The Final Week at the General Assembly 2019 Session
2019 Session Concludes—A budget passes & Independent Re-districting Moves Forward!
This concludes the last week of the 2019 General Assembly session. I am proud to say that lawmakers stayed focused on passing necessary legislation to address problems facing the Commonwealth and to “move the ball forward” on key funding issues related to public education, need-based financial aid, transportation, and human services. It is particularly gratifying that my bills to strengthen the foster care system, help parents go to school, and improve behavioral health services in our public schools all progressed through both houses and are on the Governor’s desk.
The best surprise in the session was the passage of “Jacob’s Law.” This bill allows LGBTQ families to participate in parent surrogacy programs. I was proud to advocate for the measure on the floor of the Senate and am grateful to my colleague, Delegate Sullivan, for carrying the legislation. More importantly, I must say “thank you” to the many folks who contacted lawmakers asking for our support. You are awesome!
Another very positive development was the passage of “no excuse” in-person absentee voting. Many of us, myself included, have been trying for years to get such a measure passed. Senator Spruill carried the legislation this year and succeeded in getting enough Republican votes to get the bill over the finish line.
The Usual Divide on Social Issues Prevailed: The Republican majority thwarted efforts to pass common-sense gun-control legislation despite the very vocal advocacy of the relatives and survivors of the Parkland tragedy. Legislation to protect a women’s Constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion failed, as did measures to grant more protections in the workplace to our LGBTQ friends.
King’s Dominion Law: The stars aligned for me to be able to negotiate a compromise bill on school start dates. This bill will enable school boards to set a school start date no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day. In districts where the school systems adopt this new option, school boards will be required to close schools from the Friday immediately preceding Labor Day through Labor Day. This language was acceptable to the corporate representatives who run entertainment parks like Kings Dominion and it also provides the flexibility that school districts in Northern Virginia have requested. If school districts already have a waiver that varies from this language, those districts will be able to continue with their current calendar. However, school districts in Planning District (PD) 16 cannot vary from the adopted language. PD 16 covers Caroline County, Spotsylvania County, King George County, Stafford County, and the City of Fredericksburg. I must give a “shout out” to the Fairfax activists who have worked with me on this issue for the past 3 years.
Debt-Free Community College for High-Need Workforce Tracks: I am also excited that many of my budget priorities were funded, especially in the areas of K-12 education and behavioral health services. However, my biggest disappointment was the inability to carve out dollars to support debt-free community college for high-demand workforce tracks. This is a transformational issue on a human level and on an economic level. In fact, Harris Miller well articulates the benefits of debt free higher education programs in a letter to the editor, published by the Washington Post (see here).
Equal Rights Amendment: Although the advocacy effort for passage of the ERA was the best organized and orchestrated effort we could have hoped for, election year politics for some Republican lawmakers was too challenging to overcome. Lawmakers were concerned about facing primaries from candidates on the far right who were posed to mobilize anti-abortion groups and other constituent blocks against those who voted for the ERA. Even with this backdrop, I strongly believe that Speaker Cox should have allowed the ERA to be voted on by the entire body of the House of Delegates. Lawmakers should be trusted to make tough decisions, in public, and to show their values to those they represent. This ERA effort was truly an example of why elections matter.
Independent Redistricting Commission Passes First Round: Although there were many tense moments, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed to a framework for a constitutional question about establishing an independent re-districting commission. The compromise bill looks a lot like the Senate bill and will provide the transparency and independence that many advocates such as the OneVirginia2021 group sought to achieve. Essentially, eight commission members will be lawmakers evenly split between the House and Senate and the two major parties represented in the General Assembly. Additionally, eight citizen experts will be appointed by a panel of retired judges. Two thirds of the sixteen members will have to sign-off on the re-districting plan that is submitted to the General Assembly. Lawmakers will be required to vote “up or down” on the proposal – no amendments would be permitted. The constitutional language contained in the bill must pass the General Assembly, without a word change, next session and go before the voters in November of 2020. If all goes well, new district lines reflecting the 2020 census will be drawn in a non-partisan fashion in 2021.
Census Outreach Efforts: Although many community-based groups will be engaged in helping to collect information from minority communities, this task will be especially challenging given the anxiety that has been created around the citizenship question. A federal judge recently blocked the citizenship question that the Trump Administration planned to ask on the 2020 census, but the Supreme Court has announced it will hear the case. Even if the citizenship question is ruled unconstitutional, the anti-immigrant environment created by the Trump Administration will certainly place a damper on participation by certain communities. An incomplete count will result in Virginia not receiving its fair share of federal program dollars for critical services such as education, public safety, and health care. If you want to get involved, contact the U.S. Census Bureau regional office that includes Virginia at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 794.4081. You may also visit https://www.census.gov/partners.html.
My Conference Committee Assignments:
Increasing Access to Broadband: I helped to negotiate language that will enable localities to establish service districts to improve broadband access for their constituents. This was more complicated than expected because local governments wanted maximum flexibility and the cable providers wanted as many assurances as possible. I am delighted to say that we worked it out and many Virginians will enjoy a much higher quality of life because of the effort.
Data on Solitary Confinement: My original bill was subsumed into another bill that requires less detail on the data to be reported, but the bill that passed still moves the ball forward. Even conservative members of the conference team eventually agreed that solitary confinement information could be a useful policy tool. My strongest argument to these conferees was the fact that 90 percent of those serving time in prison are released to the community. Moreover, excessive time spent in solitary confinement has such a debilitating impact on one’s emotional development and socialization skills that these individuals are ill equipped to succeed in the outside world and recidivism increases. I certainly hope that the data we collect from this effort will help shape policies that move us towards eliminating solitary confinement.
Certainly, revelations about the use of black face, many years ago, from Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring caused great pain and disappointment. However, I believe we must find a way forward that condemns such actions and creates cultural changes that eradicate racism. All Virginians need to play a role in this effort. Racial relations and the ongoing effects of racism in the Commonwealth need to be acknowledged and discussed in our book clubs, social circles, and churches. Part of this reconciliation must include meaningful policy changes that give communities of color true equity. The budget we passed is a start in the long process of improving economic opportunity for communities of color, but more needs to be done. We must all work together so that Virginia will be a model for tolerance and egalitarianism.
The sexual assault allegations against Lt. Governor Fairfax are very troubling and must be taken seriously. I believe the women alleging the assaults should be afforded a full investigation through the judicial process, where independence and impartiality will ensure due process for Lt. Governor Fairfax. At this time, a prosecutor in Suffolk County, Massachusetts and officials from Duke University have initiated investigations into the allegations. These non-partisan investigations need to run their course without any political interference from the General Assembly.
I will continue to strive to create a Commonwealth that is welcoming and inclusive, a place where everyone feels valued, and everyone can flourish. It is an honor and a pleasure to represent you in Richmond. Thank you for your continued support.