The 2021 Session is rapidly drawing to a close. Last week we reached crossover, and now the Senate is only considering House bills and the budget. The House of Delegates is considering the budget as well, together with the Senate bills.
Both the House and Senate will adopt versions of the budget today. While preliminary, the Senate budget begins the process of restoring more of the mental health funding that was lost during the pandemic. You will recall that the Governor unallotted a couple billion dollars of spending once the virus wreaked havoc on our economy. Some of the things that I have been working on for a long time, like a loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals and discharge planning for jails with high numbers of inmates with mental health issues, were unallotted. We worked hard to get that vital spending back into the budget.
Other matters, like pay raises for state employees and teachers and funding for school divisions throughout Virginia, are included in the budget, as well as restoring the dental benefit for adult Medicaid patients.
The budget is always a compromise, but it sets forth the priorities of the General Assembly every year. The last two weeks of the session will be spent finalizing work on a lot of bills and on reconciling the differences between the House and Senate budgets.
A big topic this year has been the abolition of the death penalty. Every year bills are introduced to expand the death penalty or to abolish it. Those bills are always tough and receive consideration and ample debate every year. In the past I have generally supported the death penalty. Certainly, there are heinous crimes that are committed for which capital punishment seems appropriate. This year, for a lot of reasons, I voted to abolish the death penalty. As a Christian, I have always struggled with the notion that human beings could decide to take the life of other human beings. I have never been convinced that the death penalty deters other people from committing crime. In fact, statistics show that it is not a deterrent beyond the individual who is executed. After someone has spent 10 to 20 years, or more, in prison during the appeal process, the person awaiting execution may be completely different than the individual who committed the crime. Finally, historically it is easy to see that the death penalty has been used disproportionately against Black defendants. The proportionality argument has been ignored for far too long.
There are many other arguments, but what it came down to for me was simple. I have practiced law for nearly 37 years. I understand how tough it is to prove or disapprove what happened once you get to court. I just do not have faith that human beings, whether they are jurists, judges, or lawyers, have the ability to decide whether another human being should receive the ultimate punishment. That view was strengthened by recently reading that as many as one in 10 capital sentences that have been meted out in this country have been for innocent people. The chilling reality is that Virginia has likely executed innocent people.
I am also convinced that Virginia is trending in this direction. We have not had a death sentence verdict in Virginia since 2012. Only two people remain on death row in Virginia. Now is the time for Virginia to join the rest of the western world and do away with the death penalty. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia are among the nations that still put people to death. We are the United States of America, and we are simply better than that.
A number of the bills that I introduced are moving forward. I introduced Senate Bill 1267 at the request of the city of Covington. The bill will allow the City to amend its charter to have a joint school board with Alleghany County. The budget also contains funding to support the consolidation. Over the years, I have told people that any decision on consolidation is up to the local governments and school boards. But once the decision is made, I am going to do everything I can at the state level to support that decision and make sure our schools are successful.
I chair the Privileges and Elections Committee, which deals with election law. As a result, I have been involved in trying to improve those laws. My effort to make voting easier and put drop boxes in every community as well as allowing absentee voters to cure minor mistakes before Election Day is moving forward. As is my bill to ensure absentee ballots are processed in the same manner throughout the Commonwealth.
Several years ago I sponsored legislation to ensure the Department of Environmental Quality was able to issue stop work orders. I introduced Senate Bill 1265 to strengthen that law and give DEQ more authority when water quality standards are violated. It was clear over the past two years that too often DEQ did not have the ability to act. This bill has also passed the Senate and is now awaiting action in the House of Delegates.
Senate Bill 1273 would create the Behavioral Health Commission as a permanent vehicle for continued study of mental health issues. The bill is funded in the Senate budget and is working its way to the House.
It continues to be my honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of service. The best way to reach my office is by emailing [email protected] or by sending a letter to PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218. You may also call the Senate Message Center during normal business hours to relay your views on a specific bill by calling toll free (833) 617-1821. The staff answering the phones will relay the message to my office immediately. I look forward to hearing from you.
P.S. For more information on the budget, you can visit the websites of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, House Appropriations Committee, Department of Planning and Budget, or the The Commonwealth Institute.