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General Assembly May Look to Shed Light on Subcommittee Hearings
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Will resignations lead to anti-LGBT GOP takeover in Virginia?
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Alexandria, VA 22314
On Sunday morning at 11:52 am, after being unusually extended an extra day, the 2019 Virginia General Assembly adjourned sine die. The whirlwind seven weeks of the "short session" has come to an end. I'm really glad to be home in Alexandria.
To get an idea of how fast-paced the short session always is, I encourage you to read the first article in the news section from the Virginia Mercury: Tracking bills during the General Assembly session: like drinking from a firehose
The moment of adjournment.
We ended one day late.
And then I rushed home to attend Mark's Monthly Meetup.
To say the least, it was an unusually challenging session. House and Senate Democrats called for the resignation of the Governor soon after he apologized for appearing in a racist medical-school yearbook photograph, only to have him deny being in that photograph the very next day. We also called for the resignation of the Lieutenant Governor after two credible sexual-assault allegations were made against him.
But, in a much less noticed story, when the Leader of the Senate, Republican Senator Tommy Norment was discovered to be the managing editor of his college yearbook that included blackface and racist slurs, Republicans did not call upon him to resign.
It seems to me that the managing editor of a yearbook has far more responsibility for a yearbook's content than the students pictured within its pages. But as usual, we Democrats hold our leaders to a higher standard than Republicans hold their leaders. At any rate, as of this writing, it looks like none of Virginia's leaders have any intention of leaving office. And so, I will continue to work with all of them in order to serve you.
During the session, Virginia Republicans -- despite being solidly rejected 55%-45% by Virginia voters in 2017 -- continued to wield power via their slim 51-49 and 21-19 majorities obtained courtesy of their 2011 illegal racial gerrymander. So progressive measures like gun-safety legislation, minimum wage increases, LGBT civil rights, environmental protection, and the Equal Rights Amendment were dead on arrival.
Despite the scandals and despite serving in the minority, we House Democrats still managed to eke out some major victories, particularly in the budget process, which increased funding substantially for education, affordable housing, and $25 million to help Alexandria fund the overhaul of our 19th-century combined sewer system. As I described last week, a small group of us, by withholding our votes on a crucial tax bill, were able to push through some of these great budget victories.
All week long, Senator Amanda Chase and I got more than two-thirds of House Delegates and Senators to sign on to the Virginia Transparency Caucus letter we circulated in our respective chambers. That's a powerful bipartisan, bicameral endorsement of cameras in subcommittees. It's the first event of the week I will describe below.
The Virginia Transparency Caucus:
More than Two-Thirds of Virginia General Assembly
Demand Cameras to Monitor the Legislative Process
Senator Amanda Chase and I delivering the Transparency Caucus letter to House Clerk Paul Nardo and Senate Clerk Susan Schaar. It was signed by 97 legislators: more than 2/3 of each Chamber!
General Assembly May Look to Shed Light on Subcommittee Hearings
The Republican Standard
Click here to see who signed it and who did not.
Yet Again, Republicans Block the
Equal Rights Amendment
On Thursday, Democrats used a highly unusual parliamentary maneuver to bring ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Floor of the House of Delegates. Having been defeated both in subcommittee and in full committee on party-line votes, ERA advocates requested that Democrats force the measure to the Floor. They thought they had the votes for ratification.
You see, all 49 Democrats in the House of Delegates strongly support the ERA. And three Republican Delegates claimed they endorsed it as well. Republican Delegates Roxann Robinson and Chris Stolle even co-patroned the legislation!
So, advocates argued: 49 Democrats + 2 or 3 Republicans = 51 or 52 Delegates, a majority of the Chamber. And as the ERA had already been ratified by the Virginia Senate, this should be an easy win.
Unfortunately, advocates do not understand Republican math.
As I said in my newsletter last week:
"A handful of Republican Delegates have said publicly that they support the ERA. And while we Democrats are extremely skeptical they are telling the truth, there are a handful of advocates who actually take the Republicans at their word. Well, as with my LGBT Floor Amendment, we will give these Republicans who claim to support the ERA an opportunity to put their vote where their mouth is, a chance not to be hypocrites. I'm pretty confident that the Republicans who claim to support the ERA are not telling the truth to their voters, just as they misled their constituents on LGBT equal rights. But what the heck? Let's prove it once and for all.
"Will there be two House Republicans willing to cross party lines and join every single House Democrat in supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the 38th and final state necessary for the ERA to become part of the United States Constitution?
"I won't hold my breath. But at least, if these Republicans don't vote as they say they will, we can once and for all prove all their rhetoric about believing women should be equal under the law is as empty and hypocritical as their false avowals that they believe gay, lesbian, and transgender folks should be equal under the law. Remember: it doesn't matter what you say; what matters is how you vote."
