Friday, March 17, 2023

Redistricting, Retirements, and the 2023 Election

When the Virginia General Assembly meets next January, it will be a much different body than the one that adjourned last month. In addition to the retirement of giants like Senator Dick Saslaw and Delegate Ken Plum, dozens of other members are not seeking reelection, are running for a different office, or are paired with another incumbent in a seat that only one of them can represent next year.

It’s mathematically certain that at least 30 or close to a full third of the 100 member House of Delegates will be brand new members when they take the oath in January of 2024.

Why such a major shift? Some of it is just timing. Saslaw and Plum are both in their 80s, plus Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell had always planned for this to be her final term. A much larger portion of the turnover is a result of the redistricting fiasco brought on by the ill-considered Constitutional Amendment which left the task to a bi-partisan, bi-cameral hybrid legislative/citizen commission.

Despite my every effort to offer a palatable compromise to the GOP members, the Commission deadlocked, meaning the Supreme Court of Virginia and their two special masters took over. The Special Masters looked at the General Assembly’s legal criteria establishing guidelines for drafting their new map and did not find any authority to consider incumbent addresses or to avoid incumbent pairs when creating new districts.

As a result, nearly half the House and Senate members initially found themselves paired with another incumbent. Some of those pairings resolved themselves when one incumbent moved to an adjacent district. Others involved members of the House running for Senate, either to avoid an incumbent pairing or because the newly created Senate Districts appear more favorable than their new House Districts. In some cases, a paired incumbent elected not to run at all.

Some people may not be bothered by the massive loss of experience and institutional knowledge this round of redistricting has wrought. I can understand those who might argue that turnover and fresh faces are a feature rather than a bug of redistricting reform.

However, we’re often told that the real goal of redistricting reform is to reduce the political polarization plaguing state houses caused by gerrymandering — the practice of drawing odd shaped and seemingly illogical districts crossing various city and county lines, dividing communities of interest in order to gain political advantage for the party in charge. If you banned the practice, we were promised, the districts would naturally be less partisan and politicians running in them would once again be incentivized to tailor a message to appeal to centrist voters.

Only that’s not what happened.

Even if you think the large amount of turnover is a good thing, the new faces will almost all be coming from even more politically polarized districts than the ones these experienced legislators are vacating.

By packing us all into nice, geometrically pretty districts, we’ve created 46 or 47 safely Democratic districts where you can win without a single Republican or independent vote, and about 42 or 43 on the Republican side. This leaves maybe 10 -12 competitive seats up for grabs in November.

Senator Howell said in an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch that she “does not look back on her 32-year legislative career with many regrets, but one of them was her vote on the 2021 redistricting.” She goes on to say she “didn’t see the long-term implications” and that she “never bought the idea that incumbency doesn’t mean anything.”

One thing is clear. Those of us that return will have a much heavier load than usual to carry. In addition to having to work with the political neophyte who currently occupies the Governor’s mansion, we’ll have 30+ brand new Delegates with differing levels of experience and knowledge of the legislative process.

We will need our delegates and senators to not be afraid to be a bit partisan, to fight for our shared progressive values that got us the majority in 2019 and hopefully again later this year. That’s what won those elections and enabled us to pass legislation that made the Commonwealth more inclusive, our communities safer, voting more accessible, and criminal justice more attainable. We best represent our districts when we speak out against injustices and lift up policies that truly make a difference in our constituents’ lives.

Friday, February 17, 2023

2023 State Budget

As the 2023 short session winds down, the most significant legislation we have left to work on are the two budget bills amending the two-year state budget plan we adopted last year.

As the saying goes, a budget is a reflection of one's priorities, and the House and Senate budgets released last week underscore the stark contrast in priorities between the two chambers and the two parties. With a staggering $1 billion difference between them, the Democrats and Republicans in Richmond clearly have very different visions for Virginia's future. 

The GOP's House Budget 

Unfortunately, the House budget, crafted by Republicans, falls short in meeting the needs of hardworking Virginians. At the heart of the budget are over $350 million in corporate tax breaks, which disproportionately benefit big businesses rather than the average Virginian. This, in turn, puts critical services like our schools, roads, and healthcare in jeopardy. It is evident that the Republican party is more concerned with appeasing their corporate donors and extremist base than ensuring that middle-class Virginians have the resources they need to succeed.

At a time when inflation is causing significant strain for many households, it is simply unacceptable that the House budget proposes middle-class Virginians pay a higher tax rate than our wealthiest corporations. As we delve deeper into the budget negotiations, we will be keeping a watchful eye on this discrepancy and advocating for the needs of all Virginians.

The House budget is a cause for concern on multiple fronts. Notably, it includes a provision for $50 million to be directed towards lab schools, which diverts much-needed attention and funding away from our public school system. Additionally, the House budget eliminates language that allows for state-funded abortions in certain fetal abnormality diagnoses - a critical access point that is currently allowed in state law. This, coupled with a $13.4 million reduction in the VA Cannabis Control Authority budget, presents a worrying picture of the House GOP's priorities.

The House budget also fails to allocate funds for important programs, such as the Firearm Violence & Prevention Center, the Safer Communities Program, and the Cover All Kids healthcare initiative. These are just a few of the more prominent disparities between the House and Senate budgets. 

