MARK IN THE NEWS
Gun-control issue boils over in Virginia House after fiery speech from delegate
Sparking chaos on House floor, Freitas suggests 'abortion industry' and 'broken homes' may lead to mass shootings
Richmond Times Dispatch
Charlottesville Delegate Calls for Gun Control Legislation
U.S. News & World Report
Video: Virginia House Republicans Lash Out Angrily, Incoherently, Fact-Free on Guns; Dem Leader Toscano Calls for Censuring One of Them for Smearing Dems
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One Week to Go!
We have a big final week of session coming up. The two biggest issues to be resolved are whether we will have Medicaid Expansion and/or dedicated revenue for Metro.
As I described last week after years of effort, the Virginia House of Delegates finally passed a budget that included Medicaid Expansion. I was proud to vote for this.
But the Virginia Senate continues to reject this budget on party lines 21-19. And because the Republican majority in the Senate so far refuses to allow Virginians to use the $421 million in taxes they have already paid to the federal government for health care, their needlessly stingy budget has to harm teachers, law enforcement, transportation needs, and state employees.
Of course, Medicaid Expansion is a complete win-win. It not only provides affordable health care to more than 300,000 Virginians; it is also the fiscally conservative thing to do because it adds more than $400 million to our budget. Hopefully we can persuade Senate Republicans to change their minds.
Both chambers have appointed conferees to resolve the differences, and negotiations will be going on behind the scenes over the next several days. Hopefully, next week will see a conference report that includes Medicaid Expansion. It’s even possible that there will be an impasse that pushes the whole issue into a special session later on or a resolution at the post-veto session on April 18.
I commit to you that I will vote against any budget that lacks Medicaid Expansion. We’ve worked too hard for too long to come this far and not see this through. Please encourage anyone you know who lives in a district headed by a Senate Republican to contact them and urge them to do the only Virginia option that is both fiscally conservative and progressively humane: Medicaid Expansion.
I consider dedicated funding for Metro our most important regional priority. It is the second largest subway system in the nation, and hundreds of millions rely on it every year (more than half a million every day) to commute to work, make a tourist trip to DC, or use it to travel within the region. Metro even helps those in our area who don't use it. Can you imagine how bad traffic would be inside the Beltway without it?
Unfortunately, because Metro shares funding from four jurisdictions -- Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government -- it is the only major transit system in the USA without a dedicated funding source. For decades, these four jurisdictions have kicked the can down the road. Now the years of neglect and lack of maintenance have taken their toll, and we are in an emergency situation.
For Metro, I greatly prefer the Senate's solution over the House's. The Senate passed strong legislation dedicating new revenue sources to Metro and providing the $154 million necessary to address Metro's current state of disrepair and provide adequate funding for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the House counterpart was not so generous. It provided no new revenue and funded the $105 million it provided entirely by taking it away from localities and their currently existing transportation needs. Furthermore the $105 million provided is woefully inadequate of what’s needed to get Metro on track. And, to add insult to injury, the House Metro legislation included an attack on labor unions as well. For all these reasons, I voted against this initial bill.
Negotiations will be ongoing this week. I'll be pushing for the Senate plan, and I’ll be looking closely to see what compromise emerges on this. I’ll have more information on both of these priorities in next week’s newsletter.
Legislation on Energy Infrastructure
Raising Felony Threshold for Theft
Rhetoric on Gun Regulation
The Grid Modernization Act
One of the most important and complex bills this session has been The Grid Modernization Act (HB 1558/SB 966), known by some colloquially as “The Dominion Bill”. In 2015, before I was elected, the General Assembly passed a bill suspending the State Corporation Commission’s authority to review electric utility’s rates. I would have strongly opposed this bill had I been there at the time. In fact, I specifically condemned the law in my 2015 campaign, because it took away Virginia's authority to make sure that our regulated energy monopolies like Dominion weren't overcharging consumers. And, as I feared, that's exactly what happened.
