Please find below Delegate Rip Sullivan's wrap-up newsletter for the 2017 session of the General Assembly:
The General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session came and went with relatively little drama. As I prepared to write this session wrap-up letter, I considered whether there was an overriding theme to this session. The 2015 session was defined by Dominion’s rate freeze bill. The fight over the Justice Roush nomination dominated the 2016 session, and the debate over Medicaid expansion hovered over both. This session was a bit like being in the eye of a hurricane: the skies were surprisingly calm and clear, but a strong storm 100 miles north of Richmond – in Washington – swirled around us the entire time.
2017 Legislative Package: I introduced legislation in a wide variety of areas (you can see my entire list of bills at http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?171+mbr+H269C), but my legislative package focused on three topics I believe are vital to the Commonwealth’s future: redistricting reform, voting rights, and energy.
- Redistricting Reform: I introduced a constitutional amendment that would have required that nonpartisan criteria be used when drawing legislative maps. I have long believed that voters should choose their elected officials, not the other away around. It is tempting—and politically effective—to surgically draw districts that make reelection for incumbents all but a certainty, and frankly both parties have abused the redistricting process. That has to stop.
My bill—along with a number of other redistricting reform bills—would have died a quiet, unceremonious death if redistricting reform had not become one of the hottest issues of the session. The reason people care is clear: voters are finally realizing that gerrymandering is one of the root causes of our legislative gridlock. Moreover, the maps the General Assembly drew after the 2010 census have been challenged—and defended with taxpayer money—in three separate lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down one map—the congressional map—and sent the House of Delegates map back to the trial court for reconsideration. I am hopeful for an outcome requiring that the maps be redrawn.
The path my bill and the others took this session was, as usual, frustrating. The House Privileges and Elections subcommittee tabled—i.e. killed—my bill and several others at a 7 a.m. committee hearing with a voice vote – all in an attempt to avoid a recorded vote. I agitated on the floor repeatedly to get a vote – a recorded vote – by the full House, so our constituents could see where each of us stands. I had no success. But several of my colleagues did succeed in forcing the first recorded vote in the full Privileges and Elections Committee. You can see the full vote here -- http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?171+vot+H18V0115+SJ0290.
- Voting Rights: I have pushed every session for legislation that will make it easier to vote. This year I reintroduced a bill that would allow Virginia students who attend out-of-state colleges to use their college photo ID to vote. As of now only students who attend Virginia colleges can use their ID, though Virginians who work out-of-state can use their out-of-state employer ID. This creates an unintended anomaly: a Georgetown professor, for instance, can use his or her Georgetown faculty ID to vote in Virginia, but a Georgetown student cannot use a Georgetown student ID. Unfortunately, there is little appetite in the General Assembly to encourage young people to vote, or to pass any bill making it easier to vote. The bill died on a party line vote.
I also introduced a bill to expand our early voting system in Virginia. I believe that democracy is strongest when more people participate in the voting process, and allowing expanded, no-excuse early voting would encourage more people to make their voices heard. This sentiment is not shared by a majority of Delegates, so it unfortunately died in another early morning subcommittee meeting.
- Energy Efficiency: Improving our efficient use of energy is the easiest, cheapest way to decrease Virginia’s negative impact on the environment. Virginia’s power providers regularly and proudly insist that Virginia has some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. That may be true, but it doesn’t capture the whole picture. The federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that Virginia has the tenth highest electricity bills in the country, due mostly to inefficiency. I am, however, happy to report that we made some progress on energy efficiency this session. I introduced a bill, which was also carried by Rosalyn Dance in the Senate, that requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DME) to annually report to the Governor and the General Assembly on how Virginia is progressing on its voluntary energy efficiency goal, shining some sunlight on our lackluster effort so far. The bill passed the General Assembly, and was signed into law by Governor McAuliffe. Our progress on efficiency has been frustratingly slow, but this renewed focus on energy efficiency is an important though incremental step forward, and I expect to build on this momentum next session.
- Gun Safety: I introduced legislation which would have addressed a startling and sad issue facing Virginia: the growing rate of suicide by self-inflicted gunshot. HB 1758 would have established a procedure to temporarily recover firearms from a person who poses a substantial risk of injury to himself or others. Today, a family member or concerned friend has no legal recourse when concerned about the mental health of a loved one who owns a gun.
I see this primarily as a mental health and public health bill, not a gun bill. Over the last ten years, more people have committed suicide in Virginia with a gun than have died from an opioid overdose. And we just—appropriately—declared a state of public health emergency over the opioid crisis. Our suicide rate is a public health emergency, too. Not surprisingly, handguns are the most common tool for committing suicide. My bill—which is modeled on similar laws in Connecticut, Indiana, and California—would have saved lives. Unfortunately, but predictably, the bill became a proxy fight for the larger gun safety versus gun rights battle, so it did not pass. I think this issue is too important to not bring back next year.
