in greatly enhancing Virginia’s protection of the environment.
While I would never recommend reading the Code of Virginia for pleasure, as it is filled with legalese intended for trained lawyers and judges to debate its intended meaning, it can be a useful document to understand the history of an era.
Because court decisions at the state and federal level can change the application of a law, the words that are in the Code may have been superseded by such a decision or by later enactments of law.
If all that is not enough to confuse us non-lawyers, there are the “notwithstanding” clauses that effectively say that whatever else the law may provide the effective meaning follows the clause.
Laws can be read to help understand the community mores and values of the past. This session saw a meaningful number of bills passed that reflect a cleaning-up of the Code to reflect changing community values.
Some of these include repealing remnants of Jim Crow laws of racial oppression of the past. Thanks to Del. Marcia Price and State Sen. Lionell Spruill, the provisions in Code that exempted Virginia’s minimum wage requirements for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters, all of which were occupations that were most likely held by African Americans, were repealed. The old law made it legal to discriminate through wages. A new law will require employers to provide pay stubs as a way to assist low-wage workers to manage their money and be treated fairly.
Up until action of the General Assembly this session, if you owed court fines and fees in Virginia, your driver’s license could be suspended unless you established a payment plan. As the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy that advocated strongly for a change in the law explained it, one in six Virginia drivers (approximately 900,000 people) has had his or her license suspended because of owing court fines and fees. Almost any poor person who has interacted with the criminal justice system owes some court fines and fees.
Essentially, by taking away someone’s license and therefore likely preventing the person from finding or keeping a job, the state denies the person opportunity to escape from poverty (and ever pay back those fines and fees). This policy was a “debtors’ prison” approach. There is no evidence that suspending people’s licenses increases the rate of payback for fines and fees. The issue disproportionately affected low-income workers, and its repeal this year was past due.
Virginia has historically had one of the highest rates of rental evictions in the country. Laws that disproportionally favored landlords over tenants caused this situation that was disruptive to families. A series of revisions to create a better balance in the law and that provides more options for tenants should make the laws operate more fairly.
Virginia has also had a very bad record in the management of its foster care program. Children were shifted from family to family with limited stability in their lives. Major changes in the laws related to foster children should greatly improve the situation.
It is critically important that we clean up the Code from time to time.
Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in a unique position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds.
As the fall elections approach, the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly, taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased — it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.
An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education.
Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.
Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.
The budget presented to the General Assembly by Gov. Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.
There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain the advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.
March is Women’s History Month. Before women had the whole month, the U.S. recognized Women’s History Week; before that, a single International Women’s Day.
Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements was seen “as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions,” according to an article in Time magazine. The first Women’s Day took place on Feb. 28, 1909 to honor the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes in New York when thousands of women marched for economic rights and to honor an earlier 1857 march when garment workers rallied for equal rights and a 10-hour day, according to the article.
Recognizing the achievement of Virginia women goes beyond naming a month. A monument is under construction on Capitol Square, “Voices from the Garden,” which will be the first monument of its kind in the nation. Representative of the state’s regions, the monument recognizes the 400-year history and the diversity of achievement, ethnicity and thought that women have made to the Commonwealth.
Even more significant in recognizing women in Virginia is the fact that there is historic representation of women in the Virginia House of Delegates, including the election of 11 new women members in 2017, all of whom ousted male incumbents. The House Democratic Caucus is almost 45 percent women, including 11 women of color. The House Republican Caucus is less than 10 percent women. Caucus Chair Charniele Herring is the first woman to chair a caucus in the House of Delegates throughout its 400-year history. Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is the first woman to be elected leader of a caucus in the General Assembly.
Recently I served on a panel, “Can Women Save Democracy? We’re counting on it!” at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University along with Herring, iller-Corn and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. There was a clear consensus in the room that women will play a pivotal role in getting our country back on the right track. Witness this year’s state and local elections when there are record-breaking numbers of women lining up to run in primaries and the general elections.
