Thursday, September 16, 2021

Redistristing, Campaign Finance, & Public Input

When I was sworn into the Virginia House of Delegates in January of 2014, I was one of 33 House Democrats – a super-minority incapable of even sustaining a veto by the recently elected Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe. 

Although I was a real estate attorney, small business owner, with a long background in local government, I was assigned to only two committees that produced the fewest bills and generated the least work in the General Assembly. When session ended, I was free to resume my full-time work schedule, with little risk of being asked to serve in any capacity that might cause me to need to drive back to Richmond during the “off-season” between sessions. 

I knew that these off-session commission, boards, work groups and task-forces were where most of the real work of legislating happened, but also knew for a freshman Democrat from liberal Northern Virginia, my contributions and point of view weren’t really sought after.

What a difference a couple of elections can make. Since taking over the Majority in 2020, I’ve been appointed to four committees, one of which I chair, and five subcommittees, one of which I chair. In addition, I serve on the Housing Commission, the FOIA Council (Vice Chair), the Code Commission (Vice Chair), the Legislative Support Commission, the Joint Reapportionment Committee, the Board of Veterans Services, the Virginia Redistricting Commission, and the Joint Subcommittee to Study Campaign Finance Reform (Chair).

Since the public health State of Emergency ended and in-person meetings resumed, I’ve gotten to know well every pothole between Falls Church and Richmond.

With all the important work happening between sessions, I want to focus on two of these commissions that are doing work which you can greatly influence through public participation and activism in the next few weeks.

This week, the Virginia Redistricting Commission provided criteria to two sets of professional map drawers with instructions for them to create maps for the House and Senate districts for the entire Commonwealth by next week. Over the next month, the Commission will be taking a deep dive into these maps, reviewing the lines, listening to public comments, and making adjustments as needed.

In addition to public comment at the end of each regular Commission meeting, there will be two virtual public hearings each day from October 4th through October 7th with each hearing focusing on a specific region in the Commonwealth. The Commission will take a final vote on the House and Senate maps on October 11th.

After this, we will start to review the Virginia congressional map over a series of meetings with a virtual public hearing on October 22nd and a final Commission vote on October 25th. Assuming that the Commission passes these maps, then they will go to the General Assembly for an up or down vote.

Public input is a major component of this process, which can be shared via written comments or during public hearings. Bottom line - we need to hear from you.

Are you concerned about the criteria the master mapmakers are using to draw the maps? Do you live in a split precinct or a community divided among a few representatives? Are you concerned about incumbents being drawn into the same district? Is there a specific community of interest that you think should be kept together?

Specific to Falls Church, do you think the City should be a community of interest with Arlington or with Fairfax County?

The Redistricting Commission website, VirginiaRedistricting.org, has all you need to participate – sign up to speak at a public hearing, submit written comments, or make specific comments directly on the preliminary maps. You can even submit your own maps to be reviewed!

Another opportunity you have to share feedback is with the Joint Subcommittee to Study Campaign Finance Reform. The Subcommittee’s second meeting is September 17th, which will be livestreamed via the Virginia General Assembly website.

Tasked with examining the costs of campaigning in the Commonwealth, the effectiveness of our current disclosure laws and their enforcement, and options available to regulate campaign finances, the Subcommittee's primary submit a report with recommendations by November 1, 2021.

As chair of this Subcommittee, I’d love to hear from the public about what needs to be done in Virginia to promote the integrity of and confidence in our campaign finance system. You can sign up to speak or submit comments through hodspeak.house.virginia.gov.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Special Session Update

Virginia will be a more just and prosperous state as a result of the important actions taken by the Virginia General Assembly and approved by the Governor during our Special Session last week.

The General Assembly returned to Richmond on August 2nd for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Special Session was called so that we could allocate $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and appoint judges to the newly expanded Virginia Court of Appeals.

With this historic opportunity, my colleagues and I were committed to making sure that these funds were allocated in a way that maximized their impact. The pandemic highlighted a series of cracks in our government services – this budget helps fix that. Last week, we took the final vote on the budget and it will now go to the Governor for his signature.

