Opinion: Commentary: Extra Innings

Opinion: Commentary: Extra Innings

New Democratic majority has worked toward creating a more equitable and forward-thinking Commonwealth.

As seems appropriate for a legislative session that has seen more post-midnight adjournments than any in recent memory, the General Assembly went into overtime. On Thursday, March 6th, as the rest of the country started its Friday, the clocks were striking 13 in the Virginia State Capitol, to allow the House and Senate to complete work on our dockets. With the legislature scheduled to adjourn sine die on Saturday, March 7th, the session was extended through Sunday, March 8th to complete work on all legislation with the exception of the budget. The session won’t officially end until Thursday when we are slated to pass the biennial budget.

There are several reasons for the long session:

First, budget years are complex. The General Assembly has just fifteen additional days to review and amend a two-year, $130 billion plus allocation of transportation, education, healthcare, and vital government services funds. For the first time, I've held a major role in the granular decisions of the budget as a member of the Senate Finance and Appropriation, and I am proud that the final budget contains a number of progressive provisions.

Second, this year, members more frequently turned to the camera to speak at length to a social media audience and a polarized electorate, rather than to each other, extending both committee hearings and floor sessions. Each long floor and committee session meant less time for meetings with staff and advocates to workshop legislation, for constituent meetings, and crucially, less time for the finance committee to meet to hammer out the budget.

The third reason we find ourselves in extra innings however, is a positive one. In a body, where adherence to the incremental approach “the Virginia Way” can result in a slow--sometimes glacial--rate of progress, the sea change brought about by the 2019 elections has resulted in long-awaited advancements for Virginians. Addressing this pent-up demand has meant tackling many more challenging issues in detail than in past years, and this has taken up significant amounts of time, including decisions on raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, and collective bargaining made in the final days of the session.

Here are just a few examples of work, years in the making, that was accomplished in the last 60 days:

With the passage of the Virginia Values Act, that I introduced (sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) in the House) LGBT Virginians will have meaningful protection against discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and access to credit.

We are taking meaningful action to prevent gun violence and gun trafficking including implementing universal background checks, reinstating the one-handgun-a-month law, and “Red Flag Laws” to prevent suicides and lower mass shooting risks.

Elections will be more equitable and secure, with funding to replace Virginia’s aging voter registration database software by 2022. No-excuse early voting will be available to all registered voters 45 days prior to an election, and, starting in 2022, same-day voter registration will be enacted. Restrictive voter ID laws have also been struck from our code, and Election Day has replaced Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.

Landmark transportation legislation will restore $50 million in regional transportation funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, and bring about the largest expansions of passenger rail in Virginia history, adding an additional rail bridge across the Potomac, expanding VRE and doubling Amtrak passenger rail service between DC and Richmond.

Virginia’s working class will see a minimum wage increase of 31% effective Jan 1. 2021, $12 an hour by 2023, and a path to $15 an hour indexed to the consumer price index by 2026. At the request of several constituents, I worked with other Northern Virginia legislators to exempt participants in the international au pair program — ensuring a program which grows cultural understanding and affords many of my constituents affordable child care can continue to thrive.

Other support for working people includes protection against wage theft, collective bargaining rights, and the ability for local and state governments to enter into project labor agreements to ensure worker protections and high-quality work.

Steps to advance criminal justice reform include marijuana decriminalization; increasing the felony larceny threshold to $1,000; and ending suspension of driver’s licenses over court fines and fees.

In healthcare advancements, insulin has been capped at $50 a month through insurance plans, and the practice of surprise “balance” billing has been ended.

Undocumented immigrants will be provided driver’s privilege cards, and DACA-recipients will now be eligible for in-state tuition.

In an effort to address Virginia’s affordable housing crisis, we have increased funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund by $60 million and enacted an eviction diversion program.

It is hard to overstate what the new Democratic majority has done toward creating a more equitable and forward-thinking Commonwealth. Though we might have lost a lot of sleep over the past 60-days, it’s been worth it to see Virginia waking up from history.

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.