Working to Fix the Budget

As Deputy Floor Leader, I worked with Leader Don Scott to improve the House version of the budget. Together, we had amendments drafted and introduced that would have addressed real issues facing our communities - issues that Virginians care deeply about, such as school funding, abortion access, gun violence prevention, and protecting our democracy. It was our hope that these amendments would help bridge the gap between the House and Senate budgets, ultimately leading to a more equitable and just budget that serves all Virginians.

Specifically, our amendments would have kept the corporate tax rate at its current level and allocated the revenue to fully fund our school systems in Virginia. They also would have kept the top tax bracket the same as it is today and used the additional revenue to raise teacher pay to the national average - an 11% increase over what teachers in Virginia are paid today.

None of these amendments were adopted, but it gave us an opportunity to showcase our priorities while forcing a vote on these important issues. Although I voted against this version of the budget, the process is far from over. There is still time to make changes as the House and Senate budget conferees will have to come together to close the budget gap, giving both Chambers another opportunity to vote on a better budget (we hope!). Either way, the General Assembly is constitutionally bound to create a balanced budget, which always makes the last few weeks of session interesting. 

Weekend Update

Last weekend while I was back in the district for a few days, I hosted office hours at Northside Social and greeted dozens of constituents who stopped by to say hello, lobby me for budget and legislative priorities, or simply thank me for serving. I look forward to scheduling a number of in-person post-session events to update you all and get your feedback on how session went.

Finally, I wanted to take a moment to thank the Dranesville District Democratic Committee for hosting an amazing brunch and straw poll, which I was pleased to attend!

I’m proud to announce that I received more overall votes than any other candidate in any race in the mostly-just-for-fun straw poll and outpaced my likely primary opponent with over 98% of the vote.

Friday, January 20, 2023

The 2023 Session Begins

January 11th marked the start of my 10th General Assembly Session. The day before session, on January 10th, Holly Seibold and Aaron Rouse won in the 35th House District and the 7th Senate District seat, respectively. Aaron Rouse’s victory expands the Democratic majority in the Senate and assures a majority of Senators who favor protecting abortion access in the Commonwealth.

I’d love to be able to say session got off to a smooth and uneventful start, but reality was a bit different.

I started feeling badly last Monday and tested positive for Covid-19 on the Tuesday morning before session started. Fortunately, under the leadership of former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, we established procedures for remote participation in the House of Delegates. I was able to use Zoom for opening day and didn’t miss any votes on the Floor or in committee.

Little Banned Book Library

While I was out, I missed the kerfuffle that occurred outside my office in the Pocahontas Building over my Little Banned Book Library.

In response to the growing and disturbing number of books being targeted by far-right MAGA activists around the Country and here in Virginia, I set up the library outside my office to give folks an opportunity to see and borrow some of the books that are being taken out of circulation and let them judge the books for themselves.

Although we've had a lot of positive feedback about the library, not everyone is a fan. One group of red-clad visitors was so upset by the library that they took to pulling books off the shelf, waving them around and pressing the books up against my administrative assistant’s plexiglass protector. Fortunately, things settled down before the Capitol Police had to get involved. 

2023 Legislative Agenda

My 2023 legislative agenda is a combination of constituent requests, City of Falls Church agenda items, and bills to make Virginia a better and more just place to be a worker, a parent, a consumer, or just someone who wants to be free to be themselves.

My first bill prohibits candidates from raiding their campaign funds for personal use. I've introduced a version of this bill every year since I was first elected. Campaign finance reform is an important issue and I'll keep chipping away until this becomes law in Virginia.

I’ve also introduced a bill to amend the charter of the City of Falls Church at the request of Council to allow any resident over the age of 18 to participate on appointed boards and commissions.

Another bill requested by the City would allow public schools to provide childcare for students on non-instructional and early release days without having a separate license as a daycare provider.

Dyslexia is the most common of the language-based learning disabilities in the country. I've introduced a resolution designating October as Dyslexia Awareness Month at the request of a constituent who lives with Dyslexia and is an advocate for raising awareness. The resolution acknowledges educators specializing in effective teaching strategies and celebrates the many achievements of kids, students, and adults with dyslexia.

This summer, I was approached by a constituent with a familiar and frustrating problem. She was drowning in different health forms and digging for different bits of information to enroll her children in various summer programs. So, at her request, I have introduced a resolution directing the Department of Health and the Department of Education to study the medical forms and information collected by children's summer camps and similar programs in order to make the process more efficient.

Finally, two of my bills are “ripped from the headlines”, inspired by real newsworthy events here in the Commonwealth. The first repeals the Code Section that allowed a Virginia Beach resident to sue books for being alleged to be obscene in an effort to prevent their sale at private bookstores. The Court held the statute unconstitutional, and I agree. It’s time to take it out of our Code.

The second requires anyone who possesses a firearm in a residence, where children are present, to store it unloaded in a locked container and to store all ammunition in a separate locked container. This aims to prevent tragedies like the 6-year-old who recently took a gun to school in Newport News and shot his teacher. 

My Budget Amendments
You may have read last month when the Governor introduced his budget that he included the money necessary to pay the costs of incarcerating women and their doctors for violating his proposed abortion ban. I’ve introduced a budget amendment to remove that language, and to assure that anyone who needs to terminate a pregnancy due to a severe fetal abnormality, but can’t afford it, can access Medicaid funds to do so.

And we’re just getting started!