Help for Small Businesses and Virginia Workers

We invested $260 million to fully fund the Rebuild Virginia Grant Fund Program so that we can clear out the application waiting list. We also allocated $76.5 million for additional small business and tourism & hospitality programs and put aside $862 million to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The Virginia Employment Commission will also receive $73.6 million to upgrade their information technology system and to add additional call center staff and adjudication officers.

Public Health

Continuing our COVID vaccine outreach, $20 million will go to an information campaign targeted to hard-to-reach communities.

We’re also doing some major investing in our mental health services and substance abuse programs. $238 million has been allocated overall with specific set asides for retaining direct care staff at DBHS facilities, expanding community-based crisis services systems (like mobile crisis units and MARCUS Alert activities), renovating DBHDS facilities, and prevention programs.

Housing & Utilities

To better connect all Virginians, $716 million will be used to expand universal broadband access across the Commonwealth.

The budget continues our current rent relief policy by requiring a tenant or landlord to apply for rental assistance before proceeding with an eviction for non-payment of rent and we put an additional $2.5 million to Legal Aid for civil indigent defense in eviction cases. Customers with overdue utility accounts will have some more options with $120 million for the utility assistance program.

Education

Educating our kids is one of our highest priorities. As such, we’ve got money for teacher recruitment and $250 million for HVAC and ventilation system improvements in the school systems that need it the most.

For our public colleges and universities, there is $100 million in need-based financial aid and $11 million for the TAG Grant Program.

Elections

I’m proud of all the legislation we’ve passed in the past two years to expand voting rights and make the process more accessible. Keeping with that, we’ve allocated $3 million to assist localities with the expansion of early voting, including Sunday voting. We also have $1.5 million for a voter education campaign on new election laws and to combat misinformation.

Public Safety

We’ve also made a lot of progress in in criminal justice reform. This budget continues that effort with $34.8 million for the Department of Corrections to include funding for expansion of telehealth services, video visitation, and PPE. There is also $13.2 million for the Department of Criminal Justice Services sexual and domestic violence victim fund and $2.5 million to support the Office of the Attorney General's gun violence reduction programs.

In acknowledgment of the need to recruitment and retention, there is funding for bonuses for police officers, sheriffs, and new hires as well as compression adjustment bonuses from 2-8% as needed.

Expanding the Court of Appeals

During the special session, we also appointed eight new judges to the recently expanded Virginia Court of Appeals. This legal reform broadens the court’s jurisdiction guaranteeing appellate review of all civil and criminal court decisions. Previously, Virginia was the only state that didn’t automatically grant appeals.

This group of newly appointed judges is also historically diverse in profession, race, and gender. Of these eight, four are women, six are people of color, three are former public defenders, and one was a Legal Aid attorney. The appointees come from across the Commonwealth, offering geographic diversity as well.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

#1 for Business...Again

As the Virginia General Assembly prepares to return for a Special Session on August 2nd to appropriate American Rescue Plan funds made available to the Commonwealth, we learned that Virginia will also enter the new fiscal year with a substantial surplus in state revenue.

Some of that excess revenue is required to be put set aside in our rainy day and other reserve funds under the Virginia Constitution, and some of it will be available to spend on non-recurring items in the upcoming year.

The Virginia economy is recovering well from the pandemic as vaccination rates continue to climb. Nevertheless, the recovery is uneven, and we will need these one-time funds to ensure our state social safety net is there for our neighbors who won’t be able to bounce back as quickly or suffered more significant hardships during the pandemic.

Given the generally rosy budget outlook, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Virginia maintained it’s rating as the number one state to do business according to CNBC’s long running state business rankings.  Virginia is the first state to win the title “Top State for Business” twice in a row (CNBC didn’t issue rankings in 2020 because of the pandemic).

Virginia has ranked #1 five times since the rankings began in 2007– more than any other state.

Now, I haven’t always been one to tout Virginia’s ranking for business friendliness as the most important metric for determining the relative success of state government. To the extent these rankings have, historically, rewarded states with low wages, lots of corporate giveaways, anti-worker policies, weak environmental policies, and limited legal options for consumers. You almost want to be suspicious of states that rank too high.

