Representing Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax

Newsletter - April 20, 2020

In Memoriam


Former Arlington County Board Member Erik Gutshall

Last Thursday, Arlington County Board Member Erik Gutshall passed away just eight short weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer. He was only 49 years old.

My profound condolences go out to Erik's wife Renee, their three children, all of his loved ones, and the entire Arlington community.

Erik was a good man, a kind man, hard working, and a pillar of the community. He had a heart of gold. I am devastated, as I know many of you are, too.

May his memory serve as a blessing to us all.


We Reconvene Wednesday...

... to act on the Governor's recommendations

On Wednesday, April 22, I will drive to Richmond early in the morning to reconvene with other legislators across the Commonwealth to consider Governor Ralph Northam's 102 recommendations to our bills, along with his one veto and his 181 proposed budget amendments.

You might rightfully ask why we would head to Richmond to congregate in large numbers in the middle of a dangerous pandemic. The answer is we have to. The Virginia Constitution requires we meet 6 or 7 Wednesdays after the adjournment of our regular session. And we couldn't pass any law to stop it, as the Constitution takes precedence over any ordinary legislation.

You might ask why we don't meet electronically. Another good question. The answer is our House Rules currently require votes to be cast in person. Indeed, one of our goals this Wednesday will be to change the Rules so that we can convene in special session during a pandemic remotely. This will certainly help us out if we meet -- as I suspect we will -- in special session this summer. But for now, our only choice is to trek down to Richmond for a very long day. (I don't plan to sleep there. I plan to drive back to Alexandria late Wednesday night.)

You might then ask are we really going to meet in the House Chamber, two feet from one another and not practice social distancing (which we are demanding all other Virginians do and which we should also do for our health)? Another good question. (You ask good questions.)

The answer is we will do something which I don't believe has happened in Virginia history, at least since the Virginia House of Burgesses closed up shop in Williamsburg and moved to Richmond in a (failed) attempt to better protect itself from British attack. We will meet outside.

That's right, outside. On the Capitol Grounds. Socially distant from one another, sitting at least six feet apart. There we will focus on our constitutional duty to examine the Governor's recommendations in the most responsible way possible. The Senate of Virginia intends to meet outside as well. But not on Capitol grounds. At a pavilion outside the Science Museum of Virginia. We live in interesting times.


So What Did the Governor Do?


Governor Ralph Northam

Every year, the General Assembly usually sends 800-odd bills to the Governor who can sign them, veto them, or amend them. This year -- the first year of Democratic control of Virginia Government in a quarter-century -- was a bit different. We sent a record 1,291 bills to the Governor.

The Governor signed 1,188 of the bills -- 92% of the 1,291 we sent him -- directly into law

These include 17 of my 22 bills that passed the General Assembly and all the bills on which I was a Chief Patron. He amended the other five: three in entirely positive ways, one in a mostly positive way, and one that will delay things a bit but doesn't fundamentally change it. Also, one of my bills dealing with General Assembly transparency will become policy without becoming law, and so it did not need the Governor's signature. In sum, all 22 of my initiatives that passed the General Assembly will become law and the 23rd will become policy. All will be described in more detail below.

           

The Governor's policy team has been hard at work, of course. In addition to having more bills to look at than ever before, they also had to devote much of the time they would have spent on bill analysis to responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lots of sleepless nights, I'm sure. I salute them for their diligence and professionalism.

Among these 1,188 bills were a slate of hugely consequential bills on:

In a stark contrast to the past couple of years when the General Assembly was under Republican control and Governor McAuliffe had to break the record in terms of vetoes, Governor Northam only vetoed one bill: HB119, which would have made it illegal for businesses that sell alternative milks - soy, rice, almond, oat, etc. - to call their products "milk." This bill was introduced by Republican Barry Knight on behalf of the dairy industry. I voted against it on the House floor and will vote to sustain the Governor's veto on April 22.

The Governor did propose several amendments to bills, including some of mine, which I outline below,  and proposed 144 amendments for the biennial budget for Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022. I am still assessing all of his recommendations, and I welcome any suggestions you have on how I should vote on any of them. Please let me know no later than tomorrow at 6 pm by emailing me at Mark@MarkforDelegate.com.

My Bills

The Governor - prior to the final week before his deadline to take action - had already signed six of my bills into law, as I summarized in my March 22 Newsletter.

