Tomorrow starts the final week of the 2019 General Assembly Session. Despite the ups and downs of the session, I consider it an incredible honor and privilege to lead the House Democratic Caucus. While we have made a lot of progress this year on a variety of important issues, we still have much work to do in this final week.
Late last week, the House and Senate both approved budgets. As in the past, both are different and will need to be reconciled. Several members of each body have been appointed to the conference committee to resolve differences between the measures.
One of the most impacted parts of the budget is K-12 funding. The proposed budget from the governor lifts the state share of an initially budgeted 3 percent raise to a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and school staff for the 2019-2020 school year. While both the House and Senate budgets include the teacher salary raise, both bodies cut a lot of other substantial funding that the Governor had included. Virginia still struggles to bring inflation-adjusted school spending back to the levels that existed prior to the 2007-08 recession.
I believe that the House and Senate missed a significant opportunity to close that gap. While the House funding does fund more school counselors, a key priority of the House Select Committee on School Safety, it also cuts $35.6 million from the Governor’s plan to provide additional money to school divisions with higher at-risk populations. The House budget also includes more money than the Senate for higher education spending, but the House refused to fund the Governor’s proposal to increase spending on the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
The large cuts to education funding are what led me to vote against the initial House budget. That said, I am confident in the abilities of House and Senate Democratic Conferees, Delegates Luke Torian and Mark Sickles, as well as Senators Dick Saslaw and Janet Howell to negotiate more funding for education and so many other important programs to our Commonwealth. We continue to fight for additional funding for pre-K for at-risk children, affordable housing and the 2020 census. I remain hopeful that the final budget that comes out of conference can be one that I can support and that all Virginians can be proud of.
Tax Conformity Compromise Update
As I mentioned last week, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have worked on a compromise on the tax conformity issue. This deal has the potential to benefit many hardworking Virginians, including those most impacted by the new federal tax structure. Additionally, this bill will provide conformity with the new federal tax law. Without it, Virginia would have needed to make significant changes to our financial systems, which in turn would have caused confusion and delays for Virginians receiving their tax refunds. Passing conformity in a timely manner is something my Democratic colleagues and I have insisted upon all along.
The conformity bill gives $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. Many will start seeing these refunds this fall, which could be as high as $110 for individuals and $220 for joint filers. Additionally, the bill boosts the standard deduction by half (from $3,000 to $4,500 for individuals and from $6,000 to $9,000 for married couples). This will provide some additional tax relief to Virginians who do not itemize deductions.
The bill also capped the total amount of itemized deductions high-income taxpayers can claim. This inturn, averts a “double dip” that the Trump tax plan gave to the wealthiest taxpayers at the federal level.
This week, the House and Senate passed the bill above the 80% threshold needed to enact the emergency clause to create immediate conformity. This past Friday, the Governor signed the bill. This means that the Department of Taxation can now start processing tax returns, allowing Virginians to receive refunds.
Redistricting Maps and Reform Bills
Last Wednesday, the Court issued an order to finalize new maps for certain House of Delegates districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas of Virginia (the 41st District and Northern Virginia, in general, are not affected by the ruling). The maps create fairer districts that are free of gerrymandering. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, “the plan would move at least 370,000 voters to new districts.” Barring further intervention by the courts, this plan will be in effect for elections this year. You can see more information about the partisan shift in districts by clicking here.
Additionally, the debate over redistricting reform continues within the General Assembly. Both the House and Senate have constitutional amendments that deal with redistricting reform. The Senate’s plan would create a commission with substantial citizen participation, making it so legislators would have total control over the process. While I recognize that the bill is not perfect, I believe it is much better than the House plan that I detailed in last week’s enews. As I mentioned before, that idea would put the control in the hands of a 12 person committee composed of legislators. I voted against that bill as I do not believe this is redistricting reform. Both bills have gone into conference and it is my hope that the final product is something that represents true reform and not just window dressing.
The Equal Rights Amendment
Though the ERA continues to be stuck in legislative purgatory in the House Privileges and Elections Committee, I continue to be proud of my colleagues, Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy and Hala Ayala for patroning the bill that would ratify this important amendment. I also commend and support both of my colleagues, Delegate Hala Ayala and Delegate Marcus Simon for introducing two House rules changes this past week. Passage of these changes would bring the measure to the House floor for a vote.
We will encounter opposition from the other side in the form of a dueling rules change. That said, we also know that a few House Republicans have not only spoken publicly about their support for the ERA, but that one even introduced a resolution ratifying the ERA last year. I am confident that should the measure be brought to a vote on the floor, we will pass the ERA in the House. 81% of Virginians support the ERA and the Senate has already passed an ERA resolution with bipartisan support. This resolution deserves a vote on the House floor. You can follow the debate on the rules change this Wednesday.
On Thursday, we honored the precious lives of those lost in the Parkland shooting one year ago. Firearms are still the second leading cause of death among children and teens. I spoke on the floor about my caucus’ frustration with the fact that time and time again, this body has done nothing to combat this issue. Between the work of the Safe Virginia Initiative and the Administration, our caucus introduced seventeen gun safety bills this session. These included creating an extreme risk protective order, requiring people to report lost or stolen guns, requiring universal background checks as well as my bills, HB 2206 and HB 2797. Unfortunately, all of these measures failed.As I stated on the floor, “The time to pass common sense gun safety measures is long overdue. Doing nothing is NOT an option.” (Click here to watch my speech).