Every Democrat voted to bring the ERA up for a vote.
But Republicans who claimed to support the ERA flip-flopped to ensure its defeat.
Just as Republicans who pretended to support LGBT rights flip-flopped last week.
It doesn't matter what you say; what matters is how you vote.
Republicans in the Virginia Legislature cannot be trusted to support equal rights.
The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol.
So turning from despair to elation, I happily supported our final budget result. I had voted against the first budget proposal, because I did not feel it provided enough education or housing dollars and because it neglected to include funding for Alexandria's combined sewer overhaul. But, with only a few small exceptions, the final budget was as good or better than I had hoped for.
- Raising public school teachers' salaries by 5%;
- Raising state and state-supported local employees' pay by 3%;
- $94 million for higher education with no tuition increases but with an increase in financial aid;
- $194 million for K-12;
- $25 million for at-risk students, which would help school districts (like Alexandria) with high concentrations of students on free and reduced lunch;
- $12 million for additional school counselors;
- $74 million for water quality;
- $15 million to expand broadband access;
- $14 million (a more than 25% increase) for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund over the next two years;
- $104,050 to study how to reduce eviction; and
- my personal favorite: $25 million for Alexandria's combined sewer overhaul
It may just look like a bunch of boring numbers, but hidden in the fine print is $25 million for Alexandria!
After the General Assembly voted to require Alexandria to overhaul its 19th-century sewage system two years ago, I insisted to the Governor and to House Appropriations Chair Chris Jones that it was only fair that Alexandria -- like Richmond and Lynchburg before us -- get our fair share of state funds for this very expensive effort.
Hats off to Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw and Delegate Mark Sickles for pulling out all the stops to get that money in the final budget. I know it was the number one legislative priority of the Alexandria Mayor and City Council as well. The City of Alexandria's Legislative Director, Sarah Taylor, also deserves a lot of credit for her advocacy efforts on this.
Don't wait! File your taxes and get your refund today!
My bill HB2425 is on its way to becoming law.
Schoolhouse Rock would be proud.
Mandatory Reporting of Healthcare-Related Infections
Based on this horrific incident and other similar occurrences across Virginia and the nation, I introducedHB2642 to make it a felony to use cruelty toward animals to coerce, intimidate, or harass a household or family member.
The bill went through House Courts of Justice subcommittee and committee and passed 99-0 out ofthe House of Delegates. Two weeks ago I presented the bill to the Senate Agricultural, Conservation, and Natural Resources Committee, which also voted unanimously in favor of it 15-0 but sent it on to the Senate Finance Committee, which heard the bill Monday.
The Senate Finance Committee, which is supposed to be focused solely on the fiscal impact of the bill (and we had money set aside in the budget for it in the House and the Senate) ultimately killed the bill, based on what initially appeared to have been a misunderstanding. One member of the committee, Republican Caucus Chairman Senator Ryan McDougle, misstated what the bill does, claiming that it was unnecessary because it was redundant with SB1604 and HB1874, two good animal rights bills but bills that did nothing to address animal cruelty as a form of domestic violence. It was evident from his comments at the hearing that McDougle had not understood my two-line bill. He thought I was changing the felony standard for animal cruelty when all I was doing was introducing a new felony when animal cruelty is combined with a threat of domestic violence.
Part of the problem with this whole effort has to do with "incorporation." This is the technical term the Senate uses to express rolling one patron's bill into another, and it is used to give one member "credit" for another's bill. For example, Senators Bill Stanley and Adam Ebbin, who originally chief co-patroned this bill in the Senate, had their version incorporated into another bill, Republican Senator DeSteph's SB1604. And my bill HB2642 was incorporated into Republican Delegate Ransone's HB1874.
This sounds all well and good, but the language of my bill was not actually put into the new bill. When incorporation occurs, it is up to the individual member to continue to fight for the legislative language. After Senators Stanley and Ebbin declined to incorporate domestic violence language into SB1604 when it left the Senate, I insisted on the language being incorporated in one of the final bills. But it turned out to be impossible (and maddingly frustrating). Senator Bill DeSteph refused to include the language in SB1604 because Senator McDougle was mad at me for gently stating at the hearing that he misunderstood what the bills did. I tried with HB1874 as well, but Delegate Ransone also said that Senator McDougle's ire at my trying to correct his misunderstanding prevented her from changing the bill in conference.
So why was Senator McDougle so angry? Watch the hearing below and see if you can figure it out. What would you do if your bill were so misunderstood? I was left with the Catch-22 of a) not explaining the bill and allowing it to be defeated based on the misunderstanding; or b) explaining the bill and telling the committee Senator McDougle had his facts wrong. As you'll see from the video below, I chose option b.
