It is difficult to write a session wrap-up letter when we have not yet wrapped-up. We remain in an extended Special Session, still arguing about the budget. That argument is driven almost exclusively by the question of whether to include Medicaid expansion in the budget. More on that later.
Though we are not done, I do want to continue my annual tradition of writing you around this time to give you my sense of the recent General Assembly session.
I have been telling audiences that nothing changed, but everything was different. How can that be? The basic arithmetic meant that at one level nothing changed: the Republicans held the majority (barely), giving them the Speakership and control of all committees, and thus control over which legislation made it to the floor. But with 19 new members (including 3 on the Republican side) everything was different—unprecedented numbers of women, and other historic firsts everywhere you turned: the first Latina immigrant, the first openly gay woman, the first transgender woman, a new Latino Caucus, and a record number of millennials. The House looks more like Virginia, and that translates into better debate, more and different perspectives, and better legislation.
2018 Legislative Package: I introduced legislation on a wide variety of subjects (you can see my entire list of bills at bit.ly/2018Sullivan), but my legislative package focused on several priorities I have been working on since coming to the House: renewable energy/energy efficiency, promoting voting rights, and reforming the redistricting process.
- Energy Efficiency: When I first joined the House of Delegates, little attention was being paid to the issue of energy efficiency in Virginia. I vividly recall presenting my first energy efficiency bill in committee. The Chairman looked at me and asked: “Delegate Sullivan, why should the power company be responsible for whether my children turn off the lights?” Needless to say, it did not go well for my bill that day. But I have continued to push the issue, pointing out to any legislator who would listen that improving our energy efficiency is the fastest and least expensive way to reduce our carbon emissions, and that while Virginia does have low electricity rates, we also have some of the highest electric bills in the country. Virginia lags far behind other states on energy efficiency, and I have been working hard to change that.
Though most of my energy efficiency bills were thwarted in subcommittee, the General Assembly did pass some of the most significant energy efficiency legislation that I have seen since I was elected. And one of my ideas was included. I have introduced bills every session to throw out the “Ratepayer Impact Measure” (RIM) test for energy efficiency projects. The RIM test has too often been used by the State Corporation Commission to reject energy efficiency programs. The Governor’s sweeping energy bills (HB 1558 and SB 966) were amended to, in effect, eliminate the RIM test. The final package also included $1 billion for energy efficiency efforts in the next decade, an historic advance for energy efficiency in Virginia. These are critical steps in pushing Virginia to be more energy efficient.
I was pleased to introduce HB 1451, which creates a pilot program to enable public schools that produce more energy than they consumer – like Arlington’s zero energy Discovery School – to credit the value of the energy it returns to the grid to other public schools in Arlington. Dominion will literally write a check to the Arlington Public Schools. I was pleased to champion this bill, which had – and this is unusual – the support of the Sierra Club, other environmental organizations, and Dominion. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously, and has been signed into law by the Governor.
Another bill I reintroduced, HB 560, would create the Virginia Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund to provide loans to localities and school divisions for energy conservation or efficiency projects. Unlike previous years, a Republican Senator introduced an identical Senate version, which passed the full Senate and the House Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously. The full House, unfortunately, failed to act on it.
- Promoting Voting Rights: I have pushed every session for legislation that will make it easier to vote. This year I tried yet again to pass a bill that would allow Virginia students who attend out-of-state colleges to use their college photo ID to vote. Under currently law only students who attend Virginia colleges can use their ID. Virginians who work out-of-state, however, can use their out-of-state employer ID. This creates an unintended anomaly: an American University professor, for instance, can use his or her AU faculty ID to vote in Virginia, but an AU student cannot use an AU student ID. Unfortunately, the bill died again, on a party line vote.
I also introduced a bill to expand our early voting system in Virginia by allowing no-excuse early absentee voting. I believe that democracy is strongest when more people participate in the voting process, and expanding early voting would encourage more people to make their voices heard. It, too, unfortunately died in another early morning subcommittee meeting.