Since the last set of rankings came out, though, Virginia passed the Clean Economy Act, raised the minimum wage, kicked car-title and payday lenders out of the Commonwealth, gave unions more rights to bargain collectively, passed the Virginia Values Act which includes employee protections from all sorts of discrimination, and made it easier for workers to sue their employers for things like worker misclassification.

So how are we still #1? Let’s dig in a little behind the numbers.

CNBC’s rankings included 85 distinct metrics across 10 competitiveness categories. Some of them are what you’d probably expect: cost of doing business, infrastructure, workforce, access to capital, cost of living, etc.

This year, though, they added some new criteria to reflect what businesses in 2021 care about.

Earlier this week many of us tuned in to watch Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby and All Start game live from…Denver, Colorado. Seem like a non-sequitur?

All Star Week was originally scheduled for Atlanta, Georgia this year. The MLB pulled out of Georgia earlier this year when players and other stakeholders protested over Georgia’s passing restrictive voting laws.

In announcing their rankings, CNBC made a point of highlighting Virginia’s education system, which helps us to attract and retain an exceptionally talented workforce, and commitment to equity and inclusion. Clearly that was our number one attribute.

They also noted that companies, like Major League Baseball teams, are increasingly vocal in their demands for inclusiveness in the states where they do business, leading to an increase in the importance of this in CNBC’s 2021 competitiveness study, as well as adding metrics on diversity, sustainability, and connectivity.

So, we were able to stay ahead of other states even in a pandemic not only because of our competitive business climate, but also because of progressive legislation that we’ve enacted over the past few years. We’re the first southern state to enact a Voting Rights Act to expand voting rights and access to the polls as well as the Virginia Values Act that ensures comprehensive anti-discrimination laws protect the LGBTQ+ community.

And we didn’t stop there.

We invested in public education and workforce development so that Virginia businesses can recruit workers in Virginia. Since Governor Northam took office, nearly 90,000 new jobs have been created and we’ve invested over $45 billion.

The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back Fund and Program (G3 Fund)​ through the G3 Program provides financial assistance to certain low-income and middle-income students who are enrolled in a higher education program that leads to an occupation in a high-demand field.​ 

Our investments in the highly traveled I-81 corridor and the Port of Virginia are also clearly paying off. Recognizing our commitment to infrastructure, technology, and inclusiveness, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Micron have chosen to relocate or expand their companies in the Commonwealth.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

New Laws Part 2

New laws affecting everything from the intentional release of balloons to legalizing simple possession of marijuana to riding bicycles two abreast on public streets to abolishing the death penalty officially become the law of the Commonwealth on July 1, 2021.

With Democrats in control of both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion, Virginians will see some significant first-in-the-south changes to Virginia’s code as new laws go into effect this July 1st, along with a laundry list of lower profile but often impactful legislation adopted with broad bi-partisan support.

Advocates for fully reopening Virginia’s schools, for instance, will be pleased to know that a new state law requires all local school districts to offer live, in-person instruction 5 days a week unless that can’t possibly do so safely. That law passed with broad bi-partisan support on an 88-9 vote in the House of Delegates.

An issue that has bi-partisan support among the electorate, according to polling, but that passed almost exclusively with Democratic votes, was marijuana legalization. Beginning July 1, Virginians over the age of 21 can legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use. While Virginia has yet to establish a legal framework for a regulated marijuana market place, making obtaining and transporting marijuana legally fraught, a Virginia household is legally allowed to grow up to four plants, provided they are labeled, not in public sight, and out of the reach of anyone underage. 

While mass balloon releases may produce fleeting, beautiful, Instagram-worthy moments, they won’t be legal in Virginia anymore. Concerns about the long-term environmental impact, particularly on coastal habitats and wildlife, led the General Assembly to enact a ban on the intentional outdoor release of balloons.

Concern for the environment and long-term health of the planet also led to the enactment of laws that will have Virginia join a number of other states looking to increasing sales of electric vehicles. Legislation going into effect this year will require carmakers to sell a certain percentage of electric or hybrid cars.

Mandatory paid family and medical leave is not yet the law in Virginia, but beginning July 1, for the first time, some Virginia business will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. Employers of home health care workers who work on average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month and who provide personal care, respite, or companion services will be required to allow those employees to start accruing leave. This means they won’t have to choose between taking care of their patient or taking care of their own health.