Not only are women running and winning races, but they are determining the outcome of elections with their tireless work in making calls, knocking on doors, and working on behalf of the candidates they support. Organizations like Indivisibles, with Herndon-Reston Indivisibles being a model organization, and Moms Demand Action among others are making their influence felt on policy issues like ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The big disappointment in celebrating women in history is the refusal of the Virginia House of Delegates to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification failed on a tied vote on a procedural matter that makes it even more frustrating that the amendment was not allowed to be debated on the floor of the House of Delegates. There is more women’s history to be written in Virginia, and I suspect the next step will be the election of even more women this fall and ratification of the ERA next year!
The Virginia General Assembly was adjourning for the year as the film “Green Book” was receiving “Best Picture” recognition at the 91st Oscars. While the story line of the movie may have been fictional, the Green Book was reality in the Jim Crow South.
Segregated facilities of hotels, restaurants, public bathrooms and transportation in Virginia and throughout the South necessitated Black travelers having a guide like the Green Book, a small book with a green cover, to let them know where they could stop to use the bathroom, eat a meal or spend the night. It was not unlike a AAA travel guide except that its listings were just for Black travelers. The movie — without exaggeration — lets recent generations know just how segregated the South was.
As part of the Black History Month celebration in the House of Delegates, a different delegate speaks each day about a famous Black person, an interesting Black person from the past who may not have made the history books or the experience of growing up Black.
One day this session. Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton spoke of her experiences growing up Black in segregated Virginia and her family’s use of the Green Book in their vacation travels. There were special challenges to be met when public bathrooms or restaurants were further than needed.
Other symbols of the challenges of growing up Black in a racist society like Virginia and the South were shockingly brought to our attention this legislative session. The cruel part that blackface played in white entertainment may have been unknown to many younger persons or forgotten by others but must be acknowledged and dealt with in repentance by those who took part including the governor and the attorney general.
To include white robes and hoods in entertainment is to overlook that these are symbols of hate, violence, cross burning, lynchings and white supremacy. Public officials must disavow these symbols unequivocally and provide leadership in healing the communities that have been wounded by signs of white supremacy.
Outside the capitol near the governor’s mansion is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. It features the walk out of Prince Edward schools led by 16-year old Barbara Johns, a factor in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Public schools were not simply segregated, but they were totally unequal.
This legislative session we were reminded by the work of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis of the differences that continue to exist among white and minority facilities, programs and services. The approved budget made some improvements in reducing the inequities among facilities and services that have disadvantaged Black people. There is a new awareness of the work that needs to be done to overcome our racist past.
Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk spoke out forcefully on the floor of the House of Delegates reminding us of our history and the need to take action in the future. The speech of this young Black delegate is worth a listen for it is a powerful statement of the need to overcome our racist past.
Virginia’s state law-making body, the General Assembly, adjourned sine die — until another day — this past Sunday — one day later than its scheduled adjournment date. With more than 3,000 bills and resolutions considered, it is somewhat miraculous that the body came that close to its scheduled 45-day end date.
There were positive accomplishments. Legislation designed to curtail record levels of rental evictions was passed. Major reforms to the foster care program were enacted with Del. Karrie Delaney providing leadership in this area. The legal age for buying cigarettes and vaping products was raised from 18 to 21 — a remarkable achievement in a city that was once the cigarette making capital of the world.
A bill I introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation passed and will increase the persons authorized to administer the miracle drug Naloxone that can save the lives of persons suffering from drug overdoses. The concern about coal-ash ponds has been resolved with a requirement that clean-up occur on the property of utility without transport and in ponds that are sealed at the highest level of environmental protection.
Revisions that were made to the biennial budget that we are now half-way through bring lots of good news. Monies were increased for public education, including districts that have the highest levels of poverty and most need. School counselors were increased in numbers, although not at the level sought by the governor. Most taxpayers will get some money back as a result of the impact of federal tax cuts on state revenue.
