This may have been the longest “short” session I have experienced as a Delegate – 46 days felt more like a year – and there were exciting highs and frustrating lows. Frankly, I ran out of adjectives to describe the session, but finally settled on “heartbreaking” and “surreal.” The turbulence that engulfed us was distracting to say the least, but we focused on doing our job. I am not going to address the controversies surrounding the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General in this newsletter. I am happy to respond to calls, emails, or letters about the subject, but I want to focus this report to you on the legislative portion of the 2019 General Assembly session.
2019 Legislative Package: In a short session we are limited to 15 bills per Delegate. Many of mine are outlined below. My areas of focus from my first day in the General Assembly have been the environment, renewable energy and energy efficiency, redistricting reform, voting rights, equality, and gun safety. This session was no different, and I am pleased to report that the General Assembly made real progress on several of these key issues. To view all of the bills I introduced this session, visit bit.ly/2019SullivanBills. To view my voting record, or that of any Delegate or Senator, visit bit.ly/2019VotingRecords.
- Media Literacy: There is an old saying in the General Assembly: never fall in love with your own bill. But I have a soft spot in my heart for HB1978, which creates a Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council within the Department of Education. Too often parents hear their kids claim “It’s true, I read it online!” In today’s world, our kids have easy and quick access to all of the content that the internet has to offer - fact and fiction - through an unprecedented number of devices. With this potential, however, comes the challenge to separate rumor from reality. Unfortunately, studies show that our schools are not adequately preparing our students to be able to glean the difference.
In fact, a 2016 Stanford study found that "when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, [students] are easily duped." The study's lead author noted that "[m]any people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true." Our schools can and should be doing more to address this ever-growing problem.
The Council will advance the goals of safe, ethical, and responsible use of media and technology by students in Virginia's public elementary and secondary schools. The Council would comprise teachers, librarians, parents, school administrators, and professionals with expertise in related fields. It would develop model policies for local school boards, model instructional practices for public elementary and secondary schools, and would make relevant resources available online.
The Department of Education indicated that it needed no additional funds to convene the Council. Yet though the bill had no fiscal impact, it was still referred to a House Appropriations subcommittee, where the Chairman noted that the Council could be accomplished without legislation. So I wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Atif Qarni urging him to create the Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council. I look forward to working with his office to make this happen. It’s important for our kids. You can read my letter at bit.ly/AtifQarni.
- Gun Safety: You may have heard about “red flag laws” in the last year or so. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, politicians from both parties, including even Donald Trump, advocated for this overdue, life-saving policy. The President’s School Safety Commission urged states to pass them, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr opined in his confirmation hearing that red flag laws are the "single most important thing we can do in the gun control area."
Also called “Gun Violence Restraining Orders” or “Extreme Risk Protective Orders,” these laws – which have been successfully enacted in numerous states – would enable law enforcement to remove firearms from an individual found by a judge to be at immediate risk of harming himself or others. The bill provides plenty of due process and Second Amendment protections. Red flag laws have been shown to reduce suicide rates and have been used, for example, to remove weapons from the home of a potential school shooter in Vermont just a few months ago.
Too often, family and friends know that someone with a gun is at imminent risk of harming himself or others, but in states like Virginia the police can do nothing. If someone sees something and says something – like we’re so often asked to do – our law enforcement officials should be able to do something.
For the third year in a row I introduced a bill that would bring this gun safety law to Virginia. The bill would create a judicial process through which law enforcement could petition a judge to prohibit an individual found to be at substantial risk of harming himself or others from purchasing, possessing, or transporting firearms. At the subcommittee hearing, members heard testimony from the bill’s many supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, the head of the Law Enforcement Sheriffs Association, and a woman who survived being shot multiple times by her husband and testified that a bill like HB1763 would have prevented the tragedy.
Like another bill I introduced, HB2244, which would have taken guns away from those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes, HB1763 was defeated along party lines in subcommittee. I will continue – undaunted– to work with stakeholders until we pass HB1763 in Virginia.
- Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Since my first day in office I have carved out a spot for myself as the resident House of Delegates energy efficiency and renewables nerd. As the Co-Chair of the Virginia Environment and Renewable Energy Caucus, I work hard every session to advance the conversation on these key issues, wonky as they often are.
I introduced several energy-related bills this session, including one (HB2500) that would create a mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) for electric utilities and another (HB2243) that would create the Virginia Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund to provide no-interest loans to any locality, school division, or public institution of high education for energy conservation or efficiency projects. Many of my energy bills did not make it past the subcommittee level, but I had a few significant successes that bode well for the future of energy efficiency and renewable energy in Virginia.