- Reforming the redistricting process: Redistricting reform has been a priority of mine for years, and I introduced several bills that would help Virginia roll back partisan gerrymandering. HB 205, for example, would have laid out specific criteria by which the General Assembly would draw legislative and congressional district maps if the current map is found to be unconstitutional by the federal court currently considering the question in a case named Bethune-Hill. Importantly, the bill would forbid the use of political data. It is possible we will have to redraw several districts – and hold special elections – this year. In that event, HB 205 would provide us with a path forward. The bill was tabled indefinitely (killed) 4-2, but I will not stop fighting for redistricting reform until we have district maps that empower voters, not silence them.
- Nurse Practitioners Bill: A bill I copatroned (HB 793) and worked closely on with its chief patron, Delegate Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield), passed the House and the Senate with overwhelming majorities. The bill lifts unnecessary restrictions on Nurse Practitioners, and allows them to practice to the full extent of their training. We will attract and retain more NPs, who will help increase access to health care across the Commonwealth.
- Metro Funding Bill: I carried the Governor’s bill to fund Metro this year, and worked very hard to ensure that Virginia stepped up to provide its portion of the $500 million in dedicated funding necessary to allow Metro to improve safety and reliability. Metro is both a critical piece of transportation infrastructure in Northern Virginia and a major economic driver for the entire Commonwealth. As a conferee on the final Metro funding bill, I understood that failure was not an option. I am happy to say that the General Assembly passed an historic bill to provide Virginia’s piece of the Metro pie – $154 million – thereby pressuring DC and Maryland to do their parts.
On the last day of session, as we were debating how to cobble together the funding for Metro, there was a party-line split on which mechanism to use. While a funding plan passed that was different than what the Governor and I (and a bipartisan majority of the Senate and the entire House Democratic Caucus) wanted, we have still made history by finally providing a dedicated funding stream for Metro.
- Swim Clubs Bill: HB 1520 became known euphemistically as my “BYOB” bill. It was signed into law by Governor Northam on March 5, with plenty of time to go before swim season! Virginia neighborhood swim clubs have a longstanding tradition of members bringing a picnic dinner, perhaps including a beer or a bottle of wine. For decades, community swim club members throughout Virginia believed they were well within the law. But it was recently discovered that they – and I – had been breaking the law the whole time, putting the Clubs’ volunteer Board members in a difficult position. When a club in my district brought the issue to my attention, we went to work. The problem has now been solved, and I for one cannot wait to try out this newly legal activity.
Gun Safety: I want to separate gun safety from the rest of my legislative agenda in this newsletter for a number of reasons. First, I know how important this topic is to the 48th District – I have received hundreds of communications from constituents about it. I have also watched proudly as hundreds of students in the district have participated in well-organized, peaceful marches for gun safety. Second, this issue is extremely urgent. Inaction risks lives. And third, I want to assure you that despite this session’s setbacks, I and a number of my colleagues are pushing hard for change.
- HB 198: One of the first bills I introduced this session, HB 198, would create a “risk warrant” in Virginia. The idea is known in other states as an Extreme Risk Protection Order or a Gun Violence Restraining Order. It has become widely referred to in the media as a “Red Flag” bill. Risk warrants provide law enforcement with a tool to stop gun violence before it happens. The bill would allow law enforcement to petition a judge to issue a risk warrant, requiring the removal of a person’s firearms temporarily if concerned family or friends have convinced the Court – meeting a high standard of proof – that someone “poses a substantial risk of personal injury to himself or others in the near future.” Within 14 days, the Court would hold a full hearing, ensuring there is full due process and protection of 2nd Amendment rights. This bill will stop gun violence inflicted on others, and curb our suicide epidemic. Most Virginians who take their own lives do so using a gun, and the firearm suicide rate in Virginia has been higher than the national rate over the last ten years. HB 198 would enable the safe removal of firearms from someone who is clearly suicidal so that he or she can hopefully seek treatment.
HB 198 can and will save lives.
I spoke about HB 198 at a gun safety press conference I led at the beginning of session – you can view this video at bit.ly/JanuaryPressConference. Unfortunately, HB 198 never even received a subcommittee assignment, let alone a hearing. Suicide prevention advocates, gun safety supporters, gun violence survivors, and family members of those slain by firearms never got a chance to join in this important and pressing conversation. By denying HB 198 a hearing, the House leadership attempted to silence Virginians. Despite their best efforts, though, we are continuing to fight for gun safety in the Commonwealth.
