It took a lot of hard work and late nights, but the 2021 General Assembly session concluded its work for the year including the April 7 reconvene session. I want to bring you up to speed on everything that happened during the 2021 session. I know this is a long letter. Therefore, I have segmented it so you can read the portions that are of interest to you.
THE GOOD NEWS! I worked hard and passed 100% of my proposed legislation.
Here’s a quick snapshot of my successful House Bills (HB2027, 1873, 1874, 2059, 2060, & 2099):
HB2027: Requires no later than the 2024-2025 school year, each reading and mathematics SOL test in grades 3-8 no longer be a high-stakes end of year test and shifts our accountability system to a through-year growth diagnostic tool. Why do we want to replace the current SOLS with a through year growth model?
- High-Quality Growth Assessments for All: Will make sure that every school district has high-quality growth assessments. Currently, wealthier districts purchase high-quality growth assessment tools, while lower-income districts work with lower-quality tools or none at all.
- Cost Saving: Will save money for districts that currently purchase these assessment tools, money that can be used for other urgent needs.
- Better Data: Will expand the scope of current testing to test how far below or above grade level a student stands, not merely whether a student is at or below grade level. This improved data will allow teachers to shape individualized instruction for students who are struggling far below grade level and students who are soaring far past it.
- School officials and lawmakers will also be better informed to channel resources where they are most needed.
- Reduced Testing: Many school districts currently give growth assessments purchased on their own in addition to the high-stakes, end-of-year SOL exam. By lowering the stakes and streamlining growth and proficiency tests into one “Through Year” growth assessment model provided by the state, HB 2027 will allow districts to reduce overall testing.
- includes a cap on state testing that limits overall testing to 150% of the current time allotted to end-of-year SOLs. With this cap and the replacement of the current local growth assessments, time lost to testing will decrease.
- Recognizing Growth: Will make sure that the state recognizes and credits the hard work of students and teachers when measurable student growth occurs.
- Currently, a 5th-grade student who moves from a 1st-grade reading level to a 3rd-grade reading level—an incredible achievement for teacher and student—goes unrecognized by an end-of-the-year proficiency exam which would label such a student as failing.
- This shortcoming of the current test disproportionately affects low-income and minority schools, making teacher retention particularly difficult.
HB 1873: Eliminates the requirement that an injury occur before the age of 65 to constitute a brain injury. This expands health services to the elderly which is critical as those over 65 are most at risk for falls leading to traumatic brain injury.
HB1874: Requires that if a behavioral health screening of a person in a local or regional jail indicates that the person may have a mental illness, an assessment of his/her need for mental health services shall be conducted within 72 hours of the time of the screening if the person is in acute crisis or at risk of suicide. The bill also requires the State Board to review how to achieve a 72-hour assessment for all inmates not just those in acute crisis.
HB2059: Limits the Department of Taxation to requesting six-years of tax returns from taxpayers who have failed to file tax returns except where there is an indication that the taxpayer willfully failed to file or an indication of fraud. Today the Department can request returns as far back as 20 years and many taxpayers are unable to find aged records resulting in substantial fines and fees to the taxpayer. My bill limits the Department of Taxation to requesting six-years of tax returns which aligns with the Internal Revenue Service.
HB 2060: Directs the Department of Taxation to establish an online portal allowing tax practitioners holding a valid Power of Attorney for a taxpayer to access the taxpayer information. Covid revealed the necessity of additional online capabilities as many tax practitioners were trying to assist small businesses with PPP loans and were unable to quickly obtain state tax records because state employees were not in the office to provide assistance.
HB 2099: Protects individuals from deadbeat creditors and allows a debtor’s attorney or settlement agent to release a lien upon payment if the creditor fails to release it from the court records. Virginia gives creditors 20 years to hold a lien against an individual and many creditors stop doing business in Virginia or are unable to be located after 10 years. This bill reduces the lien period to 10 years and then allows the creditor to renew for 10 years.
Successful Budget Amendment for Higher Education cost savings for families!
It is important for Virginia’s colleges and universities to spend smarter before they spend even more and consider raising tuition. Which is why, last session, I introduced budget language that directed the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to develop a plan for implementing a statewide survey of institutional expenditures by program and academic discipline. This type of information would provide greater transparency and insight into college and university spending so that funds can be better allocated and aligned with state and university goals. Building the capacity for detailed cost reporting and analysis at our public institutions could help identify opportunities for greater, long-term cost reductions, effectiveness, and efficiencies in Virginia higher education.