After greatly expanding worker protections from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and sexual orientation in 2020 with the adoption of the Virginia Values Act, this year the Act was expanded to include Virginians with disabilities as was the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA).

Voting continues to get easier in Virginia, as we continue our climb for a ranking of 2nd to last in ease of access to the ballot to number 12 and hopefully soon to the top 10. Local registrars will have the option to include Sunday voting hours during the recently expanded in-person early voting period. Also, starting July 1, it becomes illegal to carry a firearm within 40 feet of a polling place on Election Day.

When driving, bicyclists and drivers should be aware of two new bike laws: one allows bicyclists to ride two abreast in a travel lane and the other making drivers change lanes when passing bicyclists instead of just moving over. 

Our neighbor, Arlington County, will have the power to rename its stretch of Lee Highway. And we’ll now be able to remove the statue of Harry Byrd, Sr. that stands in Capitol Square in Richmond.

We’re continuing to make strides in criminal justice reform with Virginia becoming the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty. We also eliminated the so-called “Gay Panic Defense,” which previously allowed those accused of homicide to receive lesser sentences by saying they panicked after learning of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments will be banned from using facial recognition technology, which will better protect individual’s privacy.

These are just a few of the good bills we passed this year.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

New Laws 2021

 This historic Virginia General Assembly sworn in on January 13th, 2020 will meet again for at least two more special sessions prior to the end of the year. We’ll likely meet at the beginning of August to appropriate funds made available to states and localities under the American Rescue Plan, and again to adopt redistricting pans drafted by the Redistricting Commission on which I serve.  

In the meantime, in addition to new laws that took effect July 1st of last year, March 1st of this year, and May 1st of this year, many more bills passed during our 1st special session of 2021 go into effect ton July 1, 2021- almost exactly two weeks from now.  

I got into the weeds on Marijuana legalization in my April column, so this month just a reminder, starting on July 1st, adults over the age of 21 can legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use. You will also be allowed to grow up to four plants per household, provided that the plants are labeled, not in public sight, and out of the reach of anyone underage.  

For those that like to order take-out, you’ll still be able to order those special cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to-go as we extended the original legislation allowing restaurants to include this service on their menus. 

Pet lovers may feel reassured to learn that anyone who has been convicted of animal cruelty is prohibited from owning, operating, managing, breeding, or even staffing a pet shop beginning July 1 

For those that don’t like lawyers, beginning in two weeks you can file a civil action for personal injury or wrongful death in the General District Courts for up to a maximum of $50,000, a much larger number than before. Litigants are able to appear without counsel in the General District Court. 

On the other hand, we’ve made more jobs for attorneys in appellate practice, creating an automatic right of appeal in most cases, and increasing the number of judges on the Virginia Court of Appeals (from 11 to 17) to handle the increased caseload. 

Virginia will become the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty on July 1st. 

Electric vehicle owners will be able to take advantage of a rebate program for the purchase or lease of new and used electric vehicles, administered by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. 

A person who has been convicted of assault and battery of a family member will be prohibited from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm. There will be a process to have this right restored provided that there isn’t another subsequent disqualifying conviction. 

For those who are members of community organizations that use charitable gaming to raise funds, you’ll still be able to play bingo and hold raffles with some organizations being exempt from the required permit application and fees.  

You’ll be able to continue to take advantage of telemedicine opportunities as the Board of Medical Assistance Services will amend the state plan to provide payment for and the ability to use remote patient monitoring services. This means that health insurance providers will be able to cover these telehealth services. And health insurance providers will be allowed to offer coverage for abortions in any qualified health insurance plan that is sold or offered for sale through a health benefits exchange in Virginia. 

Virginia’s Dream Act will allow students who meet the criteria to be deemed eligible for in-state tuition regardless of their citizenship or immigration status shall be afforded the same educational benefits, including state-administered financial assistance programs or a public institution of higher education, as any other individual who is eligible for in-state tuition. ​ 

The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back Fund and Program (G3 Fund)​ will require the Virginia Community College System to establish the G3 Program to provide financial assistance to certain low-income and middle-income students who are enrolled in program at a public institution of higher education that leads to an occupation in a high-demand field.​ 

Parents with kids in K-12 will be happy to learn that the total number and type of required SOL assessments will be reduced. 