- Parkland: On February 14, 2018, seventeen people were murdered in Parkland, Florida by a deeply disturbed teenager. It was heartbreaking to hear Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel reveal that police had uncovered “approximately 20 calls for service over the last few years regarding the killer.” But police could not do anything to remove his legally purchased cache of weapons, even temporarily. There was no legal mechanism to take his guns. Sheriff Israel urged lawmakers to act immediately to allow police to intervene and prevent shootings before they happen. “People are going to be rightfully concerned about their rights – as am I,” he said. “But what about these students? What about the rights of young kids who go to schools?”
- Related Legislation in Florida: Following the Parkland shooting, a number of prominent conservatives embraced the idea at the core of HB 198, including Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio, and Florida Governor Rick Scott. There was widespread acknowledgement that bills like HB 198 could stop preventable tragedies like Parkland. On March 9th, 2018, Governor Scott signed a version of HB 198 into law creating Violent Threat Restraining Orders in Florida. Since then, Vermont and Maryland have done the same. We ran out of time this session in Virginia, as House leadership declined to bring up HB 198 after Parkland. I will be back.
- Other Gun Safety Measures: Dozens of common-sense gun safety bills were unceremoniously killed in subcommittee, while the majority instead considered bills that would allow guns in places of worship (HB 1180), allow concealed carry permits to be applied for by mail (HB 1398), and grant non-Virginians de facto concealed handgun permits if their applications are not completed within a shortened time frame (HB 681). Even a very reasonable, straightforward ban on guns in the House gallery – a rule already adopted by our Senate counterparts – that was introduced by Delegate Kathleen Murphy failed in the House of Delegates.
Power of 49: As I mentioned, the 2018 session seemed similar to previous sessions at first glance – Democrats were still in the minority, after all – but if you scratch at it a bit, you can get a glimpse of how very different this year was.
- No Veto Bait: Republicans brought fewer bills to the floor that they knew would be vetoed by the Governor. We didn’t see bills on abortion bans, for example, and the majority actually pulled a bill from the floor that would have allowed guns in places of worship. Incidences of the majority pushing through highly partisan bills for the purpose of scoring political points were few and far between, making this session feel more bipartisan, even if the parties are still far apart on many issues.
- Energy Bill: In a big win for Democrats and pro-environment activists, Minority Leader David Toscano’s amendment to the rate-freeze repeal bill, HB 1558, was adopted on the House floor. The amendment prevents utilities from “double-dipping.” Six Republicans joined all 49 Democrats to support the amendment, creating an important check on utilities that likely never would have passed in previous sessions. It was one of the important demonstrations of the power of our 49 during the session. Dominion is not accustomed to losing votes like that.
The final energy bill, while not perfect, reflects the changing dynamics in the General Assembly. The bill includes, for example, requirements that utilities invest significantly in renewable energy sources, provides $1 billion for energy efficiency over the next decade, and refunds $200 million to customers—none of which would happen under the status quo.
Felony Larceny Threshold: In a truly bipartisan moment, an agreement was struck this session to raise the felony larceny threshold in Virginia from $200 to $500. This will mark the first time the threshold has been raised since 1980.
- Medicaid Expansion: Surely the most significant moment of the session was the passage of the House budget, which included expansion of the Medicaid program in Virginia. Medicaid expansion is widely popular in the Commonwealth, but ideological reasons had prevented the majority from acting on this fiscally smart, socially responsible issue. After November’s elections, however, it appears that several Republican lawmakers listened to voters and finally acknowledged that the time for expansion is now. As I write this, I am hopeful that a way forward on Medicaid expansion will be included in our final budget. You can read an article I wrote on the issue at bit.ly/MedicaidExpansion18.
I thank you for reading this far! Please know that I will continue to fight for the issues that matter to my constituents in the 48th district, including the environment, energy efficiency, voting rights, gun safety, and redistricting reform.
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Delegate Rip Sullivan
48th District of Virginia