This year I submitted a budget amendment to fund a pilot cost study and analysis at two contrasting Virginia universities to clearly demonstrate how the availability of detailed financial data at the program and department level can lead to a better use of university resources and state funding. I’m proud that my funding request for this pilot was included in the final budget! A win for families seeking affordable college tuition.
Here’s a general outline of significant issues the General Assembly tackled during 2021 and the outcome which contains a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly:
If the phone calls to my office are any guide, schools are the number one issue on people’s minds these days. That’s why I was proud to vote for Senate Bill 1303, known as the “Open the Schools” bill.
This legislation gives parents a real choice in education for their children. If parents aren’t ready to send their kids back to the classroom, they can continue in virtual school. But if they are, schools MUST give parents an option to have their kids back in class 5 days per week.
This isn’t a partisan issue. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing, as desperate parents seek help getting their kids back into the classroom after nearly a year of navigating virtual and hybrid learning.
Even though we weren’t as successful as we’d hoped in getting schools open, we did pass a budget that includes significant funding to help get our schools open safely. Systems that saw their enrollment drop because of COVID won’t get less money, and our teachers will get access to the vaccine as soon as possible.
It was also difficult to watch the majority kill a constitutional amendment requiring the state to provide equitable educational opportunities in our public schools.
The biggest thing any General Assembly does is pass a budget or series of budget amendments each year, and this session was no different.
The budget isn’t perfect, and it does contain some things that I wish weren’t included, but the bill does support certain critical priorities, such as raises for teachers and law enforcement officers. It also contains significant new spending to get Virginians vaccinated, supports small businesses dealing with shutdowns, and funding specifically set aside to help our schools reopen quickly and safely. The budget includes money for a 5% raise for teachers, state employees, college and university faculty and employees, and state-supported local employees, such as sheriff’s deputies. State police troopers will get an additional 3% raise, plus money for each year of service to prevent pay for veteran officers from lagging behind newly hired officers.
I submitted several budget amendments centered around K-12 funding; cost transparency in higher education; addiction recovery; funding for Hopewell historical resources; and the use of cost savings from less incarcerations because of criminal justice reforms for community-based substance abuse treatment programs. I am proud that two of my budget amendments were included in the final budget: (1) full funding of my SOL reform legislation (HB 2027); and (2) the higher education program transparency pilot that I referenced above.
Late in the session we learned truly corrupt actions have occurred at the Virginia Parole Board. A report by CBS 6 in Richmond uncovered a document from the Office of Inspector General that alleges falsification of records, altering of state records, and other potential crimes committed.
The reason? Apparently, the former chair of the board wanted to release more convicted killers onto the streets, and she was willing to break the rules — and allegedly the law — to do so. A bipartisan effort in the Senate is underway right now to investigate these allegations. We in the House have a responsibility to learn the truth.
The former Parole Board Chair in question is now a sitting judge. If these allegations are substantiated, the House has an obligation to act to restore trust in the justice system. I’m hopeful that all my colleagues will join a call for an investigation of these actions.
I’m sorry to report that the majority declined to take any real action to improve the situation at the Virginia Employment Commission. Since this pandemic began a year ago, hundreds of thousands of our neighbors have lost their jobs.
Unemployment insurance is there just for situations like this, but VEC has been so badly run that there are people still waiting for their first check some six months after having applied. That’s unconscionable, and despite the thousands of calls to our offices, the majority refused to put any pressure on the Governor to fix the problem.
The only bright spot is that the General Assembly voted to forgive any overpayments made to people who were waiting. In other words, if VEC made a mistake in your favor, you won’t have to pay it back.
I’m hopeful that in a few months, the shutdowns that have made this VEC fiasco possible will be gone, and we can all get back to work. But legislators have an obligation to ensure this never happens again. I won’t stop working on this issue until it’s fixed.
Fighting the COVID pandemic was another critical item on this year’s agenda, and I’m proud to say we made some significant progress. We voted to provide more funding to help small businesses struggling with shutdowns. We passed legislation that cuts red tape to get more qualified people giving vaccine shots as quickly as possible, and we included COVID-19 in the list of occupational illnesses for front line workers.
