Tuesday, June 21, 2022

New Laws on July 1st

 I typically focus my June column on the bills that passed during the most recent General Assembly Session, since the laws we pass during our regular session are effective on July 1st and July 1st is the first day of the fiscal year, the date on which the new budget becomes effective. 

This year we are running a little bit behind 

We finished the regular session in March without a budget, forcing the new Governor to call us back for a Special Session on April 4th. Unfortunately, he forgot to check with House and Senate leaders first - even those of his same party. So, when we arrived back in Richmond there was literally nothing for us to do. 

The GOP-controlled House and the Democratic Senate finally reached a budget compromise over Memorial Day weekend, and we returned on June 1st to debate and adopt the budget that was released on Memorial Day Monday. It was then sent to the Governor for his action 

The Special Session convenes again on June 17th to vote on any amendments the Governor may have made, although he’s not obliged to tell us what they are until 11:59 on the 16th of June.  So much for transparency. 

So, I can’t yet tell you exactly what will happen with the Grocery Tax, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or your standard deduction on July 1st. I can talk about a few of the bills that passed, and more significantly this year, a few bills that WON’T become law on July 1st 

This is all thanks to opposition from Democrats in the General Assembly and despite the Governor’s desire to see these changes made.  

For instance, the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County will keep those signs at the entrances to our parks, libraries and community centers that remind residents firearms are not permitted in those public spaces. Bills to repeal local authority to regulate firearms were defeated in committee, as were bills to repeal Virginia’s proven and effective red-flag laws, and bills to allow Virginians to carried concealed weapons anywhere without a permit.  

LGBTQ+ Virginians will continue to enjoy full legal protection from discrimination under the Virginia Values Act, as efforts to repeal the bill, make it more difficult to enforce, and to provide a myriad of exemption under the guise of *religious freedom* were defeated.  

Even though Governor Youngkin has created a secret tip line to report the teaching of Critical Race Theory and “inherently divisive topics” in the classroom, bills that would ban the teaching of such topics in our excellent Falls Church and Fairfax County schools were defeated 

Efforts to repeal public sector employees’ right to form a union were unsuccessful. This means negotiations can continue toward educator-friendly collective bargaining agreements in Falls Church City that could provide the best model for the rest of Virginia. 

That said, there were a few good things that did pass and will become law in a few weeks.  

Our furry friends will be better protected now that individuals who have violated the federal Animal Welfare Act will not be allowed to sell or import cats and dogs. 

Student-athletes can now be compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness (NIL) and prohibits higher education institutions from preventing this except in certain circumstances.  

We’ll start taking baby steps toward campaign finance reform. Beginning in January 2024, candidates will have record keeping and retention requirements so that the Department of Elections will be able to annually audit a percentage of campaign committee accounts. 

If you are a Virginia Realtor, you will now have the ability to negotiate health insurance options through your member associations.  

For my fellow environmentalists, localities can now adopt ordinances for the planting and placement of trees during the land development process. This means that tree conservation can be a bigger priority in areas with high development. 

To address the critical issues at the Virginia Employment Commission, the VEC will develop an unemployment insurance resiliency plan to include specific actions taken when claims increase, to address staffing needs, and overall communications. The law requires employers to submit claim-related forms electronically and the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management will lead a multiagency workgroup to address support strategies during emergencies. The VEC’s internal audit division will also review and update online resources related to unemployment compensation.  

As you know from my previous Richmond Reports, we review a lot of bills during the regular session. You can view a more comprehensive list of bills on dls.virginia.gov. 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

What are you willing to do?

Protecting rights to abortion care is the reason I am in the General Assembly today.   

When I got married, although my wife shared my political leanings and admired my involvement in the community on the various boards and commissions for which I volunteered, she had no interest in being the spouse of an elected official. And she certainly didn’t want the demands of elected office taking me away from our young family. 

Something changed, though, one night when we were watching late night TV in 2012Virginia was in the headlines for passing a bill requiring anyone seeking abortion care to be subjected to an invasive transvaginal ultrasound regardless of whether it was deemed medically necessary or not.  

That was when we decided that it was worth our family making those sacrifices to fight to protect abortion rights. I ran for the seat of my retiring mentor in 2013 and took office in 2014. Our small little Democratic minority, barely able to prevent a Governor’s veto from being overridden, fought to win seats, one election at a time, until finally in November 2019, we were able to take the majority. And then, in 2020 we were finally able to repeal that transvaginal ultrasound mandate in Virginia.  

We used that majority to fight for other rights too. We protected the right to vote by increasing voter access, moving Virginia’s ranking up 37 spots for ease of voting. 

