2021 Session - Crossover Update
2021 General Assembly session has reached its halfway point, known as Crossover. This is the point where the House and Senate complete work on bills originating from the respective chambers, and the successful bills “cross over” to the other chamber. Republicans continue to point out the consequences related to the failed COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as well as the majority’s desire to lessen punishments for heinous crimes, repeal mandatory minimum sentencing, and force unionization on workers.
It is no secret that the vaccine rollout has been inadequate. Tens of thousands of people desiring a vaccination have been unsuccessful in receiving one. Our local health departments are overwhelmed with demand, and the burden should not have been shifted to them in the first place. During this time Republicans have insisted that the Governor take action by adapting to current realities and requesting that he seek guidance and assistance from private industry with expertise in logistical operations of this scale. My colleagues and I were proud to join the entire State Senate in signing on to co-patron Senator Siobhan Dunnavant’s SB1445, which calls for our state government to utilize all resources available to more efficiently and effectively administer vaccines to those who desire to have them.
This past Thursday, the majority began its push to eliminate the death penalty in Virginia. The power of the state to take a human life isn’t something that I consider lightly. It is the ultimate punishment, and it can’t be taken back. That being said, there is a place for this sanction in cases where a killer has committed a truly heinous act or will be a danger to society or even his fellow inmates going forward. My fellow Republicans spent a great deal of time on the floor arguing that we cannot and must not forget victims and their families in this debate. Democrats insist that life in prison is enough to keep offenders locked up and protect our society. But given the number of convicted killers who received that very sentence but are now out on the streets thanks to our Parole Board, I have strong doubts that this is the case.
The majority also began its final push to eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences for crimes in Virginia. As it currently stands, someone who sells drugs to children, someone who commits a second offense involving child pornography, someone who uses a gun in the commission of a felony, and other crimes face a mandatory minimum sentence -- a floor that a judge or jury can’t go below -- if they’re found guilty.
Mandatory minimum laws are in place to prevent a runaway jury or judge from letting someone get away with a slap on the wrist. For example, in a famous case from California, a young man convicted of rape served only a few months in jail. Virginia has one of the lowest violent crime rates and rates of recidivism in the nation. Repealing our mandatory minimum laws will likely reverse that and lead to a less safe Virginia.
One bright spot from this week was a spirited defense of Virginia’s Right to Work laws from an unexpected source: the Democratic majority. One House Democrat, a self-described socialist, attempted to force a vote on his bill which would have repealed Virginia’s Right to Work law. Had he been successful, Virginians would no longer have the freedom to work without the possibility of being forced to join a union. But Democrats, realizing the serious blow to Virginia’s economy this repeal would mean, joined Republicans to defeat the measure. For now, at least, Virginians can continue to work and choose to join a union, or not join a union, as they see fit.
I am happy to report that my bill to address regional representation on the Virginia Board of Education made it out of the House and is headed to the Senate. This bill came at the recommendation of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), a nationally recognized and respected commission that analyzes and reports on various aspects of state government. HB1827 requires the nine-member Board of Education to include at least five members, appointed by the Governor, to each reside in different superintendent's regions in the Commonwealth.
Currently, board membership represents only half of the state’s geographic regions. Challenges facing school divisions can vary substantially by geographic region, and wider geographic representation on the board could help ensure that deliberations and decisions are informed by the varying perspectives and needs of each region and its students. Virginia’s school divisions are organized into eight geographic areas referred to as superintendent’s regions. However, four of the eight regions are currently not represented on the Board of Education, and Richmond alone has four members representing its metropolitan area.
Unfortunately, my colleagues did not see the benefit to my bill HB1826, based on another JLARC recommendation, did not make it out of subcommittee. It sought to require the Board of Education to include at least one member with experience or expertise in local government leadership or policymaking, at least one member with experience or expertise in career and technical education, and at least one member with experience or expertise in early childhood education. A board’s make up should include people who have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter presented to it.
I submitted HB2091 at the request of Alleghany County and The City of Covington, which have experienced a decreasing enrollment in their respective public school systems. This bill is a charter amendment that allows these two localities to merge their school systems to increase efficiencies and decrease costs. An accompanying allocation has been placed in the budget to ensure a successful transition.
As for the budget, funds have been secured for the regional health sciences initiative, which is intended to give students in Roanoke, the New River Valley and surrounding counties the opportunity to acquire stackable credentials, starting in high school, and continuing through community college or a four-year institution. It is estimated that more than 122,000 health care related jobs will be available in the Commonwealth, and the need for qualified health care professionals will only increase.
Currently, the school systems in the Roanoke and New River Valleys are teaching in silos, especially when it comes to health care. The idea with this program is to streamline curriculum so that if a health sciences student transfers from one school system to another, he or she would not have to start from square one, regardless of knowledge and experience already acquired. The Roanoke Valley has the opportunity to be a health sciences leader and this initiative will provide a means for our children to participate and benefit.
I am also pleased to report that my efforts were successful to delay by one year the implementation of the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) boat ramp access fees. These fees were enabled by a piece of legislation that was meant to address the shortage in boat ramp parking but had the unintended consequence of enabling DWR to enact fees for simply using the river. After conversations with local businesses and outdoor groups who understand the need to raise funds to support our wildlife resources, this was determined to be the best path forward to reaching a reasonable solution.
Budget language has also been inserted that will provide localities with a 48-month sunset for any industrial access funds that would otherwise have to be paid during a time when resources are already stretched thin. This reprieve will give localities the opportunity to continue their economic development efforts around the Commonwealth.
As always, my office is open if you have any questions or concerns. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-698-1019.
Delegate Terry L. Austin
19th House District