Wednesday, March 16, 2016

2016 Session Wrap Up

I wrapped up my third legislative session in Richmond last week. Virginia’s General Assembly meets for 60 days every even numbered year, and 45 days every odd year. This being 2016, we adjourned at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 11, 2016 after adopting a biennial budget, 59 days after we started. So technically, a day early.

And not a moment too soon.

It’s never been easy to be a progressive Democrat in Richmond. Even when the Democratic Party controlled the state legislature as recently as the 1990s, they weren’t what most of us in Falls Church think of as forward thinkers.

In 2016, with both the House and State Senate controlled by Republican majorities, including a near super-majority in the House, things got downright ugly.

Legislation to repeal Virginia’s unconstitutional ban on same sex marriage, and prevent discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation were tabled by a voice vote in committee. The same thing happened to bills to prevent gun stores from locating next door to schools and to improve wages and benefits for working families.

Instead, we got a so-called religious freedom bill which grants a license to discriminate against same-sex couples. We got bills to reverse the Governor’s ban on firearms in state buildings. And we got a state budget that stripped out $3 billion worth of health care for the working poor that is available from the Federal government for Medicaid expansion.

During the waning days of the legislative session we spend a lot of time on the floor of the House of Delegates “at ease” while we wait for conference committees to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of bills. I passed only one bill this session, and it made it through both houses exactly as I introduced it, no need to conference on it.

So I had some time.

While I waited, I chatted with one of the more senior members on the other side of the aisle. He told me something I already knew, but was important to hear again, and I think he meant it as a compliment. As a Democrat in a Republican dominated legislature, he told me, you have to decide who you want to be. Do you want to be one of the ones that speaks up a lot, fights us on the floor, in committees, and in the press? Or do you want to keep quiet, keep your head down, and be allowed to be slightly effective, to get some of your bills passed, and get yourself better committee assignments?
For those of you reading this column for the first time, who don’t receive my e-mail newsletters or follow me on Facebook, I fall into the first category.

If I were you, he said, I’d do it exactly the way you are doing it. I’d be throwing the bombs, I’d be giving ‘em hell, and I’d be asking all the hard questions.

That’s why I voted No on the biennial budget, that doesn’t include Medicaid Expansion for the third straight year, at the staggering cost of over $6 million per day. That’s why I stood up and spoke out against efforts to undermine our strong public school system in Virginia, against making it easier for more people to carry more guns more places, and against efforts to derail a great bill (introduced by a Republican) to make it illegal to smoke in cars where small children are strapped into car seats.
It’s why I spoke up for funding mental health programs in our state’s prisons and jails. It’s why I spoke up for student borrowers who are stuck with bad loans on bad terms they can’t afford and can’t refinance. It’s why I spoke up for victims of domestic violence and their families – and for keeping dangerous weapons out of heated domestic disputes.

I am going to keep fighting because we’ve seen what the other side will do if they think they can get away with it. They’ll nominate someone like Ken Cuccinelli to the Supreme Court.