We continue to do our legislative work in Richmond, even with all the headlines about the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. Thanks to all who have expressed their views to me about what should happen. The House Democratic Caucus issued statements on these matters, which I support. You can see the statement released February 7th here and another statement regarding the Lieutenant Governor released on February 9th here.
Late last week, the House and Senate both approved budgets. Since there are differences between the two, they will need to be reconciled; several members of each body are appointed to the conference committee to resolve differences between the measures. Neither the House or Senate budget are as generous in funding education as was the Governor’s proposal, though both include the Governor’s proposal for a 5 percent raise for teachers. The Commonwealth is still struggling to bring inflation-adjusted school spending back to the levels that existed prior to the 2007-08 recession. The Senate budget provides $40 million to local school divisions, but the local divisions must also dedicate local money to make the teacher raises occur. The House budget is more generous than the Senate in funding more school counselors, a key recommendation of the House Select Committee on School Safety on which I sat. The House budget cuts $35.6 million from the Governor’s plan to provide additional money to school divisions with higher at-risk populations.
The House budget includes more spending for higher education, but it is allocated differently than either the Governor’s proposal or the Senate budget. One concern I had with the House budget in this area was that student loan assistance is not targeted to those most in need. In the early childhood education area, the House refused to fund the Governor’s proposal to increase spending on the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
Both budgets include $4 million in additional new funding for the New Economy Workforce Credentials Grant Program, which will help fulfill a growing need for skilled workers with a workforce credential instead of a four-year degree. Since we initiated this program several years ago, over 11,000 credentials have been earned in high-demand fields that pay good wages and frequently provide good benefits.
TAX CONFORMITY COMPROMISE
In addition to the budget, the General Assembly adopted the “tax conformity” bill on Monday. Most significantly, this measure will return about $390 million to 2.5 million taxpayers this year, including $110.2 million to more than 900,000 Virginians who earn less than $50,000 per year. Refunds will be given to taxpayers this fall, which could be as high as $110 for individuals and $220 for joint filers. In addition, the bill boosts the standard deduction by 50 percent (from $3,000 to $4,500 for individuals and from $6,000 to $9,000 for married couples), thereby providing some additional tax relief to thousands of Virginians who do not itemize deductions. We also kept a cap on the total amount of itemized deductions that wealthy Virginia taxpayers can claim, averting a “double dip” at the state level that the Trump tax plan gave to the wealthiest taxpayers at the federal level.
Because this bill included an “emergency clause,” it will take effect as soon as the Governor signs it. As emergency legislation, it required approval from four-fifths of the chamber to pass, and it was not clear that this would happen until the last minute. The House Republicans needed Democratic votes, and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus insisted that tax relief must also benefit Virginia’s low-income working families. A compromise was struck, and commitments were made by Finance and Appropriation Committee members that additional monies will be allocated to critical needs in lower-income communities as the budget goes into conference committee.
STILL FIGHTING FOR ERA: REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP DENIES FLOOR VOTE
Democrats continue to fight for the ERA and have just introduced several changes in the Rules that will allow the measure to get to the House floor for a vote. We expect to encounter partisan opposition, but are confident that if we can get a House vote, we can pass it. You can follow the debate on the rules change next Wednesday, when that vote is likely to occur. Many activists from Charlottesville came to Richmond on Thursday, and we rallied for ERA on the steps.
ADDITIONAL BILLS MAKE PROGRESS
In a major environmental victory, the House and Senate have passed bills to clean up coal ash. Over the last several years, many of us have been arguing that we need to clean up coal ash stored in ponds and unlined landfills throughout Virginia, which has the potential to contaminate our water. Under the compromise legislation passed by both bodies, Dominion Energy will be required to recycle or store in lined landfills 27 million cubic yards (20.6 million cubic meters) of coal ash currently located at four sites around the state. Annual cleanup costs will be capped at $225 million. The utility and the ratepayers will share in the costs of remediation; it is estimated that residential electricity costs will increase by no more than $5.00 per month.
In another action, both the House and Senate passed a measure by which Virginia will join six other states and the District of Columbia in raising the age to purchase nicotine products from 18 to 21. One of the interesting stories involved in this legislation was that it was proposed by Altria, a major cigarette manufacturer.
CITIZENS SUFFER SETBACK ON DRIVER’S LICENSE BILL
A measure that I supported from Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, that would repeal current state law that suspends the Virginia driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t promptly pay court fines or costs unrelated to driving offenses failed in the House Courts of Justice committee. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people in Virginia currently have suspended driver’s licenses. For some Virginians, losing a license because of an inability to pay fines and costs can set into a motion a dynamic whereby a person can lose a job, or be arrested for driving without a license, or both. This law is being challenged in the courts, but we should change the statute as well.
PARKLAND ANNIVERSARY–REPUBLICANS BLOCK ACTION ON GUNS
Thursday also marked the anniversary of the Parkland shooting, and House Republican Leadership continues to prevent any common-sense gun safety measures from being passed. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 47 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention each day in the United States. Every day, 96 people die from gun violence. Yet Virginia refuses popular reforms such as universal background checks.
REDISTRICTING–THE COURT ISSUES ITS ORDER AS WE DEBATE REFORM
On Wednesday, the federal court issued its order finalizing new maps for House of Delegates districts for the fall election. Barring further reconsideration by the court, or intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, the new map provides Democrats with more opportunities to compete in what are now constitutional districts, and increases the chances that the Virginia House could flip to Democratic control in 2020. Elections are won, of course, with a combination of good candidates, good strategy, and hard work, so no one should take anything for granted.
As the new maps are being studied, the House and Senate are still debating two versions of a constitutional amendment that would change the redistricting process. According to the Virginia Constitution, the passage of a constitutional amendment requires the passage of the same resolution in two consecutive sessions separated by an election. Hence, this is the year we need to pass the resolution. The Senate has passed a redistricting plan that would create a commission with substantial citizen participation such that legislators would not totally control the process. Although this bill is not perfect, it is far superior to a House plan that would vest control of the process in the hands of a 12 person committee composed of legislators. This would do absolutely nothing to improve the process that presently exists whereby legislators choose their constituents rather than the other way around.
IMPORTANT DAY TO WATCH SESSION
We will probably consider the Rule change that can get the ERA to the floor next Wednesday. I hope you can tune in. We are scheduled to adjourn on Saturday, February 23, 2019. If you would like to watch a live stream of the floor session in the House of Delegates, go to this webpage. The session usually begins at 12 noon Mon-Thurs, and sometimes earlier on Friday (10:00am).