Please read that newsletter for more details, but just as a reminder, those six bills were:

1. HB246, Virginia's first state law on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement

2. HB519, Delegate David Bulova's bill (which was very similar to my HB329) requiring that eviction notices contain legal-aid contact information 

3. HB245, repealing the crime of fornication (sex between unmarried consenting adults)

4. HB180, removing requirements that parties declare their race on marriage licenses and divorce petitions

5. HB179, closing a loophole in the recount process that allowed the GOP to rig the 2017 Shelly Simonds recount

6. HB1053, requiring voter-verifiable paper ballots

7. As noted in my March 22 Newsletter, the policy in one of my bills HB182 (transparency in the Virginia General Assembly through live streaming and archiving of all floor proceedings and all committee and subcommittee hearings) will take effect in the 2021 session without the Governor's signature.

So that makes seven laws (or more specifically, 6 laws and one policy success) as of my last policy newsletter to you.

As for the other 16 bills, I'm proud to say that the Governor signed all of them, and even though he amended a few of my bills incorporated into other bills, he improved all of them except one, which will have a delayed effective date.

The Governor signed the following bills:

8. HB1049 is the most comprehensive non-discrimination law for LGBTQ+ Virginians in Virginia history!

In virtually every aspect of life -- employment, housing, public accommodations, banking, insurance, apprenticeships, and lots more (more than 60+ separate code sections) -- Rainbow Virginians will no longer be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As I promised I would do, I introduced this bill every single year I was in office until finally this time -- the fifth time I introduced it -- it became law.

We drafted HB1049, along with:

9. HB1050, which became the Virginia Values Act to both include Rainbow Virginians throughout the code (HB1049) and to deepen and strengthen civil rights protections in employment and public accommodations for all those discriminated against on any basis (HB1050/HB1663/SB868). Together these bills mark a monumental step forward for Virginia.

10. HB1552 makes it illegal to tie up pets outdoors in terrible weather or where they have insufficient protection from predators. It also lengthens the required tether from ten to fifteen feet. I was particularly proud of the success of this bill as this was something the General Assembly tried but failed to do last year. I want to thank the Senate patron, John Bell, for working with me on this bill and my constituents Boyd Walker and Ali Carruthers for encouraging me to introduce it!

11. HB861 (Tyler's Law) will ensure that courts take into consideration a parent's history of domestic violence and child abuse when making child custody determinations. It is named for a young man who, as a child, mustered the courage to let a court know that his father was physically abusing him.

12. HB894 will require Virginia's institutions of higher education to make sure incoming teachers know how to de-escalate conflict and avoid restraint and seclusion of disruptive students as much as possible. So many people helped make this bill law. including teachers' groups, disabilities advocates, and juvenile-justice-reform activists. But I want to especially thank my constituents Alex Sprague and Alexandria School Board Member Meagan Alderton for working with me on this important legislation.

13. HB19 (which incorporated my HB190) removes the requirement that voters show a photo ID prior to casting a ballot. Voter ID laws disenfranchise individuals who may not have access to photo identification and disproportionately impact low-income individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. The bill went through a long tortuous route with many amendments until it finally ended up exactly in the same form as I had originally proposed it!

14. HB198 (which incorporated my HB178requires tied votes in elections to be resolved through special elections rather than drawing a name from a bowl. My second piece of legislation inspired by the Shelly Simonds fiasco of 2017.

15. HB1406 (which incorporated my HB181) will empanel a commission with the ability to replace Virginia's statue of Robert E. Lee in the US Capitol. Whatever you think of Lee, he was hardly one of two of Virginia's second greatest citizens. I'm proud to be the first Virginian legislator to suggest this. And my dream, which I first put forward in 2017, has finally become reality.

16. HB1251 (which incorporated my HB189)  prohibits surprise balance billing in healthcare. Now if you go to a hospital covered under your plan, you can rest assured that you won't be charged for some out-of-network health-care provider that treats you.

17. HB1150 (which incorporated my HB244) disentangles local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. It repealed the state law that required that local officials report all immigrants convicted of a crime to ICE. Now just felons will be reported, but local governments can opt out of reporting to ICE immigrants convicted of a misdemeanor.

18. SB437 (which was nearly identical to my HB247) increases penalties for drivers who seriously hurt pedestrians while disobeying traffic laws. Thank you to Alexandrians for Safe Streets for proposing and testifying in favor of this initiative.

The Governor's Proposed Amendments

For a complete list of the bills for which the Governor proposed amendments, click here. He proposed amendments to 49 House bills and 37 Senate bills. To read the text of all of his recommended amendments in one place, click here. To read the Department of Legislative Services' summaries of all oh his non-budget amendments, click here.