A resolution that could lead to a constitutional amendment if passed next year would result in a redistricting commission. While the commission is not as strong as I and the independent redistricting advocates had hoped, it will increase public input into the process of drawing legislative boundaries. A week of no-excuse absentee voting before elections that was passed is much less than in other states, but it will start the process of opening up elections in the future.
Up until the final hours of the session, it appeared that the current limitations on holding a phone while driving would be strengthened, but the bill died for failure to agree to language that would be enforceable.
The ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that I thought was going to occur was defeated by a mostly partisan vote. When the legislation was passed by the Senate and defeated in a House committee, there was an effort to change the rules to allow a vote by the entire House. The rules change was defeated by a 50-50 tied vote with one Republican who had narrowly won re-election in 2017 voting with the Democrats.
All gun safety measures were defeated, including my bill to require universal background checks. My bills to raise the minimum wage and to establish an earned income tax credit system were also defeated.
I am available to speak to groups and organizations about the session; just email me at [email protected] Future columns will discuss the session further.
Diva Central Accessories Drive ends — A donation drive to collect shoes, jewelry, handbags and other accessories for the Reston Community Center’s annual prom and middle school formal dress giveaway ends today. [Reston Community Center]
General Assembly wrap-up — An infographic gives an easy breakdown on which bills failed and passed. [Virginia Public Access Project]
Pet hedgehog photo — Who doesn’t love pictures of pets? An article rounded up some pictures of Restonians’ pets. [Connection Newspapers]
Reston Hospital Center wins award — “Reston Hospital Center announced it is the first facility in Virginia to earn The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval(R) for Advanced Certification for Total Hip and Total Knee Replacement… Reston Hospital Center performs more than 1,000 total joint replacements every year.” [Reston Hospital Center]
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
As you read this column the Virginia General Assembly will be nearing its adjournment sine die for the 400th year of its existence, having first met in the church on Jamestowne Island in 1619.
During this commemorative year, there will be many opportunities to learn more about Virginia and to reflect on how its history influences it to today even in the current legislative session and in what on another occasion was referred to as its “recent unpleasantries.”
That first session of what became known a century and a half later as the General Assembly was composed of a representative of the 22 plantations that had sprung up along the major rivers of the state as there were no local government, political boundaries or transportation networks in existence. The representatives were all white males who were landowners.
African Americans had to wait for the outcome of the Civil War and women had to wait for the twentieth century before they became part of the electorate. While the right to vote has begrudgingly expanded, over time there continues to be a resistance to making it easier to vote.
In the current session, there were proposals to allow people to vote early or vote absentee without an excuse and to make election day a holiday for the convenience of voters, but it does not appear that any will become law. Establishing a fair way to draw legislative boundaries has been hotly debated, but the decision to establish an independent redistricting commission will await the closing hours of the session.
Slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619 to work the tobacco fields that were the mainstay of the colony’s economy. They had none of the rights that Englishmen claimed and beginning in the 1640s were subjected to “slave codes” that defined them as property to be bought and sold with no access to learning to read and write or to move about freely.
After the Civil War, these restrictive laws became the Jim Crow laws that continued to limit the rights of black people who were kept in line by the Ku Klux Klan and by public lynchings. White supremacy reigned with black-face entertainment intended to degrade black people through crude humor.
Happenings during this legislative session showed how little we have progressed on issues of human rights and respect, but there is hope. The reminder to the governor of his racist past will make him an even more enlightened person who if he continues can provide important leadership to dismantling racism in the state.
The incredible people of color who were elected to the House of Delegates in the last election bring strong voices to the need for greater equity and justice in the Commonwealth. Some limited reforms that will help establish equity and remove racism in the criminal justice system are on their way to passage.
Women first came to the Virginia colony in 1619. While rights of women have expanded slowly over the centuries, having Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is still in doubt. May the lessons of this historic legislative session move us forward in future years.
To check on the fate of specific bills, go to lis.virginia.gov.