We fought to protect human rights, creating a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, the Virginia Values Act, to prevent discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.  

We worked to protect the rights of all kids to feel safe and respected in their schools, creating model policies for the treatment of transgender students, allowing them to focus on learning in an environment free from bullying, bigotry and fear.  

Workers’ rights to earn a living wage for an honest day’s work were strengthened through our efforts to promote collective bargaining and raise the minimum wage.  

Our right to be able to enter public spaces free from the fear of gun violence was respected with common-sense gun violence prevention laws, including empowering localities like Fairfax County and Falls Church City to restrict firearms from public buildings and parks.  

We accomplished so much in those two years. Now, we’re dealing with a very different Administration that is intent on rolling back this progress, much like we’re seeing in other states and in Congress. 

Last week, I attended the Spring Conference of the DLCC in Annapolis Maryland where I had a chance to meet and talk with Democratic state legislators from around the country. When they saw Virginia on my name tag there were like “oh, Virginia” – and gave me a knowing sigh or nod.  

In all our Virginia odd-year election cycles we say that the country is watching Virginia.  As often as I’ve said it - I never knew if it was really true or not. Turns out it is true.  

In spite of the fact that more than 6 in 10 Loudoun County voters went Democratic, what people saw on the national news was the noise a small minority was able to generate there. 

Legislators from New Mexico have developed talking points about Critical Race Theory and are working on a strategy for making sure parents know how much they matter and how important they are in making educational policy.  Folks from Florida see our Governor trying to out DeSantis their Governor and told us just how damaging their new “don’t say gay” law is turning out to be.  

The Governor knows he’s being watched too. We Virginians, particularly those of us here in Northern Virginia, are no longer his target audience.  

The regular session is over. Reconvened session, the one-day session where we vote on whether or not to override Governor’s vetoes and adopt his recommended changes to our bills, has come and gone. All without a budget for the Commonwealth.  

During our veto session I made some headlines comparing the Governor’s plan to force the entire Loudoun County School Board to stand for reelection a year early (and two years in a row) to something a dictator like Vladimir Putin might do.   

Was that over the top? Or was it an apt comparison?  

We’ve all been impressed watching ordinary Ukrainians going to extraordinary lengths to fight for their country and their right to self-determination.  

What are we willing to do to protect our rights?

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Governor's Vetoes & Recommendations

Last week, Governor Glenn Youngkin vetoed 26 popular bi-partisan bills that passed with the support of the conservative Republican led House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled State Senate. He also amended 114 more bills, some in ways that suggest he’ll eventually veto them as well. 

To put this in perspective, former Virginia Governors have been much more circumspect in using their veto power - McDonnell vetoed zero bills during his first year in office, McAuliffe vetoed 10, and Northam vetoed 18.  

What stood out more than the numbers, though, were the complete and utter lack of justification for the Governor’s actions, aside from petty personal politics. Our rookie Governor signed versions of several bills carried by House members then vetoed identical measures with Senator Adam Ebbin’s name on the Chief Patron line. 

Senator Ebbin, a 19-year veteran legislator who has never had a bill vetoed, chairs the Senate Privileges & Elections Committee and oversaw the opposition to the Governor’s attempt to appoint Andrew Wheeler as the Secretary of Natural Resources. But maybe that’s just a coincidence. 

Of the 26 bills the Governor vetoed so far, 18 of them originally passed the House with more than 2/3 of the members voting in favor of them. And 6 of the 26 vetoed bills passed the House unanimously. (The 2 remaining vetoed bills still passed the House with at least 60 votes, well above the simple majority needed to pass.) 

You might be thinking that the new Governor wasn’t thinking about the numbers or the patrons. Perhaps he was motivated by strongly held political convictions, or a desire to adhere to some core principals. Maybe, but a number of the vetoed bills would have helped Virginians most in need, including bills to enhance consumer protections, a bill to help streamline the unemployment benefits process, a bill to provide medical debt relief, and a bill to force slumlords to take responsibility for hazardous rental properties.  

So, it’s possible he really doesn’t think consumers, the unemployed, or those living in substandard housing need help from the government.  

That doesn’t really explain the Governor’s decision to amend a bill I carried with Senator Saslaw on behalf of the City of Falls Church.  At the request of the City Council, I introduced a charter bill, HB 339, to allow all city residents, regardless of whether they were qualified voters in the city, the opportunity to fully engage in civic life as members of boards, authorities, and commissions.  