I won't go over here all of the amendments the Governor has proposed. But I will share the amendments he proposed to my bills and to other big priority labor bills like the minimum wage increase. Most of his amendments were technical or non-controversial. I agree with virtually all of them.

Governor Northam proposed amendments to the following bills:

19. HB789 (which incorporated my HB184) is the Virginia Fairness and Lending Act and will, among other things, reign in predatory lenders that offer loans with exorbitantly high interest rates. The Governor's amendment moves up the effective date of the bill by six months, from July 1, 2021 to January 1, 2020. So if the amendment is accepted, the new law will be even better than what we originally proposed!

20, 21. HB1255 (which incorporated my HB1054 and my HB319) creates standards and criteria for the drawing of Congressional and state legislative districtsThe Governor improved the bill by giving agencies a few more months to collect and report census data, necessary in this busy time of coronavirus but still in time for redistricting.

22. HB972 (which incorporated my HB301) decriminalizes marijuana and sets a $25 civil penalty for people caught with an ounce or less of the plant. The bill also created a work group to study marijuana legalization and regulation and tasks it with reporting its recommendations to the General Assembly and the Governor by November 30, 2020. The Governor proposed technical amendments to make clear you can't lose your driver's license for using marijuana unless you're doing it in the act of driving and also an amendment to give that task force another year for their work, making their deadline November 30, 2021. These amendments mostly make sense to me. Although I'm concerned the task-force deadline extension may delay legalization a year, it will not necessarily do so, as the primary study on the matter from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission must still be completed this year. So the task force could be transformed from asking the question, "Should we legalize?" to the question of "How should we best legalize, tax, and regulate use?". I hope that will be the case. Overall, the amendments do little harm to the bill I've been proposing since my first year in office and improve on my medical marijuana legislation which I first introduced in 2017 and became law in 2018 here. HB972 remains a major improvement to Virginia's marijuana laws.

23. HB582 (which incorporated my HB327) allows public sector employees to collectively bargain, while giving local governments discretion to not recognize a public sector union/collective bargaining unit. The Governor's amendment would delay the date that this legislation went into effect by 10 months, moving the effective date from July 1, 2020 to May 1, 2021. This is the single disappointment for me on my bills that passed the General Assembly. As it's just a local option, I didn't really see the need for delay. We've waited decades to give workers union rights. We will now have to wait ten months more in these troubled times to help public sector workers. Although disappointed, I am pleased it will finally happen after decades of trying.

I feel the same way about the three other pro-worker bills for which Governor Northam proposed delaying implementation until May 1, 2021. One recommendation delays establishing a prevailing wage for some public contractors, and the other delays the permissive allowance of project labor agreements.

The third delays the minimum wage increase we passed, which would have raised the wage to $9.50 an hour on January 1, 2021; to $11 in 2022; and to $12 in 2023 (with possibility of rising to $15 per hour by 2026). Governor Northam is asking us to delay that first increase four months to May 1.

I'm still deciding how to vote on these last four recommendations. Obviously, I don't like the delays, but if we fail to pass a Governor's recommendation, he has the right to either sign the bill we originally proposed or veto that original bill and kill it entirely. After working so hard for so long, it would be a huge gamble to risk a veto on these four bills, particularly when the more conservative Virginia Senate may not approve the same bills again in 2021 (and even if they did, the enactment date would be further delayed from May 1 to July 1 of 2021). Labor groups clearly don't like the delays either, but they are on record in support of voting for them. Sometimes we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And raising the minimum wage and promoting labor rights has been a long time coming, even if it will now be just a bit longer before they become law.

The Virginia Mercury has a good run-down of some of the Governor's big proposed amendments that you can read by clicking here


The Budget

As I outlined in my March 16 newsletter, I was very proud of the budget the General Assembly passed at the end of the 2020 legislative session. As I laid out there, it included historic investments in education, healthcare, housing, environmental protection, public safety, consumer protection, and prevention from discrimination. It gave salary increases ranging from 2% to 3% to our teachers, state police, and other state employees.

It also left us a historically high (indeed a record) surplus to meet unplanned needs.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has changed most of that. The Commonwealth's tax revenue will be much, much lower than had been anticipated just one month ago when we were finalizing the budget. And its expenditure on coronavirus needs will be significant. We will have to spend all of our record surplus and more.