This year, many of us put pressure on other members to finally end this lack of oversight. It wasn't just us, of course. Many of you put pressure on Dominion Power as well to bring it to the table along with the Governor, environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters, and pro-consumer groups. And a deal was reached that’s garnered support and opposition from within both parties.
When the bill was first released, I was not pleased with it. It was just too favorable to Dominion and provided far too little to consumers. Many of you let me know your concerns about this bill, and I took those to heart. I joined with many of my colleagues to fight some of the worst provisions of the bill. In particular, there was a “double-dipping” provision which would have allowed Dominion to use money that was overcharged to consumers both for new projects and also to apply for increased rates to consumers to pay for those same projects! I'm proud to say the House Democrats led the opposition to this provision, and the determined opposition of all 49 of us plus six brave Republicans amended the bill to remove this double profiting on the backs of consumers. Even though the bill had come a long way, I still opposed it when it first came through. I knew it would pass, but I wanted my no vote to encourage negotiators to make the bill even more friendly to consumers and to the environment. I also did my best to support an alternative proffered by Delegate Sam Rasoul that I thought was better than the current bill before us. Thanks to all of you who wrote me both in support of and in opposition to the bill.
Faced with the final version of the bill this week, I had to ask myself the most important question: was this imperfect (but greatly improved) bill better for Virginia consumers and the environment than current law? Clearly, the answer was yes. The bill does many good things. It ends the rate freeze and restores the Commission’s right to review electric rates every three years. It forces Dominion to refund $200 million overcharged to consumers since 2015. And it limits their ability to raise rates in the next several years. While it's true that the bill makes it harder for the Commission to deny certain projects, the bill makes clear that these "undeniable" projects will be used for clean, renewable energy, grid modernization, energy efficiency, and undergrounding of power lines. This bill will not increase fossil fuel projects; it will move us towards more green energy. As a result of The Grid Modernization Act, many more green energy projects will be approved, the Commission will regain the power to review rates, and customers will receive a rebate on their power bills. So I voted for the final version of the bill.
I’ve never taken money from Dominion Power. But I will always vote in the interests of my constituents, and overall, I believe this bill will be good for us. It is far better for us than current law and even much much better than the original version which I opposed.
Raising the Felony Threshold
Other news to report on this week is that it looks like we are on the cusp of finally raising the felony threshold for petty larceny from $200 to $500. Currently, Virginia is one of two states with the lowest felony threshold for theft in the nation. The level had not been increased since 1980. This year, we finally voted to increase the threshold to $500.
Theft is not to be taken lightly, and thefts of under $500 will continue to be jailable misdemeanors. But should such a small-scale first offense be a felony? Should stealing a nice pair of shoes worth $200 require one to spend at least a year in jail?
I didn't think so. And my Democratic colleagues and I have been pushing to increase the level for some years now. $200 in 1980 is equivalent to more than $600 today. At $500, Virginia will still have a lower felony threshold than 3/4 of the United States although we will no longer be the lowest. Many of us had pushed for a threshold of $1000, which is the most common level designated for most states.
Now, for petty thefts, people may be punished and serve some time but still have a chance to rehabilitate themselves and get jobs and not lose their right to vote. I hope the more proportional punishment for this small-scale offense will be life-affirming and not life-destroying.
Debate On Guns
While I have some sympathy for those who commit petty theft, I have zero sympathy for those who commit mass murder or the people that sell weapons of war to dangerous people without a background check. As I have repeatedly pointed out, it remains legal to sell firearms in Virginia to gang members, terrorists, domestic-violence abusers, those involuntarily committed because they are a danger to themselves, and others who are violently deranged or have a long history of violence without conducting a simple background check. 40% of guns nationwide are transferred this way, often by one stranger to another after an anonymous contact on the Internet. They can then legally make the sale in the streets or in back alleys with "no questions asked." Republicans in the House of Delegates continue to insist that these shady private sales remain legal, even though a recent Quinnipiac poll shows an astonishing 97% of Americans -- including 97% of gun owners -- support universal background checks!
