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Virginia’s Green New Deal: Democrats’ Moment for Clean Energy, Justice, and Seizing the General Assembly

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by Andrew Reighart

It may be Virginia Democrats’ worst-kept secret: after not quite taking control of the House of Delegates in 2017, enduring a string of high-profile defeats in the 2019 legislative session, and being blindsided by the blackface and sexual assault scandals that eviscerated the trust we once confidently placed in Governor Northam, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, and Attorney General Herring, Virginia Democrats are hungry for a decisive victory in November’s General Assembly elections, followed by bold policy action starting in January 2020.

To win, Virginia Democrats need a bold, morally righteous, and unifying cause to rally
around. Arguably no policy proposal of the 116th Congress has electrified progressive
activists more than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal, which makes its
Commonwealth corollary, the Green New Deal VA, a clear candidate for consideration.

At present, both versions feature big-picture goals and have yet to be translated into specific policies capable of enacting their shared vision: rapidly transitioning to a clean energy economy as a means of combating deeply entrenched socioeconomic inequality, known all too well here in Virginia, a former slaveholding state and host to the Confederacy’s capital. However, that policy vaguery leaves room for the open examination of a variety of already proposed and enacted climate policies in the US that are specifically aimed at diminishing economic inequality.

Many of our Mid-Atlantic neighbors have already adopted such policies. For example, under the recently passed DC Clean Energy Omnibus Act of 2018, the District will triple the natural gas assessment, double the electricity assessment for other fossil energy, and apply a new 8.4 cents per gallon assessment on sales of heating and fuel oil to increase revenue for its Sustainable Energy Trust Fund. This additional revenue will increase funding for energy efficiency, weatherization, and energy bill assistance for low-income residents. Separate funding will be channeled towards workforce development programs aimed at equipping workers with the skills needed to secure jobs in the energy efficiency industry. Similarly, Delaware uses 10% of its Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) carbon allowance auction revenue to fund its weatherization assistance program for low-income residents, and 5% for its Low-Income Heat Energy Program.

And in Maryland, under the recently enacted Clean Energy Jobs Act, the state will invest $17 million in job training in economically distressed regions of the state, and make small
minority-, veteran-, and women-owned businesses in clean energy industries eligible to receive dedicated funding for market growth through the state’s Strategic Energy Investment Fund. In addition, the bill contains several provisions to protect ratepayers by capping any related increases in electricity bills at around $1.50 for the average household, thereby shielding low-income families from suffering disproportionate adverse economic.

Our neighbors are leading the way, while Virginia remains the clear laggard. Instead of visionary leadership on climate and economic justice, we have a fact-resistant
Republican-led General Assembly and an out-of-touch Democratic governor who supports
building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the historic African-American community of
Union Hill (counter to his professed focus on racial equity) and who refused to veto Republican budget language prohibiting Virginia from combating climate change by joining RGGI. Unsurprisingly, many voters are fed up with Virginia’s political establishment.

Democratic General Assembly candidates should seize this moment to reject the weak moral and political leadership of all stripes being displayed in Richmond, by making a full-throated appeal for the Green New Deal VA and by campaigning on specific clean energy policies that yield not only impactful ecological benefits, but a chance to upend the system of structurally racist socioeconomic injustice that has plagued Virginia for decades. If 2018 was the Blue Wave, Virginia Democrats should make 2019 the year of the Green Wave.