Both HB2293, which will allow more input from energy efficiency experts in how utilities' energy efficiency efforts are planned and conducted, and HB2292, which will make important changes to enhance transparency in the State Corporation Commission’s energy efficiency efforts, are now law. These bills represent meaningful steps in promoting energy efficiency and I am hopeful that we can achieve even more for Virginia moving forward.
I also introduced HB2692 to enable multifamily residential buildings to use renewable energy generated on-site. My bill was ultimately rolled into SB1769, which passed the General Assembly and will require utilities to join in a stakeholder group to make recommendations as to how we can better facilitate the distribution of on-site-generated renewable energy in multifamily dwellings.
One other bright (no pun intended) spot of this session was passage of a bill I was proud to copatron, HB2789. This legislation requires Dominion and Appalachian Power to seek approval for a three-year energy conservation program to provide incentives to low-income, elderly, and individuals with disabilities – in an amount no less than $25 million – for the installation of measures that both reduce the costs of residential heating and cooling and enhance residents’ health and safety.
- Hate Crimes: I introduced two bills related to hate crimes. First, HB2244 would prohibit anyone convicted of committing a hate crime from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm for a minimum of two years. Currently, only those who have committed a felony hate crime lose their weapons. Unfortunately, the bill died in a party-line vote in subcommittee.
Second, I reintroduced a bill I have been pushing for years in the House of Delegates. With hate crimes on the rise in Virginia according to FBI data, we need this bill more than ever so that we have a more accurate picture of the problem here in the Commonwealth. Specifically, HB1976 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to our state hate crimes reporting statute. The bill – see if you detect a pattern – was killed on a party line vote, but I am determined to pursue both bills again next year.
- Voting Rights: I have worked every year to pass legislation making it easier to vote in Virginia. This year I tried again to pass HB1977, which would allow Virginia students who attend out-of-state colleges to use their school photo ID to vote. Under current law only students who attend Virginia colleges can use their ID. Virginians who work out-of-state, on the other hand, can use their out-of-state employer identification. This creates an unintended quirk in the system: an American University (AU) professor, for instance, can use her AU faculty ID to vote, but an AU student cannot use her AU student ID. Unfortunately, the bill died again this year on a party line vote.
I also introduced HB2709 to expand our early voting system in Virginia by allowing 21 days of no-excuse early voting. I believe that democracy is strongest when more people vote, and expanding early voting would encourage more Virginians to make their voices heard. It would also make our elections more secure.
It died in yet another early morning subcommittee meeting. But HB2709 helped move the conversation forward, and we were able to convince members of the majority to support legislation that takes a large, meaningful step in the right direction. The bipartisan bill, HB2790, will allow all Virginia voters to cast absentee in-person ballots – without excuse – in the 10 days preceding Election Day beginning with the 2020 elections.
- Jacob’s Law: The bill I am perhaps most proud of passing this session is HB1979, also known as Jacob’s Law. The bill is named for a young boy – who was born via surrogacy in another state – whose fathers, two of my constituents, endured an excruciatingly difficult path to becoming his legal parents. Until Jacob’s Law passed, our surrogacy statute in Virginia had become woefully out of date, making it immensely difficult for any couple – and particularly same-sex couples and individuals – to start or grow their family via surrogacy. Jacob’s Law updates Virginia’s surrogacy law to streamline the process and eliminate unnecessary barriers so that all families can thrive in the Commonwealth.
Passing this bill as a member of the minority party was a heavy lift to be sure, but it was well worth it. Jacob’s Law is the most significant LGBT rights bill to pass in Virginia in years. The Commonwealth must work toward becoming a more equitable and welcoming place for LGBT Virginians. Jacob’s Law shows that we are on the right path.
2019 Session General Updates: No issue was off the table this year – we debated bills ranging from tax reform to the ERA to the environment and everything in between. Some of the bills that stand out are below. For a comprehensive list of all of the bills that passed the General Assembly and were signed by the Governor, visit tinyurl.com/2019VALegislation.
- Taxes: Typically, the first action the General Assembly takes every session is to conform Virginia’s tax code to the federal code. It is usually a bipartisan, routine step, but this year there was heated debate around the issue of conformity. I spoke multiple times on the floor urging my colleagues to pass “clean” conformity so that Virginians could begin filing their taxes on time and the Tax Department could begin processing them.