The bill passed the House and the Senate unanimously, so it was not one we expected to see on the list of bills with Governor’s recommendations. In addition to requesting language clarifying that only city residents legal in the United States would be eligible for service (the majority of the people affected are actually military and state department families who maintain a voting address at their “home of record” as well as recent immigrants not yet naturalized) the governor added a reenactment clause. This is essentially the same thing as vetoing the legislation as this means that the bill would have to be reintroduced during the 2023 Session and pass the General assembly a second time.  

The Governors vetoes and recommendations will be considered and acted on by the General Assembly the last week of April, in what would normally be the last legislative action of the year, at least as far as the entire General Assembly getting together was concerned.  

Unfortunately, the 2022 General Assembly Session adjourned Sine Die on Saturday, March 12th without a budget and without taking final action on 40 or so other pieces of legislation. When the Session began in early January, I talked then about the glacial pace that was set - bills took too long to get assigned to committees and the committees didn't start meeting in earnest until the 2nd and 3rd weeks of session. 

Although this isn’t the first time the regular session has ended without a final budget, it certainly could have been avoided if we had kept a more robust schedule. It also would have helped if the Governor and the House Republican leadership had planned to create any semblance of a bipartisan budget compromise.  

It is unclear when we will be called back for Special Session 1 to finish the budget. However, the General Assembly will address all the vetoes and recommendations at the Reconvene Session on April 27th. In the meantime, you can review the full list of vetoed bills and bills with recommendations on lis.Virginia.gov.  

Thursday, March 17, 2022

2022 Session Sine Die

The General Assembly adjourned last week having failed to accomplish the most important task of our 60-day legislative session. We left Richmond without passing a biennial budget.   

The House of Delegates and State Senate took markedly different approaches to the Commonwealth’s 2-year taxing and spending plan, with the Democratically controlled Senate favoring a mix of tax cuts, rebates, and investments on long neglected and perennially underfunded state responsibilities.    

The House of Delegates, now controlled by a very narrow Republican majority, instead wanted to spend billions of dollars on permanent tax cuts that would favor mostly relatively wealthy Virginians. This approach continues to neglect state responsible programs that were cut more than a decade ago during the great recession and never fully restored. Unfortunately, the programs hit hardest during that period and that are still struggling funding-wise are things like K-12 education, school construction and maintenance, and pre-K programs. We also continue to underfund mental health services (permanent supportive housing, health facilities maintenance, and general access to behavioral health services) and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

It’s not particularly unusual for the two chambers to take different approaches in their initial budgets. However, we usually spend time working out our differences, looking for places to meet in the middle, and splitting the difference to get a state spending plan all the parties can live with.   

What’s different this year, based on all the accounts I’ve heard from people in or near the room where it happens, is that our new Governor has instructed the House negotiators not to negotiate. The Budget Conferees (the members of the special conference committee appointed by the leadership of the two chambers to negotiate the final budget) met only a few times, and not all during the final 3-4 days of our 60-day session.   

There was no flurry of activity at the end. No racing to get the bill printed and placed on member’s desks before the deadline. Instead, just a demand that the Governor get his way. Making things more difficult, it wasn’t always clear what it was that the Governor’s way was. A political and Virginia Government neophyte, neither he nor any of his staff seemed capable of articulating specifically what he was looking for from the budget conferees.    

For better or worse, this wasn’t the only failure of the Session.    

While I’m no fan of them, it’s remarkable that almost all of our new Governor’s signature initiatives were defeated or remain in limbo. For instance, his effort to defund public education and divert public dollars to charter schools. There is a watered-down bill that would make it easier to create lab schools - but even the watered-down version is languishing in a conference committee of its own.   

The House and Senate, by most accounts, remain far apart on the parameters of a Stadium Authority and incentive package designed to try and lure the Washington Commanders to Virginia.  I can’t say that I’d be sorry to see this bill fail, but it is an example of another high-profile initiative the Governor called for in his state of the commonwealth address that he’s been unable to bring legislators together on.   

Another area where we continue to see friction and unwillingness to come together has been the election to fill two Supreme Court vacancies. Appointments became a flash point early in the session when the Governor tried to install Trump’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, as the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. 

Republicans retaliated by removing Angela Navarro from the State Corporation Commission along with 11 other reappointments, including removing the teacher of the year from the Board of Education.    

Ironically, the Governor whose 1st executive action was to create a snitch line to report teachers teaching “inherently divisive topics” has, through inexperience and ineptitude (or perhaps very intentionally) only widened divisions between the two parties in Richmond.   

I hope that with the benefit of some experience and perhaps a renewed desired to learn what it is we do in Richmond, the Governor will begin using his office and his enormous power to bring folks together and find commonsense solutions to overcome the challenges ALL Virginian’s face.