The budget also makes a major commitment to expanding broadband services in Virginia. While it likely won’t help in this pandemic, it will go a long way ensuring that, heaven forbid anything like this ever happens again, Virginia will be in a better situation to handle it.
Unfortunately, the House majority blocked efforts to get parents the help they need for their children during periods of virtual learning. My caucus sponsored the READ Fund, which would have used $100 million in Federal funding. Parents would have been able to use those funds to pay for tutoring, technology, homeschool curriculum and other things they needed to help their children succeed.
In another sea change, the General Assembly voted to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana. While opinions are split on whether or not this is a good idea, this legislation was so poorly and hastily written that it will undoubtedly need more work.
I support decriminalization of marijuana and other drug offenses as I believe people suffering from addiction need recovery assistance not a criminal record, and I am hopeful we move in the direction of having more supports in place to assist people with long term recovery. Our jails have been forced to serve as recovery centers because we do not have enough systems in place to assist with addiction outside of our criminal justice system. I am also mindful that many people believe adults should be able to use marijuana much like tobacco and alcohol. Decriminalization is very different from legalization. My concern is that the Commonwealth just decriminalized marijuana and are now looking to fast track legalization when there are huge public health and safety ramifications that have been seemingly ignored. The marijuana bill is the longest piece of legislation ever introduced with very little time for discussion, debate and improvement. Here are some of the statistics and facts from Colorado which legalized marijuana in 2013 that cause me great concern for the future of legalized marijuana in Virginia:
CANNABIS PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS:
- Hospitalizations per 100,000 linked to marijuana exposure:
2001-2009: 803 (8 years period) 2014-2015: 2,696 (1 year period)
- Emergency Room Visits In 2017, there were 21,769 emergency department visits and 16,614 hospitalizations in the state of Colorado related to marijuana (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2019). From 2010-2013 there were only 739 (3 year period before legalization).
- Poison Control Calls Involving Marijuana exposure2012: 110 (pre-legalization) 2014: 223 (1st year of legalization) The largest group to increase was in the 8 and younger category: 16 in 2012, increasing by 4 times in 2017 (64 reported). The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reported 266 marijuana-related exposures in 2018, 147 of which were youth cases (0-18 years old) (Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, 2019).
- Driver Impairment & Fatalities – A Colorado study found that a significant number of people screened for impaired driving were under the influence of marijuana. 59% of those who tested positive in the study were found to have high levels of THC in their system, at 5.0 or above (Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, 2019). In 2018, marijuana-impaired drivers were implicated in 18.2% of traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado, marking a 109% increase since legalization was implemented (Colorado Department of Transportation, 2019). Drugged driving killing someone went from 1 every 6.5 days to 1 every 2.5 days
- Impacts on Youth. Even though the sale of marijuana to people under the age of 21 is prohibited, marijuana companies still reach youth in “legal” states. Companies profit from products that resemble candy or cola, and come in flavors that appeal to young people. Marijuana social media marketing increased in “legal” states (Whitehill et. al., 2019). One study found young people who are exposed to marijuana marketing on social media are five times more likely to use marijuana (Trangenstein et. al., 2019). Past 30 day use of marijuana in Colorado runs 12% higher compared to U.S. average.
CANNABIS ILLEGAL MARKET: We’ve heard that legalization will stop illegal trade of marijuana, but this has not happened in Colorado or other states. In fact, 30 states have seized marijuana sourced from Colorado. After you purchase a license, set up a retail establishment and pay tax, it will be profitable for someone else to undercut the price. Just look at the illicit cigarette market. Bootlegging cigarettes is a billion dollar industry and people engage in it when there’s only a 2 to 3 percent difference in tax amongst states.
MYTH – CANNABIS WILL GENERATE REVENUE FOR THE STATE: For every dollar Colorado brings in in revenue, it spends $4.50 to mitigate the costs of legalization. What does this equate to in Cannabis Use Disorder Treatment? $31,448,905. In fact, tax revenue from marijuana accounts for less than one percent of state revenues where the drug is “legal.”
There are a lot of negative consequences to legalizing marijuana. In Colorado, 64% of the jurisdictions have banned both medical and recreational marijuana, but our General Assembly isn’t giving localities this right in Virginia. The legislation being rushed through the General Assembly isn’t what most people think of with being able to simply use marijuana – it is creating a new government-controlled industry much like ABC as a private-public monopoly, and it isn’t protecting our most vulnerable, our children and those who are at risk of becoming dependent because of addictive tendencies, from the inherent risks in allowing another vice to enter our communities.
