It’s halftime at the General Assembly. With intense hours in committee meetings and marathon floor sessions behind us, Senate bills have “crossed over” to the House for consideration. Until we adjourn, the Senate will be taking a serious look at what the House of Delegates has sent over. A number of the bills will be companions to what has already passed out of the Senate and will include the good, the bad, and the ugly proposals that have made headlines this session.
You can watch Tuesday’s five hour session online, but here are a couple highlights of some of the more controversial measures we have acted upon.
Executive Branch Authority
SJ 295 passed the Senate on Tuesday along party lines. This is an unnecessary infringement by the General Assembly into the executive branch of our government. We are a part-time legislature, and some want to oversee the full-time executive branch. For example, if we tried to put in the same regulations that had us stop pouring oil and antifreeze down the drains that flowed to the Chesapeake, people would be screaming about government overreach. I’m not a fan of overregulation, but this went too far. We call it throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
School Suspension Reform
The Senate passed long term school suspension reform as well. Virginia currently defines long term suspension as any duration between eleven days and an entire year, but this will limit most cases to no more than sixty days. In 2016, there were more than 3,000 long term suspensions in VA with over 200 being elementary aged children. While I sympathize with our dedicated teachers and principals, I don’t see the merit in keeping elementary school kids out of class for weeks at a time. Often, these children are not supervised at home and what good can come from that? Indisputable evidence points to older students being more likely to get into additional trouble when they are serving an out of school suspension. Suspending students for longer than two months should require a written explanation. Kicking kids out of school leaves them with nowhere to go, and this measure will work to slow the school to prison pipeline.
Restoration of Rights
Last year, Governor McAuliffe restored the voting rights of thousands of Virginians. I think what Governor McAuliffe did was right. Some of my colleagues took exception to the move and brought suit against the Governor for exercising his constitutional power. 40 other states allow people to vote once they have done their time. Virginia has no parole and some of the strongest sentencing guidelines in the nation. SJ 223 would apply restrictions on whose rights can be restored by the Governor, without allowing for any automatic restoration of rights. Are we seeing a pattern here of the legislature thinking that the executive branch should be subordinate to it?
Modeling the Tea Party agenda, we continue to see discriminatory laws try to sneak through our legislature. SB 1324, which passed along party lines, states that “no person shall be required to participate in the solemnization of any marriage,” even though that is already covered under the First Amendment. Make no mistake, this overreaches and would legalize discrimination in many situations. This bill defines “person” as anyone or any organization that works under or with any religious affiliation. If a person ends up at a religious hospital, refusing to let a same sex spouse visit would be covered under this measure and the nurse or doctor would not be liable to a discrimination lawsuit. Freedom of religion is a basic principle of this country. We need to make sure Virginia does not put discrimination on the books.
It may not come as a surprise that the House of Delegates has dispatched with all redistricting reform bills introduced by its members. In general, I am for redistricting reform. I voted for SJ 231, which would create a redistricting commission to draw the lines after the next census, and SB 846, which would put in place interim measures for a redistricting commission in the case that the courts overturn district lines, as well as many other bills throughout the years. The other Senate redistricting bills failed to report out of Privileges and Elections, and I am not on that committee.
SJ 290 has no chance of getting through the House of Delegates once, let alone the constitutionally required two years with an election in between. There is a lawsuit before the courts specifically addressing the matter of compact and contiguous districts in the 2011 plan which we are currently operating under. The Department of Justice used a scoring system to define compact and contiguous, and in 2011 all 40 Senate districts were approved under this system. It has been the usual and customary practice of the legislature to avoid passing measures that are being litigated in the courts, and I stood by that protocol. Keep in mind, I voted for the other redistricting bills.
The United States Supreme Court also recently heard a case about the Alabama and Virginia state Houses packing minority voters into districts, diminishing traditionally Democratic districts as well as the influence of the minority community. The Court may release a decision next month. In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled some gerrymandering is constitutionally permissible, but not when that gerrymandering spills over into racial discrimination. This decision could force a lot of states to redraw their lines.
I have participated in three town halls in the last month. Each day my office receives hundreds of emails from our active district, and I am also fortunate to see hundreds of people in Richmond advocating for fiscal responsibility and sound public policy. I am grateful to represent the 35th Senate District and will keep you apprised of additional activities here from the General Assembly.