Considering this new reality, Governor Northam has proposed 37 separate amendments to the "caboose" budget for Fiscal Year 2020, which ends on June 30. And he has suggested 144 separate amendments to the biennial budget which runs from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022.

Fiscal Year 2020 (July 1, 2019 - June 30, 2020)

Usually this "caboose" budget would only be amended for technical changes (based off of tax revenue, for example), but the Governor is now seeking more substantive changes to freeze salaries, spend our past surpluses, and make sure we can save enough money to address the pandemic between now and June 30 of this year. Read the Governor's recommended changes to the FY2020 budget by clicking here.

Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 (July 1, 2020 - June 30, 2022)

Forty-nine of the Governor's 144 amendments are language amendments that would give agencies greater flexibility as to how they conduct business during the pandemic. 

More distressing is his proposed 83 amendments to "unallot" new, discretionary spending across all agencies. These amendments will place that spending on hold until economic circumstances enable Virginia's experts to re-forecast revenues so that we can make decisions based on the new economic reality. These amendments freeze spending of approximately $874.6 million in fiscal year 2021 and $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2022. Each amendment lists the specific items that are to be unallotted. The unallotments will be painful as they undo virtually all of our progressive priorities.

But unlike the Federal Government, Virginia cannot print money. And the failures of the United States Federal Government to timely and adequately address this crisis has not only cost more than 40,000 innocent American lives. It has also cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars and devastated 50 state governments. As unemployment rises to Great Depression levels or higher, we expect tax receipts -- delayed until June 1 -- to come in dramatically lower, just as our fiscal needs dramatically increase.

It's an emergency. Time to break open the bank to spend the surplus we have so prudently stored up for so many years.

One proposed amendment would create a COVID-19 relief fund to assist Virginians struggling during the pandemic. This funding would be for small businesses, unemployed Virginians, those struggling to pay their rent or mortgages, and Virginians experiencing homelessness. The program would be funded through a tax on electric skill gaming that the Governor's team anticipates would generate $150 million annually. I will vote for that amendment.

Another important amendment would increase nursing home and specialized care rates by $20 per day per patient effective for the period of the Governor's State of Emergency due to COVID-19.

Read the Governor's recommendations on the biennial budget by clicking here.

Unfortunately, Governor Northam's proposed amendments also alter two important Alexandria-specific budget items:
  • The budget that the General Assembly passed included $25 million for Alexandria's combined sewer overflow system overhaul. Governor's budget amendment #126 would allow the Governor "to delay the initiation or continuation of capital projects supported with general fund or state-supported debt appropriations in order to address cash flow and debt capacity concerns resulting from the COVID-19 emergency, until the General Assembly reauthorizes the capital budget when it accepts the revenue forecast that confirms the revenues estimated within the Act."

    This amendment could apply to the Alexandria CSO project and delay that funding.
     

  • The other, amendment #98, unallotted $2.4 million for Alexandria to renovate and restore Freedom House, the former headquarters and slave pen of the nation's largest domestic slave traders located at 1315 Duke Street. As with the sewer funding, this unallotment does not rule out the funding coming back when we have a better indication of our fiscal situation following expenditures due to the novel coronavirus and an assessment of how much less tax money flows into Virginia coffers. 

    I will fight to resume both of these Alexandria-specific funding streams in the future, perhaps as early as an expected late summer special session.

As you can tell, there's a lot to digest in looking at the Governor's budget amendments, and I am still looking through them. For more information, I encourage you to read the following articles:

Amended Virginia budget sees education cuts, transportation plan freezes (WTOP)
Northam proposes DOC release prisoners with less than one year left on sentence (13 News Now)

While budget cuts and. spending freezes are painful, we will have to do what is necessary to protect Virginians' lives in these troubling times. I will continue to fight to make sure that we cut as little "bone and muscle" as possible. 


Let Me Know What You Think

I encourage you to contact me if you have strong opinions about any of the Governor's actions. I will take any correspondence from constituents into consideration before voting on Wednesday.  Let me know your thoughts by calling my district office at 571-234-8381 or by emailing me at DelMLevine@house.virginia.gov today or tomorrow by 6 pm.


My Post-Session Letter

Last week, I explained that I need your help for me to reach as many households as possible this year with my post-session letter.

Donate now and help us meet our goal of raising $3,300 to pay for the newsletter I send to thousands of constituents every year. 

So far, you all have contributed exactly $1,190 dollars. Thank you!  Donations ranged from $5 to $250. Thank you! We need to raise just $2,110 more to meet our goal.