This is just a sampling of the good legislation that passed and will become effective July 1st. For a larger summary of legislation, check out dls.virginia.gov where you can view the Department of Legislative Services’ In Due Course. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

COVID Update

There have been quite few updates to the CDC guidelines and the Governor’s Executive Orders related to the pandemic in the past week. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of those details.

Last Week, the Virginia Department of Health announced that vaccine providers in Virginia may begin vaccinating those aged 12-15. This announcement follows the federal approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in adolescents yesterday. You can read the full release on VDH’s website.

I have heard from some folks who have had trouble with appointments they scheduled in anticipation of this announcement. The good news is that the Tysons Community Vaccination Center began accepting adolescent appointments and walk-ins on May 14th. The Inova-Stonebridge Vaccination Center is also vaccinating this age group effective immediately. Parents or guardians can schedule appointments through the Fairfax County Health Department and Inova MyChart, respectively. Several local grocery stores and pharmacies will be following suit.

Fairfax County also posted a blog post with this information. Vaccinating children in the 12-15 age group is a critical step towards achieving herd immunity and will help to keep our schools healthy places to learn. A joint letter from Health Department Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand went out to the FCPS community, encouraging families to take advantage of the numerous vaccine opportunities available. The County is also working with FCPS to hold immunization clinics in select Title 1 schools in coming weeks. As I get more information on this, I'll be sure to share it.

Some additional updates on the vaccination progress in Virginia and updated public health guidelines are below.

Vaccination Progress

As of May 19th, 7,615,246 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Virginia with an average of over 45,000 doses administered daily. 3,465,287 Virginians are fully vaccinated (40.6% of the population) and, 4,397,890 Virginians have received at least one dose of the vaccine. For more data like this, visit VDH's COVID-19 and Vaccinations Data Dashboard at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-vaccine-summary/.

You can find available vaccination appointments on the CDC's Vaccine Finder website (www.vaccines.gov), which also allows you to choose locations based on which vaccine you prefer.

Updated CDC Guidance for Vaccinated Individuals

The CDC has provided updated guidance for people who have been fully vaccinated. They also recently announced that if you’re fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask – indoors or outdoors, in most settings. Please keep in mind that immuno-compromised individuals should consult their healthcare providers regarding these guidelines.

Key mask wearing updates as of May 14th:

  • Exceptions include public transit, health care facilities, and congregate settings. Anyone who is not yet vaccinated is strongly encouraged to wear masks in all settings.
  • Employees who work in certain business sectors—including restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care, and entertainment—must continue to wear masks unless fully vaccinated, consistent with CDC guidelines.
  • Masks continue to be required in K-12 settings, given low rates of vaccination among children.
  • Businesses retain the ability to require masks in their establishments if they choose to, and individuals continue to be permitted to wear masks if they choose to.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last required dose of vaccine. More details are shown in the online chart here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/pdfs/choosingSaferActivities.pdf.

Updated Public Health Guidelines

With the release of the CDC's updated guidelines, Governor Northam has amended Virginia's public health guidelines outlined in Executive Order 72 accordingly. Updated guidelines for specific business sectors can be found on the Governor’s website. Virginia will ease all distancing and capacity restrictions on Friday, May 28th, two weeks earlier than planned.

Key capacity and social distancing changes include:

  • Social Gatherings | The maximum number of individuals permitted in a social gathering will increase to 100 people for indoor settings and 250 people for outdoor settings. 
  • Entertainment Venues | Indoor entertainment and public amusement venues will be able to operate at 50% capacity or 1,000 people, up from 30% capacity or 500 people. Outdoor venues will be able to operate at 50% capacity - up from 30% - with no specific cap on the number of attendees.
  • Recreational Sporting Events | The number of spectators allowed at indoor recreational sporting events will increase from 100 to 250 spectators or 50% capacity, whichever is less.
  • Alcohol Sales | Restaurants may return to selling alcohol after midnight, and dining room closures will no longer be required between midnight and 5:00 a.m.