My constituents continue to ask me if the House of Delegates is different in light of the dramatic change in composition brought on by the Blue Wave Democratic victories last fall. The answer is both a resounding “yes” and a more complicated “no.” Six highlights from this session (including the special session) help explain why this is so:
1. Swearing in the Freshman Class
The 2017 election was among the most dramatic in Virginia history. 2018 brought sixteen new Democrats to the chamber, as we picked up more seats in one election than any time since the 1800s. We elected eleven more women. And, but for the bad luck of the draw, we would have had an equal partisan division in the House. Even at 49 Democrats and 51 Republicans, however, it still made a huge difference. Not only did we pass several bills that were never seriously considered in the past (raising the threshold for felony larceny), but we also did not see others that pushed a narrow ideological agenda — these were either defeated in committee or never received a vote on the House floor. One prominent columnist labeled us “the Muscular Minority”.
2. House Passes Budget with Medicaid Expansion
We have been fighting for five years to expand Medicaid so that we could bring federal tax dollars back to Virginia to help us fund critical initiatives in the Commonwealth while providing insurance to 400,000 Virginians who do not presently qualify. You have doubtlessly read countless posts from me during this time presenting the various arguments in favor of expansion. This year, in the aftermath of a historic election, a number of House Republicans embraced our arguments and included Medicaid Expansion in the House budget. It was almost surreal listening to several House Republicans use the very arguments that we have been making for years as the rationale for expanding Medicaid. The Senate finally agreed with the House view, and we passed a budget that included expansion.
3. The House Defeats “Double-dip” Provisions of Utility Rate Regulation Bill
Very rarely do initiatives supported by major utilities, such as Dominion and Appalachian Power, meet with opposition on the House Floor, but it happened this year. You can read about the passage of my amendment that transformed the utility bill. And you can see in this series of videos the House debate and vote(s) on it; after it passed 55-41, the other side of the aisle decided they should support it, so then called for reconsideration of the vote and re-passed it 96-1. Under the amendment, utilities were prevented from earning double returns on investments (the so-called “double dip”). The bill that eventually emerged eliminated the “double dip,” and provides consumers with significant rebates, newly expanded goals for solar and wind energy, and substantial investments in energy efficiency for low-income households.
4. Increasing the Felony Threshold for Larceny
For almost thirty years, felony larceny was defined as the theft of any item exceeding $200 in value. This has led to many felony convictions and incarceration of persons for nonviolent offenses that do not approach the seriousness of many other felonies. Under previous law, those convicted of stealing something worth more than $200 could be convicted of a felony and would lose not only their freedom, but all of their rights. A felony conviction forever follows these citizens and makes it difficult to obtain a job. This year, we were able to raise the threshold to $500. While this change doesn’t fully reflect the change in inflation, it is nonetheless an improvement. If you steal goods valued less than $500, you are still guilty of larceny, and it is important for those convicted to be held accountable. It does make it possible, however, for people to avoid the implications of a felony conviction for lesser thefts.
5. Disrupting the School-To-Prison Pipeline
The last several years have brought increasing concerns about overly draconian suspensions of children from school. While it is extremely important to maintain a school environment where learning can occur, youngsters who are suspended often become discouraged about the prospects for learning, with the result that they become targets for criminal influence. HB 1600, sponsored by Delegate Jeff Bourne of Richmond and co-patroned by me and others, seeks to disrupt this arrangement by reducing the amount of time that a youngster can be suspended from school from 364 calendar days to 45 school days.
6. General Assembly Memorializes Heather Heyer
In unanimous votes, the House and Senate approved a memorial resolution for Heather Heyer. You can see my speech about this immediately below:
Despite these positive elements of the past General Assembly session, there is still much more work to be done. Bills to improve voting rights, enhance gun safety, address climate change, prevent any kind of discrimination, increase the minimum wage, protect in-state tuition for Dreamers, advance redistricting reform, and enact paid family/medical leave were all defeated in subcommittees on party line votes. We will keep fighting to adopt legislation in these areas in the upcoming sessions.
Visits in Charlottesville
We are a “citizen legislature.” That means members of the General Assembly spend most of the year in our home districts. I will be in Charlottesville and available to meet with you until the end of 2018. Please call my Charlottesville office at (434) 220-1660 to schedule an appointment or to speak by phone.