It took far too long but – eventually – we did pass a bill conforming the Commonwealth’s tax code to the federal code. Conformity accompanied a larger tax reform deal which will, among other things, provide refunds to Virginia taxpayers through a one-time refund on 2018 taxes and a 50 percent increase in the state standard deduction through 2025.
- Budget: In Virginia we pass budgets on a biennial basis but frequently amend them to reflect emerging challenges and opportunities. This year we worked overtime – literally – to pass a bipartisan compromise to amend last year’s budget. Some education-related highlights in the budget include a five percent raise for public school teachers, an increase in funding for K-12 education, increased support for schools with a high concentration of students living in poverty, more money for full-time school counselors, and incentives to establish tuition freezes at Virginia colleges and universities.
The budget also includes an increase in Medicaid primary care and emergency room physician rates, which will help to address Virginia’s provider shortage, an increase in funding for water quality improvement projects, a one-year extension of jail mental health pilot programs, and increased funding for permanent supportive housing.
- Amazon: The budget includes the Major Headquarters Workforce Grant Fund and authorizes bonds for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia. These are part of the agreement to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to Crystal City. It is worth noting that Amazon will receive no cash incentives until it creates a specified number of jobs and begins to generate income tax revenue. Other parts of the agreement, like improvements to transportation infrastructure, more STEM higher education funding, and increased investments in affordable housing, are also included in the budget and will benefit all Northern Virginia residents. For example, since housing will be a challenge that must be addressed with Amazon’s arrival – which will be gradual over the course of a decade – Virginia will invest significantly more in its Housing Trust Fund.
- Curbing Evictions: Last year the Virginia Housing Commission began studying ways to reduce the number of people facing eviction in the Commonwealth. Based on its recommendations, the General Assembly passed several significant bills on a bipartisan basis aimed at alleviating this serious problem.
For example, new legislation (HB1898, SB1445, SB1448) will afford low-income Virginians additional opportunities to pay outstanding rent or fees before an eviction takes place. Another (HB1922, SB1627) will reduce the timeline for a tenant to receive a hearing in an eviction proceeding and reduce the number of legal actions a landlord can file against a tenant. Housing will undoubtedly continue to challenge Virginians, and we will continue working hard in Richmond for a more fair and equitable system.
- Equal Rights Amendment: I copatroned the ERA again this year and spent much of the session working on it with constituents, activists, and colleagues. If Virginia had passed the ERA, it would have become the 38th state to ratify the amendment, thereby meeting the U.S. Constitution’s threshold for federal approval. Unfortunately, the ERA failed to pass despite widespread grassroots support and several creative procedural efforts to bring the amendment to the floor. Supporters of the ERA – including me – will not take no for an answer and we will certainly be back.
- Foster Care Reform: Another bright spot this session was our overhaul of Virginia’s troubled foster care system based on recommendations from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. The budget creates a position within the Department of Social Services to oversee the health and safety of children in foster care and boosts funding for oversight and case management-related staff. Several other bills also passed on bipartisan votes that will, for example, promote placement of foster children with relatives and limit the caseloads of caseworkers.
- Redistricting Reform: One of the most significant pieces of legislation to pass this session was a resolution, SJ306, that will help end gerrymandering in Virginia. I have introduced measures in previous sessions to require Virginia to adopt nonpartisan redistricting reform and will continue to support the effort to take partisanship out of the redistricting process.
The resolution would amend the Virginia Constitution to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission, which would draw our General Assembly and federal House of Representatives district lines. Eight of the Commissioners would be state legislators, divided evenly between the majority and minorities parties and between the two chambers. The remaining eight would be citizens selected by the Redistricting Commission Selection Committee, which would be composed of five retired Circuit Court judges. A citizen member of the Commission must be its Chair.
Any proposed plan would have to be approved on a strongly bipartisan basis before going to the General Assembly for a vote. Most importantly, no plan can be approved unless a majority of the citizen members of the Commission agree. The General Assembly would take an up or down vote – it cannot amend the plan. If the General Assembly fails twice to pass the Commission's proposals or the Commission fails to submit a plan to the General Assembly, the Supreme Court of Virginia would draw the lines.
For the Virginia Constitution to be amended, this resolution must pass the General Assembly again in 2020, and then be voted on by the public as a referendum during the November 2020 election. While this proposed amendment is not perfect, it represents a seismic positive shift in the conversation about redistricting reform and the need for fairer maps, an issue I have championed since I joined the General Assembly.
I know this update is too long, and 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.
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Delegate Rip Sullivan
48th District of Virginia