Keith Harward: Over the last two sessions I have had the honor of carrying legislation that has compensated two innocent men who were wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit: Mike McAlister in 2016 and Keith Harward in 2017. Keith Harward spent 31 years in jail for a rape and murder in Norfolk that someone else committed. The Supreme Court of Virginia granted a writ of actual innocence to Keith in 2016. My legislation—known as a “claims bill”—brings some measure of financial relief to Keith, though it can never right a terrible wrong. The bill passed the General Assembly with zero no votes, and Governor McAuliffe signed it into law in March.
Budget: The budget process was relatively smooth this session. The budget surely is not perfect, though it does a reasonable job of funding initiatives to develop the new Virginia economy, and preserves much of Governor McAuliffe’s priorities in mental health, education, and compensation for teachers and state employees. But it predictably fell short in a few key areas, particularly when it came to addressing the economic security of Virginia’s working families.
- Solar: the budget cut $1.1 million in small business solar energy funding. As I said on the House floor, Virginia has made substantial progress on growing its solar energy industry, but still lags far behind its neighbors and competitors. With new momentum pushing us forward, now is not the time to neglect the small business sector of Virginia’s nascent solar energy industry.
Headturners: This session there were a slew of bills that many of us found to be exceptionally divisive and partisan. Some of the more memorable (and not in a good way):
- Day of Tears Resolution: The House voted in January on a Resolution that would annually designate January 22nd as a “Day of Tears” in Virginia. January 22nd might ring a bell for some of you: it’s the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago. The resolution encourages Virginians to fly their flags at half-mast on January 22nd. I voted against this demeaning resolution, but it unfortunately passed. As a House Resolution, the Governor had no ability to veto it.
- Bathroom bill: Del. Bob Marshall introduced a bill similar to North Carolina’s now infamous HB 2 that would prevent transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice. In addition to the enormous cost to justice and equality this would have inflicted on Virginia, studies have shown that HB 2 has already cost North Carolina billion of dollars, with businesses, sports teams, musicians, and others refusing to do business in the state. Thankfully, the Marshall bill never came up for a vote in the House of Delegates.
- Proof of citizenship bill: The House passed legislation—which I spoke against on the floor—which would have established yet another new barrier to the ballot box by requiring Virginians to provide proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. Voters who could not provide a birth certificate or U.S. passport would not be allowed to vote in state elections, though they could vote in federal elections. The bill would have disenfranchised thousands of Virginia voters who are U.S. citizens but who do not have a passport or a copy of their birth certificate, rendering them second-class citizens. Thankfully the bill died in the Senate.
- Absentee by mail bill: the House also passed legislation requiring voters who vote absentee by mail to include a copy of their photo ID along with their ballot. This bill is misguided for many reasons, and one wonders what registrars are supposed to do with a copy of an ID when they receive it – no internal database for registrars to verify voters’ photographs exists. This would just be another roadblock to voting. The bill was vetoed by the Governor.
Veto Session: Veto Session is the day on which the General Assembly reconvenes to vote on whether to sustain or reject the Governor’s vetoes. The Governor also has the power to amend legislation – once amended, the General Assembly must vote to approve or reject the change. This year, the Governor set a record for the number of vetoes issued, causing either praise or frustration, depending on whom you ask.
- Medicaid: Probably the most widely covered issue of this year’s Veto Session was whether the Governor’s budget amendment to expand Medicaid to about 400,000 low-income working Virginians should stand. The Governor’s amendment would have allowed him to expand Medicaid on October 1, 2017 if the Affordable Care Act still stood in its current form with respect to Medicaid. The amendment was rejected along party lines, 66 to 34. With 31 states having expanded Medicaid thus far, however, it is likely that the issue will remain contentious in years to come.
- Marriage Equality: Since Obergefell v. Hodges, attempts have been made to weaken our commitment to marriage equality.
- One bill that passed has been dubbed in other states as the “Pastor Protection Act.” Although couched as a “religious freedom” bill, it would do nothing more than allow discrimination against same-sex couples. This is the second year in a row that this bill has been introduced, and the second year that it has been vetoed by Governor McAuliffe. This year, the majority did not even propose a vote to attempt to override the veto.
- The Governor also vetoed bills that were directed at weakening LGBTQ rights, defunding Planned Parenthood, and putting more guns in more places. I am pleased to say we sustained all of the Governor’s vetoes.
What’s Next: If you have read this far, I thank you!
Next year is hard to predict – this November’s elections will determine what priorities are pushed by both the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, though I expect many of the debates we heard in 2017 regarding health care, energy and the environment will reemerge with equal or greater fervor.
Please know that I will continue to fight for the issues that matter to my constituents in the 48th district, including energy efficiency, voting rights, gun safety, and reforming Virginia’s redistricting process.
For more information, visit my website: www.ripsullivan.com. Please also follow me on Twitter @Ripsullivan48 or on Facebook at Facebook.com/RipSullivanVA.
Delegate Rip Sullivan
48th District of Virginia