Sunday, a day later than usual, was Sine Die (Latin for “without day”), signifying the final day of the 2019 General Assembly Legislative Session. The short session always passes quickly, and this year was memorable to say the least. Despite the intense news cycle, there were a lot of successes this session on many levels as we passed significant legislation to improve the everyday lives of Virginians. Though the days were long, it was an honor and privilege to lead the House Democratic Caucus this year.
Like most sessions, the bills that passed and that did not pass were a mixed bag of good news and bad news. We had a lot of good pieces of legislation including:
- removing the cap on autism insurance coverage
- creating no-excuse absentee voting in 2020
- increasing access to school counselors
- several bills that would combat Virginia’s high eviction rate.
At the same time, we also came up short in certain areas, when it came to:
- ratifying the ERA
- protecting LGBT rights
- raising the minimum wage
- promoting common-sense gun safety
The GOP majority blocked those efforts at every turn.
Just as any budget the General Assembly has passed in previous years, this one is not perfect. That said, I was proud to vote for it as I believe it does a lot of good. This “caboose” budget dealt more with amendments as well as how Virginia can manage the influx of revenue coming in from federal tax code changes. In my opinion, voting on the budget is one of the most important parts of my job as your Delegate. Here are just a few highlights of what is included:
- We will put in $85.7 million in net new funding for K-12 education. At our local level, Fairfax County Public Schools will see an increase in state aid of roughly $7 million.
- While the biennial budget already included an increase in teacher salaries by 3%, the amendments in the budget passed on Sunday will increase this to 5%. Making teacher pay closer to our national average is part of our effort to address the Commonwealth’s growing teacher shortage.
- The budget will also allocate $12.2 million to increase the counselor-to-student ratio in public schools as well as $5.7 million for other recommendations of the Select Committee on School Safety.
- Our colleges and universities will receive $57.5 million in additional funding for in-state undergraduate affordability under the condition that they freeze tuition rates at FY 2019 levels. The budget will include $15.5 million in new in-state undergraduate financial aid.
- The budget includes $168 million for Virginia’s share of an innovation campus that Virginia Tech proposes to build in Alexandria. This would be located near the new Amazon campus and would include expanded graduate programs in high-tech fields.
- The budget includes $3 million for the Housing Trust Fund – which will raise the total for the biennium to $14 million. This fund is used to increase access to affordable housing and homelessness prevention efforts.
- $10 million for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which is used to help urban areas meet Chesapeake Bay restoration requirements.
- We will increase our cash reserves from $565.5 million to $1.45 billion by the end of the biennium. This will equate to roughly 6.7% of general fund revenues. Our long-term goal is at least 8%. Ensuring we have a solid “rainy-day fund” is critical to keeping our AAA bond rating and will help ensure the Commonwealth can weather economic downturns.
While these are just a few of the good things provided in the budget, I was disappointed that it also includes cuts to women’s health, ensuring an accurate count for the 2020 census and arts funding.
That said, final action on the budget is an “up or down” vote. Overall this budget did move the ball forward on a lot of important issues, which is why I voted yes. The budget bill passed the House on a 97-1 vote.
With my new responsibilities as Leader, I introduced a smaller legislative package this year. Though I have spoken of the outcomes of most of my bills in prior editions of my enews, I also want to highlight the following bills I patroned.
· HB 2205 would teach high school students about the law and meaning of consent in an age-appropriate and evidence-based manner. This bill has been a process in the making–four legislative sessions, starting with my safe relationships bill in 2016. I am grateful for the work of tireless advocates to ensure the bill’s passage. The bill now sits on the Governor’s desk.
· HB 2282 would allow the Board of Counseling to promulgate regulations for the issuance of temporary licenses to individuals engaged in a counseling, marriage & family therapy, or substance abuse counseling residency for the purpose of meeting the Board’s licensure requirement for postgraduate counseling practice during a supervised residency period. The goal of this bill is to increase access to mental health professionals in Virginia. The bill now sits on the Governor’s desk.
· HJ 676 would create a constitutional amendment that one motor vehicle of a veteran who has a 100 percent service-connected, permanent, and total disability would be exempt from state and local taxes. The amendment would also provide that only automobiles and pickup trucks qualify for the exemption. As this is a constitutional amendment, it does not go to the Governor’s desk, rather, I will introduce again next year. Should it pass a second time, it will then be on the ballot for the 2020 election. I am grateful for the support of the Joint Leadership Council (the council of veterans associations in Virginia) as well as the Commissioners of the Revenue Association for all of their support.
Equal Rights Amendment
As the Senate resolution in support of the ERA languished in the House Privileges and Elections Committee, which I mentioned in my previous enews, we attempted to bring forward a rules change that would have made it possible that we could discharge the resolution from the committee and bring it to the House Floor. Prior to the rules change vote, I spoke on the House Floor, telling the body, “we can vote to bring the ERA to this floor, this session, so that Virginia can take its rightful place in history as the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA. Every member of the House Democratic caucus is ready to vote for it. And, as we saw in the body down the hall, I am confident that with votes from the other side of the aisle, a majority in this House would vote to pass it. But without a vote…we will never know.” (click here to watch my full speech)
Unfortunately, by a 50-50 tie, the Republican majority blocked attempts to bring the ERA to a full vote on the House Floor. 81% of Virginians support ratification of the ERA. As a Delegate and Leader of the Virginia House Democrats, I feel we have a moral obligation to listen to our constituents. That did not happen. We may not have been able to move the ball forward this session, but House Democrats will not stop fighting until we achieve full equality for all Virginians.
After years of advocating for an end to partisan gerrymandering, the House finally got to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that will make real changes to how we draw our legislative boundaries.
The compromise versions of HJ 615 and SJ 306 would establish the Virginia Redistricting Commission. It would be comprised of 16 members tasked with establishing legislative districts every ten years. The membership would consist of eight legislative members (with equal representation from the two major parties—and each member appointed by their own party’s leadership) as well as eight citizen members. The citizen members would be selected by a committee of five retired Virginia judges. Any redistricting plan must have the vote of at least six of the eight citizen members and six of the eight legislative members. If the commission cannot come to a deal, or the General Assembly would fail to adopt the plan recommended by the commission, then districts would be drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court. The plan itself was backed by OneVirginia 2021—an organization dedicated to redistricting reform.
I voted yes on this measure. A fairly common phrase heard throughout Richmond is, “do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” To be frank, I would have preferred a truly independent redistricting commission, but I believe this is a good start. As mentioned in reference to my constitutional amendment, the resolution must pass in identical form next year, and then go to the voters for ratification in November 2020.
Thank You to Team EFC
Thank you to my fabulous, hardworking 2019 session team: my new Legislative Assistant, Tyler Javonillo, Administrative Aide, Betty Moore, Chief of Staff Leigh Nusbaum, Senior Advisor Adam Zuckerman as well as wonderful interns,
Tre Fredrick, Ben Arp, Esther Bouquet. I so appreciate all of their time, energy and tremendous support this session!