The 2020 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is flying by. Committee meetings start early in the morning, and afternoon meetings run late into the evening. We all knew that coming into this session there would be a lot of hard choices. Among Democratic voters there was a lot of pent-up energy and a demand for change. The question of the session has been the extent of that change.
One of the key issues this year is Virginia’s business standing. How do we maintain a good business climate, one that consistently ranks Virginia among the top states in which do business, and also create a fairer environment for workers? A number of bills have touched on this topic, including efforts to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law that has been on the books since 1947. Under this law, you cannot force a worker to join a union as a condition of employment. Candidly, I don’t think right-to-work will be repealed this session, and I do not think it is right under the circumstances to force people to do something they do not wish to do. However the issue is not that simple. Under federal law, a union that has organized in the workplace has to represent both its members and nonmembers when it negotiates a contract. While I believe it is unfair to force someone to join a union against their wishes, I also believe it is unfair for nonmembers to benefit and receive representation from the union they do not support. Surely there is a way to work out this problem.
Another business issue involves the minimum wage. Virginia’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which is the federal minimum wage. Few people dispute that the market has risen higher than that. Frankly, there are not too many businesses hiring people at the minimum wage anymore. If the minimum wage enacted back in the 1960s was indexed for inflation, it would be over $13 an hour now. We have been considering several approaches that would raise the minimum wage to between $9.75 and $10 an hour between July, 1 of this year and January 1, 2021 then to $15 over the succeeding five years. Those bills are alive and subject to change in the final four weeks of session.
The General Assembly has dealt with a number of gun bills. And I have gotten a lot of calls on both sides of every one of those bills. People who know me and who paid attention to the 2019 campaign cannot legitimately claim they are surprised by the way I voted on the bills. I have been criticized by people who are “pro-gun” and those who are “anti-gun.” People who know me know that I think for myself. I read the bills and do what I think is right. I believe in the Second Amendment and the right of every individual to own and possess firearms. I also believe we have a responsibility to keep people safe, and it would be irresponsible for us to fail to respond to the bloodshed we have seen in many of our communities.
One of the most controversial bills to pass the Senate is the red flag law. Too often I have heard from people after a tragedy occurs that all the warning signs were present but they could not do anything until the person broke the law. Red flag laws were designed to prevent exactly that scenario. First enacted in Connecticut in 1999 and then in Indiana in 2005, they grew more popular in recent years. Seventeen states have such laws on the books. The one we passed, and the version I fought for, is one of the most tightly crafted in the country.
Other controversial bills included Senate Bill 16, an assault weapon ban. The bill was so broad it would have criminalized the possession of firearms by people who currently own them. It was one of the first bills that died in the Senate. In addition, legislation was introduced to amend existing law that criminalizes leaving a loaded firearm around children younger than fourteen. The bill sought to increase the age to 18 and to increase the penalty. An amendment was added to carve out hunting in order to allay concerns of rural legislators. In my view, the bill was still too broad, and I voted no.
Needless to say, I have heard from people on both sides all of these issues. I am not certain that too many people are happy with all of the votes I have cast. But that is okay. I will continue to weigh every bill carefully and do what I think is right.
We are rapidly moving toward crossover, after which the Senate can only consider bills from the House, and the House may only consider Senate bills. We are grappling with the development of the budget, the appointment of judges and many more bills. It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If we may be of assistance, please contact me at (804) 698-7525 or by email at [email protected].