We have now completed the first 12 days of the 2019 General Assembly Session, and the legislative train has clearly begun to pick up speed. But not everything is on the same track. The big developments last week included election of a State Corporation Commission judge, defeat of a dozen common-sense gun bills, and passage of the ERA amendment by the Senate.
SCC and the Exercise of Power
The State Corporation Commission (SCC), a constitutional creation separate from the executive and legislative branches, is one of the most important entities of our state government. It is distinctly different than similar commissions in other states because it has a broader regulatory charge; it not only regulates railroads and utility rates, but also approves health insurance rates and oversees a wide variety of other areas important to consumers. The General Assembly selects the three members of the Commission, and the Governor has no veto power to deny their seating. Under the Virginia Constitution, at least one of the three Commissioners must also meet the qualifications to be a judge, and last year that Commissioner retired before his term had expired; but the Republicans in the House and Senate have not been able to agree on a new appointment to replace him for over a year—until last week. In a surprise and shocking move, at the speed of a “bullet train” and with little notice to the General Assembly or the public, the Republicans approved a new Commissioner within 24 hours of her announced candidacy. Judge Patricia West, most recently an associate dean and professor at Regent University Law School and previously Virginia Secretary of Public Safety for Governor George Allen and chief deputy attorney general to former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, admitted in her abbreviated hearing before the Commerce and Labor Committee that she has absolutely no experience in health or energy regulatory policy, key issues before the Commission. The public had no opportunity to comment on the choice, and very few General Assembly members had a chance to actually speak with the candidate, as is the typical protocol prior to approval. You can see my comments on the nomination below and can read the story about the appointment in the Washington Post. I hope that Judge West will be a good Commissioner, but the term she is completing for her retired predecessor ends next year, so she will need to be considered for a full-term appointment in 2020, after the fall elections.
The Senate approved its Equal Rights Amendment resolution with substantial Republican support, by a 24-16 vote, and it now comes to the House, where it faces an uncertain future. Delegate Mark Cole, the Republican Chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, has not indicated whether he will even permit a hearing on the House versions of the resolution, and the Senate’s resolution will be assigned to the same committee. If any ERA resolution can get to the House floor, there is enough bipartisan support that we would have a good chance of passing it. I will be fighting to make that happen. For now, it is up to the House Republican leadership to determine if it will even receive a hearing.
Common-Sense Gun Legislation Fails Again
On Thursday afternoon, over a dozen common-sense gun safety measures were killed in the space of a few hours by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety. Two of those bills were mine. This Subcommittee is controlled by rural, conservative Republicans who never support reasonable gun safety measures, so their opposition was not surprising. The first of my bills (HB 1956) would have allowed localities to control whether firearms can be carried in public spaces at permitted events. This measure, which had the full support of Attorney General Mark Herring, was important in the aftermath of Charlottesville, August 2017; if you walked the streets of the city on that day, you saw countless people with automatic weapons dressed in fatigues, and no one knew who they were, or why they were heavily armed, or what they might do with such weapons. As it did last year when I first introduced it, the bill died with all 4 Republicans voting against it.
My second bill (HB 1957) would permit judges to inquire as to whether any firearms in a home where children are experiencing a mental health crisis were secured. It died as well, as did a bill to enact universal background checks, another to restore the previous statute that prohibited Virginians from purchasing more than one gun a month, and a relatively new idea that has gotten support within Republican-controlled legislatures around the country called a “Risk Warrant.” Under this approach, after a judicial process, a person’s firearms could be temporarily removed from his or her home if it can be shown that the person is a danger to self or others; the firearms would be returned after the crisis subsided.
Knowledge is Power: Big Local News
This past week’s announcement that local investor Jaffray Woodriff is donating $120 million to the University of Virginia to create a School of Data Science is hugely important for both our community and the state. Data science embraces the challenge of developing tools to analyze huge amounts of information, so that we can extract insights and knowledge that will allow us to make many aspects of our lives better: in agriculture, health care, transportation, finance, and so many other areas. With Amazon arriving soon in Virginia, and the explosion of opportunities in the high tech data sphere, this gift will elevate our ability to stay on the cutting edge of a new age of economic opportunity.
Tragedy in the Body
This past week, my friend and fellow Delegate John Bell and his family suffered a terrible loss with the death of their son and brother. Joshua Bell served this nation in the Air National Guard, and continued to serve in a different way when he shared his powerful personal experience of injury and subsequent addiction to pain medications with others, including his father (whose legislative agenda has included many bills dedicated to helping those caught up in opioid addiction). Our colleague Mike Mullin movingly eulogized Josh’s death with the words that such a tragedy “smothers our souls.” Our hearts grieve for John, Margaret, and their family.
ML King Day
On Sunday, I joined hundreds at the ML King, Jr. Performing Arts Center to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We heard wonderful musical performances from the interracial community chorus and a powerful, inspiring speech from Dr. Cornell Brooks of Harvard University.
It was wonderful to see a lifelong Charlottesville volunteer and advocate, my good friend Teresa Price, receive the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Award. In honor of Dr. King, I have republished a speech I made last year at the General Assembly’s prayer breakfast, where I discussed the significance of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Your Feedback Powers My Work For You
As important as it is for me to send these updates to keep my constituents informed, it’s even more important for me to hear from you so I can stay informed about how you feel regarding matters before the General Assembly, and any other issues on your mind. Please take a few minutes to answer and return my annual survey mailer, which will likely arrive in your mailboxes this week. If you live in the 57th District and don’t receive one, call my Richmond office at 804-698-1057 or email DelDToscano@house.virginia.gov and give us your name and address so we can try to get one to you quickly.
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).