The Twitter threads below – by VA Young Dems President and National Domestic Workers Alliance state director Alexsis Rodgers and Del. Ibraheem Samirah – are just two recent examples I’ve seen of Virginia Dems and progressives musing – and/or worrying – about what the agenda should be for the newly elected Virginia Democratic General Assembly majority. I agree with many of the items they list, and am also concerned that Democrats will worry too much about criticism from Republicans and conservative editorial boards about how they’ve “overreached” or whatever, even though most Democratic policies have majority or greater support among the public, and even though most of them are badly needed.
By the way, if any Democrats believe that Republicans will refrain from calling them “socialists,” “commies,” etc. no matter *what* they do, they are living in an alternate universe, one in which Republicans didn’t criticize the Affordable Care Act, even though it was heavily modeled on…conservative ideas (like the individual mandate), “Romneycare,” the Republican alternative to “Hillarycare,” etc. Point is, don’t worry about Republicans (or conservative editorial boards) are going to say, because there’s really not much Dems can do about that anyway, and because no matter what Dems do (or don’t do), Republicans are going to roll out their usual, over-the-top, demagogic talking points. Instead, Dems should focus on getting as much good stuff done as possible…and then letting voters know about all the great stuff they did.
With that, here are a few items on my agenda – certainly NOT comprehensive, so feel free to suggest additions! – for Democrats to work on in the upcoming General Assembly session.
- ERA ratification is about the lowest of “low-hanging fruit,” an obvious – and extremely easy – item to pass quickly and then to move on to other stuff.
- Another obvious item on the agenda is raising the minimum wage, which is just $7.25/hour and hasn’t been increased since 2009. The only real question is how high and how quickly to raise it. According to the National Conference of State Legislators: “New Jersey enacted AB 15 in February, which will gradually increase the minimum wage rate to $15 by 2024″; “Illinois enacted SB 1 in February, which will phase in a minimum wage increase to $15 by 2025″; “Maryland’s legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a measure (SB 280) that phased-in a minimum wage increase to $15 by 2024″; “New Mexico enacted SB 437 in April, which will raise the state minimum wage to $12 by 2023.” These seem like potential models for Virginia.
- Yet another obvious, “no-brainer” item on the agenda should be expansion of voting rights, and in general making it easier for people to vote. That means measures like instituting no-excuse early voting, getting rid of – or at least significantly easing – unnecessary and discriminatory voter ID laws, automatically restoring voting rights to ex-felons, etc. See here for what Gov. Northam proposed last January, including “no-excuse absentee voting” and “repeal[ing] the requirement to show a photo ID to vote.” Also see Prince William County Supervisor-elect Kenny Boddye’s list, which includes “Automatic registration upon turning 18 or moving into the state,” “No excuse absentee voting for two whole months before Election Day,” “Saturday & Sunday early voting,” “Automatic restoration of rights.”
- I agree with Alexsis Rodgers – get rid of the work requirement (“Puritanism run amok“) for Medicaid recipients.
- I also agree with Rodgers that it’s crazy and unacceptable for Virginia to be DEAD LAST in the country – behind Alabama and Mississippi – when it comes state labor laws and worker protections. There’s a bunch of stuff Democrats should do to change this situation, including raising the minimum wage (see above), strengthening workers’ abilities to organize (I’d love to see so-called “Right-to-Work” laws repealed), eliminating exclusions (as Rodgers points out) in labor laws, improving workplace harassment and discrimination laws (again, as Rodgers points out), etc.
- I don’t care if it’s called a “Green New Deal” or not, as long as strong legislation that puts Virginia on a fast track for a 100% clean energy economy is introduced and passed this session. That includes, potentially, an aggressive/mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (including a major push for energy efficiency), strong net metering provisions and subsidies for distributed (e.g., rooftop) solar, etc.
- For more ideas on protecting Virginia’s environment, see Gov. Northam’s proposals from last January: “The Coastal Protection Act, the Water Quality and Safety Act, the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund Amendments Act, and two bills designed to reduce conflicts between shellfish growers and other users of tidal waters.” I’d also tax single-use plastic bags, put a refundable fee on plastic bottles, allow localities to enact much more stringent measures to preserve tree canopy and green space, seriously consider a carbon tax or some sort of cap-and-trade system, etc. And, of course, Virginia should join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
- On immigration, see this Virginia Public Media article, which reports that Sen. Boysko will introduce a bill to “extend in-state college tuition to members of the undocumented community”; and that Sen. Surovell and others will introduce legislation “to offer qualifying undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license.” Those are two good places to start on this issue.
- On redistricting reform, I’m fine with it being non-partisan, as long as there aren’t provisions in there that undercut the entire point, such as making the right-wing, Republican-appointed state Supreme Court the backstop on redistricting.
- We badly need campaign finance reform, although no question this is a tricky one. To me, some low-hanging fruit includes barring state-regulated monopolies like Dominion Energy from spending money to influence elections and/or policy. Legislators also should look seriously at limiting the amount of money any one individual can give. See here for what Gov. Northam proposed last January, including “limit[ing] large campaign contributions,” “ban[ning] direct contributions from corporations or businesses” and “prohibit[ing] the personal use of campaign funds.”
- Professionalize the legislature: here are some ideas from Delegate-elect Sally Hudson, such as having longer legislative sessions, paying our public officials appropriately, reducing the influence of well-paid and year-’round lobbyists, etc.
