Column: The Pace in Richmond Quickens

Column: The Pace in Richmond Quickens

 With the excitement of move-in and the inauguration out of the way, the pace of the General Assembly is rapidly ramping up. New staffers from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration are circulating the halls with updated policy and agency contact sheets and committees are just beginning to receive “administration input” on legislation. With a new Speaker and new committee chairs, the House of Delegates took some time to begin hearing legislation, while the Senate began right away. After months of anticipation, the Republican agenda is becoming clear in Richmond. 

In the first meeting of the Privileges and Elections Committee, where I serve as Vice-Chair, we headed off and defeated early efforts aimed at limiting access to the ballot box on party line votes. One was a proposal from Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) to end same-day voter registration, something that has yet to even go into effect. Another bill introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) would have reinstated the unnecessary and sometimes onerous voter ID law. 

Just last November, due to changes made over the last several years, we held a safe and free gubernatorial election where more Virginians voted than ever, according to the Virginia Department of Elections Post Election Report. This “proved, once again, that elections can be administered in a way that guarantees access to the ballot, all while maintaining secure processes that ensure safe, secure, fair, and free elections.” 

In the Commerce and Labor Committee we heard another bill from Sen. Peake (R-Lynchburg) that would have canceled a scheduled increase in the Virginia minimum wage to $12.00 an hour on January 1, 2023. The minimum wage in 2020 was just $7.50 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. Thanks to legislation passed two years ago, it is now $11 an hour. Especially in Northern Virginia, the minimum wage has been too low for too long, forcing hard working neighbors into poverty, extended credit, and reducing access to the freedoms that home and vehicle ownership provide. I was glad to make the motion and vote to defeat this misguided piece of legislation. 

While there are legitimate policy debates to be had about the above proposals, we have also seen some truly off the wall bills. Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) offered a slew of anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-public health proposals. These bills, drawn from the darkest corners of the internet, would fine small business owners $10,000 if they required their employees to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine or wear a facemask to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. In a time of spiking infections especially among healthcare workers, children, and the unvaccinated, I was glad to vote down these proposals. I asked Sen. Chase directly, “If I’m a parent of an immunocompromised child, and I don’t want them to come into contact with COVID, would this allow another child who’s COVID-positive to possibly come in to school and sneeze on them without a mask?” Sen. Chase responded with a hemming non-answer, but the text of the bill was clear — it absolutely would. 

Two of my 25 bills have already passed out of the Senate. SB278 preserves electric vehicle charging stations for electric vehicles to ensure and expand access to charging infrastructure. SB286, which I introduced at the request of Alexandria City, allows localities to require homes purchased in local historic districts to have their properties surveyed to ensure homeowners know their exact property lines and reduce disputes with neighbors or the local government when additions or alterations are made to properties. 

With divided control among the two houses of the legislature, major policy actions will be more challenging to advance. However, an area where I look forward to making real wins for the 30th Senate District is through the budget. With a surplus of $2.6 billion — the largest in Virginia's history, and $800 million in American Rescue Plan Dollars still to be allocated, there are rare opportunities for historic investments. I have proposed amendments to former Gov. Ralph Northam’s introduced budget to alleviate economic strain on businesses and workers, preserve and maintain historic resources, and invest in outdated government infrastructure. 

I am working to include a tranche of federal relief dollars to create a hospitality and tourism industry COVID-relief program which would especially be of benefit to the hotels and restaurants which make up a large portion of the economic and social engine of the 30th District. I have also requested an additional forty million dollars for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund which supports the development and preservation of affordable housing. It is my hope that with these additional dollars we can invest more in the development of deeply affordable housing for the poorest and most at risk Virginians. Additionally, I requested $500,000 in state dollars to restore and preserve Douglass Memorial Cemetery in Alexandria — a historic African American cemetery in need of major restoration. I have also proposed funding to update ten Department of Corrections facilities across the state to install air conditioning. In this era of extreme weather events 5,600 inmates are currently without air conditioning. 

While there is a notable air of contention on many legislative proposals in the Capitol, I am hopeful that with a carefully cultivated budget surplus, there will still be a plethora of opportunities for bipartisan wins for Virginians. 

Please join Delegate Elizabeth Bennett Parker, Delegate Alfonzo Lopez, and me for a virtual Alexandria and Arlington Town Meeting on this Saturday, Jan. 29 at 10 am via this zoom link:

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