Column: Measuring Performance by Deeds Not Words in Arlington

Column: Measuring Performance by Deeds Not Words in Arlington

The Virginia General Assembly gaveled into session on Wednesday, Jan. 12 with a new House majority, and Saturday saw a political change in all three statewide offices: Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. The Executive branch in Virginia holds vast authority over the structure and direction of our government — including the appointment of cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries, all agency heads, and 3,300 board and commission members, strong veto powers, and the ability to choose how to enforce and enact many of our laws and regulations. The weight of gubernatorial power is hefty in Virginia, and vested with a Constitutionally mandated single four-year-term, must be mastered and wielded quickly if an Administration is to successfully accomplish the promises made on the campaign trail. 

A newcomer to Virginia government and politics, Glenn Youngkin began that process on Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Capitol in Richmond when he was inaugurated as our 74th Governor. The weather on Saturday was a frigid 30 degrees and was followed on Sunday with an icy winter storm. Whether that signals a slippery start for Governor Youngkin is yet to be seen, but, as for any new governor, the learning curve is steep and the stakes high for their upcoming term. I will work hard to find areas where we find common interests, and think we will be able to agree on many things, particularly on much needed increases to school funding, systemic improvements at the Virginia Employment Commission, and support for our veteran community. 

I was heartened by the unifying and optimistic themes Governor Youngkin outlined in his inaugural speech. However, I will be measuring Youngkin’s performance by deeds, not words. 

Just hours after his inclusive address, the Governor signed eleven divisive executive orders including attempts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, banning local authority to mandate the wearing of facemasks for students' health in schools, and withdrawing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which caps carbon outputs and provides much needed flooding resiliency funding to our community. These actions are in direct violation to our Commonwealth’s laws and the principle of separation of powers, and a sharp about face from the lofty rhetoric of his swearing in. 

In fact, Article VIII of the Virginia Constitution vests the power to set curricula with the Board of Education, so the banning of critical race theory, a topic that has never been taught in our K-12 schools, is both unconstitutional and unproductive to improving public education. Under Virginia law local school boards must adhere to CDC guidance, which recommends the wearing of masks in schools to protect those not yet vaccinated. The Executive does not rule by fiat in Virginia. 

Where necessary, I plan to provide a wake up call for proposals dangerous to our common safety, prosperity, and welfare. On climate change, any proposals to divert public education dollars from public schools, and attacks on reproductive rights, however, the Democratic Senate majority will serve as a firewall against the forces of short sighted partisan policies. 

Challenges are coming — for sure — especially with a new House majority and new Speaker at the dais. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) took the gavel on Wednesday with a slim (52-48) majority. With differing parties controlling each house of the legislature, the number of bills passed and signed may winnow from the close to 2,000 we passed in 2020 down to the hundreds. The reconciliation of the proposed two-year budget will be more contentious and prolonged than it has been in recent years, when one party held power over the “Money Committees”  in each body. But among the strife and bustle of session, I look forward to continuing representing the 30th Senate District’s interests in committees and on the floor. 

Already I have heard from hundreds of constituents who are vehemently opposed to the cabinet nomination of former President Trump’s EPA director Andrew Wheeler as the next Secretary of Natural Resources. A former coal lobbyist, Wheeler used his federal authority to undermine years of bipartisan environmental progress. In his first year as the EPA Administrator, Wheeler worked to restrict the use of scientific data in agency rule-making, rolled back federal efforts to clean up coal ash, reversed Clean Water Act protections, ignored EPA scientists' calls to ban asbestos, weakened a rule to cut the potent greenhouse gas methane, and blocked efforts to cut vehicle emissions and advance fuel efficiency. He is an untenable choice to oversee our shrinking natural resources — which I have been glad to work to safeguard throughout my career. In my 18 years in the Assembly I have never voted against a Governor’s cabinet pick — Democratic or Republican. 

Unfortunately, I expect that streak to end this session. 

The outset of a new session is always an exciting and uncertain time. The beginning of a new administration even more so. Even before the official start of session on Jan. 12, things seemed to be moving at a breakneck pace. Monday the 10th saw the final meeting of the Cannabis Oversight Commission, which I chair. During that meeting, we recommended expediting sales to Jan. 1, 2023 through the existing medical cannabis providers and several industrial hemp manufacturers to ensure we can supply the market and begin to reduce unregulated, illicit sales, and received a report from the Department of Corrections on persons still incarcerated for multiple offenses which include cannabis felonies. Afterwards, I attended a meeting of the Senate Finance and Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Resources where we discussed critically needed funding for a number of healthcare services which we will address through the budget this year. 

The next day I had another flurry of meetings with public defenders from Justice Forward, a group of brewery owners, and the Virginia Credit Unions before several hours of meetings with my Senate colleagues and staff to finalize the legislation I plan to introduce this year. 

If you have thoughts on legislation which will be before me over the next two months, please email my office at Due to the spike in cases caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19, I am attempting to take as many meetings as feasible virtually, which I hope will protect all of our safety and increase the ability for constituents to access my office without trekking down I-95 to Richmond. 

Please join local colleagues and me at an upcoming Virtual Town Meeting Saturday, Jan. 22, at 1 p.m. for the Mount Vernon and Lee Delegation

Delegates Elizabeth Bennett Parker and Alfonso Lopez for an Alexandria and Arlington Town Hall on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 10 a.m.