- Gun violence prevention: see here for Gov. Northam’s proposals on this issue last January. For instance, how about: “measures to require universal background checks; establish an Extreme Risk Protective Order; reinstate Virginia’s One Handgun a Month law; prohibit individuals subject to final protective orders from possessing firearms; ban assault firearms; prevent children from accessing firearms; and require individuals to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement.” Most if not all of these should pass, easily, in the 2020 session.
- On education, I agree with Gov. Northam that “we need to make long-term investments to sustain that quality for our students and to ensure we remain competitive in a 21st century economy.” That includes, of course, competitive salaries to attract and retain the best teachers; “fund[ing] more positions for school counselors statewide”; “work even harder to make postsecondary education more affordable and accessible to all students”; “more tuition assistance, and requires our institutions to create tuition predictability plans”; “regulating the companies that service our student loans”; “tuition assistance for National Guard members”; etc. I’d also do what Tom Perriello suggested in 2017 – “offering two free years of community college, trade school or apprenticeships so students can train and diversify.” And how about moving towards universal pre-K, particularly for those who can least afford it? How about moving away from standardized testing and more towards…actual learning?
- On transportation, Virginia should invest in transit (Metro, light rail, etc.) and transit-oriented/”smart growth” development in general. Virginia should always emphasize transit, rail (including potential high-speed rail), pedestrians and bicyclists over automobiles. The answer to Virginia’s transportation challenges, particularly given the climate crisis, is almost never going to be simply laying down more asphalt and/or doubling down on a car-centric transportation system.
- On Virginia’s tax code, I’d argue that it should be significantly more progressive than it currently is. How about we start by bringing back the estate tax, which impacted only a few dozen super-rich families per year and which raised $120-$140 million per year? Also, how about taxing societal “bads,” like pollution (e.g., a carbon tax? raise the gas tax?) and tobacco (raise cigarette taxes?)? As Gov. Northam has said, “Our tax code should work for everyone—not just the highest earners.” I agree. I also strongly agree with Tom Perriello, who wrote in 2017, Virginia needs to “prioritize economic security for working families, a level playing field for small business, and a fair tax code for the middle class.” That means, among other things: “gradually raising income tax rates 1 percentage point on those making more than $500,000 and 1.5 percentage points on those making more than $1,000,000”; “make the EITC fully refundable to help working families offset the costs of transportation and childcare”; “end the tampon tax and move towards a creating a tax code that is more fair to women”; “sales tax reform is long overdue”; “push for a minimum corporate floor that exempts small businesses but makes sure big, profitable companies aren’t gaming the system to avoid taxes entirely”; etc.
- Criminal justice reform: At the minimum, we should decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, something Gov. Northam has called for. Also, Virginia should – as Gov. Northam says – “[end] the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over failure to pay court costs and fees, and [end] the suspension of licenses for non-driving offenses”; stop “punishing people for being poor”; “make sure that we do as much as possible to prepare people to leave our corrections system and rebuild their lives”; etc. And there are some good ideas in here, such as “Expungement Reform,” “Let Indigent Defendants Seek Expert Assistance Without Giving Away Trial Strategy”; “Eliminate Mandatory Minimums”; “Restore the Parole System”; “Let Indigent Defendants Seek Expert Assistance Without Giving Away Trial Strategy”; etc.
- Civil Rights and Racial Justice: As Tom Perriello said in his 2017 campaign for governor, “We must replace the school-to-prison pipeline with a school-to-opportunity pipeline…Instead of setting children up for a cycle of punishment and incarceration, I believe we should offer community-based rehabilitation…I will also make it a priority to advance reforms to the criminal justice system that reduce the racial disparities we see today, particularly the criminalization of poverty through suspension of drivers’ licenses for inability to pay fines and one of the lowest thresholds in the country for felony larceny, and a pitiful rate for indigent legal defense.”
- Virginia badly needs ethics reform. For instance, how about seriously restricting the influence corporate lobbyists can have over state legislators and Virginia regulatory bodies, so that our government isn’t “captured” by these corporate interests? How about establishing an Ethics Commission with *teeth*, one with “resources to conduct investigations,” “power to assess fines for violations” and “authority to make referrals to the Attorney General or other prosecutors?” How about going at the slimy, revolving-door, “pay-to-play” “Virginia Way” system in various ways, such as prohibiting/limiting former legislatures from lobbying the legislature for a number of years?
- Healthcare access, affordability, etc.: We need to aim for universal healthcare coverage in Virginia. How about some sort of public option in Virginia? As already noted, ditch Medicaid work requirements. Increase cigarette/tobacco taxes to help fund healthcare access and affordability. Address the opioid crisis. As Tom Perriello proposed in 2017, we should work on “expanding access to comprehensive reproductive health services and access to health care for rural communities and veterans” and “work for comprehensive mental healthcare services, lower prescription drug costs,” etc. Also, in Virginia, nobody should ever die because they can’t afford their medication, such as insulin for diabetics. That needs to change, ASAP! Oh, and we need to address surprise/”balance billing” when you get home from the hospital. Totally unacceptable.
- Reproductive access/freedom: Ditch “TRAP” regulations; codify women’s reproductive access in the Virginia constitution; expand contraceptive access; etc.
- Other issues: Virginia should focus on expanding broadband access, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices (e.g., promoting locally grown food), divesting from fossil fuels in the state’s retirement system, letting localities have more authority to go above and beyond state law and making Virginia less of a “mother, may I?” state under the current, draconian “Dillon Rule.” Oh, and crack down on predatory lending – this one should be obvious. What else do you think should be on this list.
UPDATE from the comments: “…protections from discrimination for based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, benefits, etc”
UPDATE: Great comment by Adam M…