As we expected, this was a tough year for pro-life Virginians. The majority voted to lift the ban on abortion coverage in insurance plans. While coverage is optional, I’m afraid that the removal of this ban will lead some companies to cover the practice. That will make for hard choices for those of us who don’t want our money being used to take innocent life.
The majority also blocked a pro-life measure often fought to be included in the budget — a provision that blocks the use of state money for abortion for anything other than that required by Federal law. Virginians should be able to pay taxes with a clear conscience, and the removal of this safeguard makes that much more difficult. Rest assured, we will continue to fight to restore this protection, hopefully in 2022 with a new majority.
One bright spot was the successful defense of the “Conscience Clause” for child placement agencies. This legislation protects religious organizations that work to place children for adoption. Otherwise, this measure would have been repealed, leaving far fewer placement agencies working to find permanent homes for foster children.
This was not a great session for the Second Amendment, but it could have been far worse. The General Assembly enacted a number of new restrictions on firearms, including a ban on firearms in state buildings and on Capitol Square. They also voted to ban firearms at polling places. I’d note that none of these have been a problem for law enforcement, and my office has yet to hear the first complaint about them.
They also enacted legislation that would give the State Police longer to deny a sale if a background check takes longer than 5 days. The new law would stretch that out to 7 days.
But it wasn’t all bad news. There was a bill introduced that would criminalize the popular hobby of manufacturing firearms at home. Under the bill, 3-D printed pistol lowers and home-machined metal 80 percent lowers would be illegal to buy, sell, or assemble into a firearm. So much time was spent fighting over the bill that Senate members killed the legislation out of spite toward their House counterparts.
The majority once again proved that their desire to stop gun violence is just window dressing for anti-gun actions. For the third session in a row, they killed legislation that would bring Project Ceasefire — a proven strategy to save lives in our cities that doesn’t involve gun control. Where it has been employed, urban shootings plummet and arrests fall markedly.
I heard your concerns about elections loud and clear. My colleagues introduced a number of bills to help restore faith in the system, including changing the way absentee ballots are reported. In 2020, more than half of voters in some areas cast their ballots early or via mail. Those ballots are counted last and reported in one group — making it look like a massive last-minute influx of voters were found.
Proposed legislation would have counted these ballots just like other votes, in their home precincts. That would end the “mirage” effect late on election night.
We also put forward legislation to match signatures on mail in ballots and bring back a real voter ID requirement. Predictably, the majority killed every one of these bills before they could even get to the floor for a vote.
Some issues of concern:
Curing Ballots – offering a cure up to three days after the election is too long. Having to track down and call each voter who makes a mistake on their ballot while also trying to conduct a post-election, canvass, prepare for and conduct a provisional ballot meeting, and complete the counting of absentee ballots stretches an already exhausted registrar’s staff to its limits. We suggested offering it up until Election Day but this was rejected.
Extended deadline for receiving ballots – This caused issues with the post office in the 2020 election and will continue to be a problem as this session did not address it. Our postal workers are amazing and work very hard to get ballots to the registrar’s office on time. However, with this new requirement, it raised a lot of questions about postmarks – for example in Chesterfield, the registrar’s office ended up having to consult the postmaster on a ballot that had a late postmark but had arrived before the postmark date, and then the electoral board had to vote whether or not to accept the ballot (which they did). This ends up giving the postmaster a role in determining ballot arrival times along with the registrar, which is an unintended consequence and results in precious time spent during an incredibly busy week for the registrar and her staff.
Same Day Voter Registration – There is currently a common practice of requiring that no pollbooks be connected to the internet (to prevent hacking). As a result, it would be difficult to verify voters on election day, and they would likely have to vote a provisional ballot, with their vote not counting until the voter could be verified and voted on by the electoral board. This would add significantly to the post-election week duties of the registrar’s office and lengthen the provisional ballot meeting (which was already 14 hours long in 2020).
Thank you again for the honor of being your voice in the House of Delegates. If I or my staff can ever be of service to you, please do not hesitate to reach out by email at email@example.com or by phone at 804-698-1062. We are here to help you.