As 2020 is draws to a close, I cannot help but reflect on the unusual nature of this year as we prepare for the 2021 Session. From a legislative perspective, the regular session lasted 65 days, and we convened again in August for a 84-day special session. Of course, the General Assembly did not meet every day during the 65- and 84-day spans. During a regular session, legislators typically go home to spend time with family or to work their full-time jobs on the weekends. The special session met even more sporadically.
Politically, this year saw the return of Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate and a lot of pent-up demand from Democratic constituencies. The change in power meant the General Assembly was busy.
The pandemic is another story. Over 4500 Virginians have died from COVID-19. Many small businesses have been forced to close or lay off employees, most of our students are learning from home, and so many families are struggling to meet their basic needs because of the economy. The pandemic resulted in a slowdown of major parts of the economy, something for which we were unprepared. We return to Richmond next month with this backdrop.
Odd year sessions are always “short” sessions. We meet for 46 days, two fewer weeks than in long 60-day sessions. The Republican minorities have vowed to limit the 2021 Session to 30 days. This is allowed for by the Constitution. However there has never been a 30-day session since the Constitution was amended in 1971 to provide for one. The legislature has always extended the session to 46 days. At the end of the day, I expect the General Assembly will be in session for at least 46 days in 2021.
We are still dealing with critical issues brought about by the pandemic, including the extended economic crisis and the distribution of the vaccine. In addition to these topics, I am looking to address several significant priorities.
Deputy Raises and School Construction
These two issues have somehow gotten lost in the shuffle of Virginia politics. Law enforcement raises are always an issue as we look for a few dollars here and a few dollars there to meet priorities. Deputy sheriffs, who provide the primary law enforcement in rural localities are for the most part underpaid and, in many cases, called upon to do a whole lot more than enforce the law, serve process, and maintain order in our courtrooms.
Likewise, the tremendous infrastructure needs within school divisions throughout the Commonwealth are well-documented every year. This is primarily an issue in rural localities and older inner cities. Old, crumbling school buildings and other facilities hamper educational opportunity. In order to create opportunity in every part of the Commonwealth, the state must play a bigger role in helping localities construct schools. The last major initiatives to do so were in the early 1950s and the late 1990s. We need sustained effort to modernize our schools and foster enriching environments for every student to succeed.
I will have a unique approach to these topics this year. I will not only propose that we fund them, but I will propose a sustainable method for funding.
Virginia’s income tax has not increased since 1974. I will propose a modest -15 cents per 100 dollars – increase to take the rate on income over $150,000 a year from 5.75% to 5.9%. The increase will generate roughly $134.1 million in fiscal year 2021 and $144.2 million in fiscal year 2022, enough money to fund both priorities. Forty-five percent of the funds will go towards school construction grants and 55 percent will fund raises for state and state-supported law enforcement officers. I am convinced that both priorities are important to the people I represent and the Commonwealth of Virginia. While raising taxes may be controversial, it is time for more than empty rhetoric.
Unemployment Benefits and Training
During this pandemic, entire sectors of our economy had to shut down. I was struck by the closure of The Homestead in Bath County earlier this year. The hotel closed for many months and was forced to lay off employees. The hotel has seemed busy since reopening its doors. Some of the employees were called back, but about 200 positions were eliminated permanently. Candidly, some of those employees are in their 50s and 60s and have spent their entire working lives at The Homestead. Retraining opportunities for them are limited, especially in areas of the Commonwealth that already saw above average unemployment. With unemployment benefits running out, the future may seem bleak. We have to help these people.
The Governor has proposed depositing $650 million into the Reserve Fund. It is important that we maintain reserves to maintain our AAA bond rating, which allows us to borrow money at very low rates and save money in the long run over the course of every state construction project. The money supplements the “rainy day” fund. However, as a result of this pandemic, many people are already caught in the rain. I am proposing that $100 million be diverted to the Virginia Employment Commission to provide long term benefits for longer-term unemployed lower income and part-time workers, the bulk of whom will be over the age of 50. In addition to extending benefits, the funding will be used for retraining programs for that specific group of workers.
Election Law Changes
This past election saw historic turnout by Virginia’s voters. We have taken many steps over the years to protect the integrity of our elections. We eliminated electronic voting years ago and utilize paper ballots in every jurisdiction in Virginia. We test tabulation machines before every election, with witnesses from both political parties, and conduct post-election risk limiting audits. For people who do not watch elections closely every year, I understand how the shifts in votes late on election night was disconcerting. Elections are run by the local registrar and electoral boards. As result, some jurisdictions opted not to count absentee ballots until the polls closed at 7 p.m. As a result, once those votes were counted, you saw significant swings in areas like the City of Richmond, Loudoun County, and Henrico County. The swings were even more pronounced because of messaging about voting by absentee at the national level.
I will introduce two bills related to our elections. First, I will require all localities to count absentee ballots in the same manner. Late swings in election totals creates a perception that something is amiss when that is certainly not the case. We have to do better to remove any perception of wrong doing.
Second, I will sponsor legislation to codify permanently some of the reforms adopted in 2020 due to the pandemic. Specifically, I will ensure people can continue to vote absentee and deposit those ballots in secure drop boxes. I believe our democracy works best when more people can participate. We need to work to make sure that high turnouts are the rule rather than the exception in Virginia.
Finally, for the last seven years I have been driven to remake our public mental health system. The study commission I have chaired is set to expire at the end of 2021. When I began this work, I naively thought only a few changes would be needed to fix the system. What I have found is that the issues are much more complex and require constant evaluation and work. I will make a proposal this session to create a permanent structure to continue this work. We must do better to ensure everyone has access to a broad range of services to help them on the path to recovery.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. The 2021 Session begins on January 13, 2021, although I will arrive in Richmond for meetings earlier in the week. Until that time, I will continue to practice law in Hot Springs. If I may be of service or if you have concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] or by phone at (434) 296-5491 or (540) 839-2473.