Redistricting Reform Passes First Hurdle,
But Serious Problems Remain
A constitutional amendment for redistricting reform cleared its first hurdle on Saturday when the General Assembly voted in favor of HJ615 / SJ306. I have long argued we need an independent commission deciding our legislative boundaries. District boundaries should reflect the political will of the People of Virginia. I think the voters of Virginia should be able to pick their elected state representatives, not the other way around.
As amended by Republicans, the measure contained some serious flaws. I voted in favor of the flawed measure this session, because it requires two successive votes and a referendum by the people to become part of the Virginia Constitution. But I am not ruling out voting against it next year, as I'll explain below. The measure does do some good things:
- It establishes a redistricting commission of 8 legislators (4 from each chamber) and 8 citizens;
- It requires a supermajority of each group (at least 6 of the 8 legislators, including 3 from each chamber, and 6 of the 8 citizens) to approve the district map;
- It requires public hearings and full transparency of all meetings, minutes and data;
- It provides that the General Assembly can only do an up-or-down vote on the district maps. The General Assembly can not offer any amendments to the maps.
So far so good. And if the Commission comes up with maps supported by a supermajority, I'd be fine with those maps. But the plan has two fundamental flaws:
- It excludes the Governor from the approval process; and more importantly,
- It allows the Virginia Supreme Court to step in and draw the maps if the Commission does not reach agreement
Clearly this is not the "independent commission" I wanted to see. The major concern I have with the proposal is denoted in red above. The Governor, who is excluded from the process, is elected by the People of Virginia. But the members of the Virginia Supreme Court, which can step in and draw the lines, are not elected by the people.
All the members of the Supreme Court were chosen by the Republicans who currently control the General Assembly solely due to their illegal racial gerrymander. (You'll recall the People of Virginia rejected Republican majority rule, by electing Democrats in 2017 by a 55%-45% margin.)
We could end up in a situation where, even if voters choose Democrats to represent them in the Legislature and the Governor's office in 2019, the 2021 lines would still be drawn by partisan Republicans on the Virginia Supreme Court who themselves were chosen by partisan Republicans who illegally drew their own racially-gerrymandered lines. And thus, against the will of the voters, a group chosen by a 2011 illegal racial gerrymander could continue their gerrymander well into 2031. If this happened, it would actually be a step backward from legislative gerrymandering.
The Original Gerry-Mander proposed by Governor Gerry
of Massachusetts in 1812 was shaped like a salamander.
The problem is not with the composition of the commission. The problem is with the backstop of the Virginia Supreme Court. To give you an idea of how unrepresentative that court is, none of the seven justices on the Virginia Supreme Court (or the eleven jurists on the Virginia Court of Appeals) hale from Fairfax, Arlington, or Alexandria (20% of Virginia)!
As noted, the final Republican-backed proposal was not the one originally put forward by One Virginia 2021 or Senator George Barker. I remain open-minded on it, which is why I voted for it in round one. But absent a dramatic change in the Virginia Supreme Court, I just don't see how we can trust it to be a fair arbiter in this process, unless we give it much clearer criteria on how to draw the lines fairly. I'm hopeful we can do this through future legislation, but I remain skeptical.
Over the next year, I will be very deliberate in reviewing the proposal through the lens of "one person, one vote." It is essential to me that Virginia redistricting lines reflect the Virginia polity. And if that can't be done under this Constitutional Amendment, I will vote against it in 2020.
That said, I have a year to consider how I will vote in 2020, and I encourage folks to reach out to me on this. Let's discuss the best way forward.
My Role as Deputy Whip
In legislating, as important as it is to write and advocate for new laws, it is equally vital — if far less glamorous — to carefully examine legislation to find concealed flaws, bring those flaws to light, and if possible, work to improve them.
On to November
- Get serious about fighting climate change
- Enhance workers' rights and raise the minimum wage
- Make it easier to vote
- Protect consumers
- Reduce the school-to-prison pipeline
- Protect immigrants
- Protect children from domestic violence and abuse
- Protect the elderly from abuse
- Make our criminal justice system fairer and more effective
- Repeal onerous abortion rules that harm women's health
- Reform our campaign finance system to return power to the people
- Protect Virginians from gun violence
- Improve our education system
- Protect LGBTQ Virginians from discrimination, and
- Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment
Republicans did not support these measures.
If you like how I represent you (or just how much work I put in my newsletters) and you want to help me defend other progressive priorities, I could use your help.
Could you chip in a contribution?
Every bit counts, even small donations.
It is always my honor and privilege to serve you.
Delegate Mark Levine
Serving Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax in Virginia's 45th District