As you know if you've been reading my newsletters, my universal background check bill (HB140) was defeated in subcommittee, as was my bill (HB41) to ban the bump stock mechanism used in the Las Vegas Massacre and advertised to increase the rate of fire of an AR-15 to make the semiautomatic assault rifle "Nearly Full Auto." My bill to copy Alabama's law (although less liberal than Alabama's) to allow localities to ban firearms at protests (HB814), so necessary after Charlottesville, was also defeated 4-2 in a subcommittee that allowed no firearm legislation to pass, despite the fact that Democrats introduced 70 gun-safety measures, 41 in the House and 29 in the Senate. Five of the 70 bills were mine.
Two of my bills were not even given a hearing. One (HB405) would have banned domestic abusers from being legally sold firearms. Another one (HB1100) would have banned those found by a court too dangerous to walk the streets from being legally sold firearms. Think about it. When a court has found someone so dangerously violently insane that, even without having committed a crime, that court ordered the person to be involuntarily committed to a mental asylum because he or she is a danger to himself/herself or to others, why on earth should it be legal for this dangerous person to purchase a firearm?
While House Republicans deep-sixed all gun-safety regulation in 2018, they have not hesitated to argue rhetorically that gun violence has nothing to do with guns and has nothing to do with guns' easy availability to very dangerous people. On the Floor, one Republican Delegate (who is running against Tim Kaine for US Senator) argued that gun violence is caused by "the abortion industry," "broken homes", the "welfare state," families "dependent on government" and "various cultural changes that happened in the 60s." Another Republican Delegate said we could get rid of gun violence if we just prayed more. And a third one argued that it was violent video games and movies that were the real source of gun violence.
I responded to that last argument in a one-minute clip I've posted below. Click the picture below to watch it.
Standing up to correct the record.
No, video games do not cause gun violence.
In sum, although the 2017 Elections brought Republicans to the table to compromise with us on Medicaid Expansion, Metro, energy regulation, and the felony threshold, we remain light-years apart on common-sense gun regulation.
I have, however, had private conversations with a few Republicans who have committed to me to work with me on these issues after session in the remainder of 2018. It remains to be seen if any of them will ever be willing to buck the strict party line on this most partisan of issues, but hope springs eternal. As the brutal massacres of innocent Americans occur ever more frequently, it is my fervent hope that public pressure and conscience will persuade at least a few Republicans that "thoughts and prayers" are not just not sufficient to stop the violence. We must take legislative action to allow Virginians to once again feel safe praying in church, going to school, entering a movie theater, or shopping in a mall, without turning all of America into an armed fortress.
Come Visit Us in Richmond!
Please consider stopping by and visiting me in the Richmond office.
This should be the last week to do it.
Otherwise, as you know, I'm always available at home in the 45th.
And I'm very much looking forward to coming home on March 11!
Governor Northam at his Annual Chili Cookoff
Meeting of the Gun Violence Caucus
The February Mark's Monthly Meetup
Celebrating International Mother Tongue Day with Bangladeshi-Americans in Arlington
I celebrated Northern Virginia's great diversity with friendly people and terrific food and was honored to be asked to speak at the event.
The man on the far left is the Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United States.
Mark's Monthly Meetup Next Month!
Los Tios in Del Ray
Sunday, March 25 at 2 pm
Please join us for March's Mark's Monthly Meetup Sunday, March 25 at 2 pm, at Los Tios Mexican restaurant in Del Ray (2615 Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria).
And if you miss February, there's always March, April, or May. Every month, I make sure to be available in this informal setting for any constituent who wishes to discuss a problem or just say hello.
It is always my honor and privilege to serve you.
Delegate Mark Levine
Serving Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax in Virginia's 45th District