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Beyond the Lovefest: What Democrats Could Have Done If We Controlled the General Assembly

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Great stuff from House Minority Leader Del. David Toscano (bolding added by me for emphasis):

Republicans would have you belief that this General Assembly session was one big Lovefest. They even celebrated the fact that we adjourned one day early, as if that fact itself was enough to prove that they should be trusted with governing the Commonwealth. To be sure, the working relationships with Speaker Howell and House leadership are generally civil, far superior to Washington, and a good thing.

There were some measures about which we can all be proud — passing a budget on time, investing in job creation and workforce development, providing raises to teachers and state employees, educational reform, attacking problems of campus sexual assault. These were enacted by broad bipartisan majorities, and supported by our constituents across the state. And all of these will be used by Republicans as they seek to maintain their majorities in the House and the Senate elections this fall. With the end of the McDonnell ethics trial and no vaginal probes populating late night television, it was a less controversial and more civil session.

But before we get too gushy about our accomplishments, let’s dig a little deeper.

First, let’s remember that this is an election year and that the Republicans were smart enough not to push a Tea Party agenda that has taken hold of their party nationally and that has so dominated Virginia’s legislature in recent years. They could avoid this in 2015 because they did their greatest damage in earlier years, whether it was over transvaginal ultrasounds – a term few of us would have uttered in political discourse a mere two years ago, much less debate in a public forum, TRAP regulations, repealing the one-gun-a-month handgun purchase law, allowing citizens to carry  guns into bars, railing against the children of immigrants, trashing reasonable EPA regulations designed to make air cleaner and our planet more secure, making voting more difficult, or bottling up a way to bring our taxpayer dollars back to Virginia to create jobs, help our hospitals, and provide insurance to 400,000 Virginians by embracing Medicaid expansion.

The Republican leadership had a game-plan from the beginning. It first involved going soft on social wedge issues. For example, the so-called personhood bill, which would have created constitutional rights for unborn fetuses, and sailed out of the House last year, was sent to a subcommittee where it died an unceremonious death.  And Republican bills that would arm teachers and put guns in airports experienced a similar fate. Leadership was even able to derail a darling of a significant segment of the right wing, the proposal to convene a new U.S. constitutional convention, on the House floor without taking an embarrassing vote that would have lead to its defeat.

The plan also required criticizing the President at every opportunity. The Republicans were anything if not united, especially when it came to the EPA and “war on coal.” Every measure that attempted to poke the President in the eye was embraced unanimously by a party which has a hard time using the word “science” in a sentence.  And that included even those who fancy themselves as moderate, but remain fearful of a primary challenge from the right.

And finally, the Republican plan sought to downplay and bury Democratic proposals. One need only look at the initiatives Democrats proposed that never got a hearing much beyond small subcommittees which met at times when few citizens could attend, took few recorded votes, and which are controlled by a small number of conservative Republicans, where two or three delegates essentially decide the fate of the legislation. Almost all of the reasonable gun safety bills were consigned to a small subcommittee of the Militia and Police committee, a group largely controlled by the NRA and by its even more conservative cousin, the Virginia Citizen Defense League.

The bills were unceremoniously killed in one meeting without ever getting to full committee. Even my bill for voluntary background checks, a measure that would have simply allowed a private gunseller at a gun show the right to ask the Virginia State Police to run a background check of an individual before making a sale, ran afoul of the Republican litmus test opposing any gun safety measure.

The same fate befell the numerous bills designed to take the partisanship out of redistricting, or at least lessen its influence. In this case, it was a subcommittee of the Privileges and Elections committee jettisoning both House AND Senate bills that would have restored the idea that constituents should choose their legislators rather than the other way around.  This same committee, however, found a way to again make it harder to vote absentee.  If you can’t win at the ballot box, just change who can cast votes.

And when the Republicans had the chance to vote to make nondiscrimination in the workplace part of state law, they flinched rather than embrace equality for all Virginians.

There is little doubt that Democratic control would have fundamentally changed the budget. For starters, we would not have left money on the table that could have been used to fund core services, particularly education. Medicaid expansion alone would have replaced approximately $105 million in state appropriations for hospitals and other medical care with federal dollars, thereby freeing monies for other core purposes. We would have capped, if not eliminated, the massive taxpayer subsidies flowing to the utilities and coal companies (over $600 million over the last twenty years) through two coal tax credits, which the Commonwealth’s own independent audit committee, JLARC, concluded do not work for their intended purposes. This would have raised at least $20 million this year alone. Having a government that works better and utilizes business principles means gathering those resources available, using them wisely, and not investing in programs that no longer work. Democratic pushing and prodding made the budget better, but this is not the budget we would have passed had we been in charge.

Democrats would likely have captured more of the cost of government by linking fees to the services being provided for inspections that protect the public. The Republican aversion to anything that raises revenue allows them to starve agencies that serve the public good; the result is that there are fewer dollars for initiatives in core services like education and public safety. And, speaking of education, Democrats would not have supported the undermining of public education through education tax credits. And we would have expanded pre-K to more youngsters throughout the Commonwealth.

Democratic control would have meant more economic initiatives to get resources into the hands of working people and the middle class. We were happy to support the job creation efforts of the Governor that were embraced by both parties in the House.  But we would have done more; our members supported both the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a program that Ronald Reagan said was the most effective way to end poverty in America, and an increase in the minimum wage, an initiative that not only would help working families but get more money into circulation, thereby providing a stimulus for growth. These two economic initiatives never got to committee level, much less to the floor of the House.

To be sure, there were some good things in the budget, particularly in the area of higher education and raises for public employees. But it did not go far enough in meeting the core needs of the Commonwealth in the way a Democratic budget would.

Finally, there was ethics reform, which Republicans wanted desperately in response to the McDonnell scandal. At the last minute, however, the package began to unwind as the pressure by House Republicans to adjourn early began to take precedence over the deliberative legislative process. In the end, the deliberative process lost, and a bill was forced through at 8:00pm Friday without enough time for careful reflection and amendment.  And we are now seeing that there are problems with the bill, particularly in terms of its enforcement provisions and the total amount of gifts legislators may take. While many of us voted for the bill, a Democratic majority would have created an independent commission and given it some real teeth.

While we may have operated with more civility and comity in Richmond this year than in Washington, don’t be distracted by the so-called Lovefest; the Democrat vision for the state is fundamentally different from our Republican colleagues. But we will not be able to showcase it until we increase our numbers in the House of Delegates.