Every dollar donated between now and the end of the month will go towards mailing my letter to constituents. The more I receive in contributions the more people I'll be able to mail the end-of-session letter to. I'll be sending it out in late-April/early-May, soon after our April 22 reconvene session.

Some folks have expressed to me that they want me to save paper by not mailing them a hard copy, considering I email it out as well. Fair enough! Are you a constituent that would prefer to not receive a "snail mail" letter and simply have my comprehensive post-session letter emailed to you?

Click here to opt out of receiving my snail mail newsletter.
You'll still get the digital version.


COVID-19 Updates

The Governor had a press conference on Friday that can be watched here. Please note that the Governor is giving these press conferences every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 2 pm. They are broadcasted and archived on The Governor’s Facebook and VPM’s YouTube channel.

Here are ten things to know from the Governor's press conference on Friday:

1. Virginia received $1.6 billion through the federal stimulus to aid in fighting the pandemic.

2. We have approval from FEMA to provide hotel accommodations for first responders and essential workers.

3. The Governor spoke with the President and talked about phased guidelines for the coming future. The first phase requires positive tests on a downward trend for 14 days. We have not yet met this criteria.

4. Our first shipment of PPE procured through a contract with Northfield (a Virginia based logistics company) has arrived. This includes more than 24,000 N95 masks, as well as gloves and gowns.

5. ​The Governor signed Executive Order 57, the text of which can be read by clicking here. This Order will expand Virginia's capacity to treat the illness and lasts until June 10 unless amended. It eases licensing restrictions on certain medical practitioners such as nurses or doctors or physicians' assistants who are licensed in other states. It allows Virginia-licensed nurse practitioners with 2+ years of clinical experience to practice without a collaborative agreement. It also expands tele-health usage.

6. Virginia will waive regulatory rules around staffing in long term care facilities so they can recruit staff and volunteers more quickly. The Medical Reserve Corps. is working with long term care facilities to support staffing.

7. We are expanding testing criteria to include those who are about to be admitted in congregate settings like long term care facilities. I've been pressing the Virginia Government to increase testing since mid-March. (More on testing was announced at his press conference today, as described below)

8. Because of policies promoted by the Governor, since early March, the local jail population in Virginia has been reduced by 17%. ​There is a 67% decrease in the number of people entering jails on misdemeanor charges. All of this has been done with public safety in mind. 

9. Regarding unemployment: Call centers and more employees have been added to support the Virginia Employment Commission to ensure Virginians who seek unemployment benefits have access.

10. The Governor announced that Virginia will coordinate the re-opening of our economy with his counterparts in Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. I agree that coordinating across the region is the smart approach.


On Testing

(I published this post on my Facebook page.)

I've been critical about insufficient coronavirus testing in Virginia since mid-March.

Due to space constraints in the email client, you'll have to click on my article on Facebook to read it.

In the article, I describe the federal defects in testing and Virginia's defects as well in this regard.

I point out exactly why that is and what we need to do to fix it.

I also point out the need to change protocols on testing and some facts on testing, including the 10-20% positive test rate and what tests from other countries are telling us about the amount of people who may carry it asymptomatically. I also describe the failures thus far with regard to antibody tests.

In sum, I conclude:

We need to get to the point where everyone who wants a test can get a test. And get if for free. 
We cannot have people who don't get tested due to cost. The public health risk is too great.

Testing, testing, testing.
It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
The only way to escape the darkness.

I also proudly announce this UPDATE, based on today's press conference:

Thank you, Governor Northam and the entire Northam Administration, for taking my testing concerns seriously and taking immediate and strong action to correct the situation through your new coordinated testing task force and through expanding the testing guidelines as I requested.

And thank you for demanding the federal government finally step up as well by dampening down the false and unnecessary counterproductive rhetoric of the President and instead pressing the Vice President to invoke the Defense Production Act to get us the swabs and reagents we need to dramatically ramp up testing so we can do the appropriate contact tracing and isolation we need to do to reopen Virginia.

The Governor announced these testing improvements at his press conference today.

And Governor, we will do our part on Wednesday to make sure you have the funding you need to do this testing and take care off covid patients in a fiscally responsible way.


MarkforDelegate.com/coronavirus

Please remember to check out my website's page on coronavirus for all the latest updates. We are doing are best to keep you up to speed on all developments.

If information is not there, let us know and we have it, we'll add it.


I thank you again for the honor and privilege of representing you.

Delegate Mark Levine
Serving Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax in Virginia's 45th District