Update from the General Assembly | Week Four
Greetings to the Constituents of Virginia’s 19th House District:
Week four has concluded and the House of Delegates is still struggling to get on its feet. Committee agendas are being produced mere hours before meeting times, rather than the customary 24 hours. Very serious bills are being referred and re-referred to committees without robust debate. And yet, because the number of introduced bills is so high, committee meetings are running into the night.
The Equal Rights Amendment passed through the House and Senate and is on its way to be signed by the Governor. The ERA is an issue with good intent but is rife with potential unintended consequences that have not been adequately addressed in our House debates. To state clearly and emphatically: Women should be treated equally and have all the same rights as men. This is not up for debate. What Republicans do have strong concerns with are the practical - and unpredictable - consequences that may result with its passage.
For instance, this past Friday, Democrats introduced a bill on the floor that provides preferential treatment to small, women-owned or minority businesses who are bidding for government contracts against those businesses who are not. During debate, one of my colleagues introduced a stark inconsistency that this bill has when read alongside the ERA, pointing out that preferential treatment of one sex over another is in fact a form of discrimination based on sex. The Democratic patron of the bill refused to clarify how these two bills are not contradictory of one another, and debate was promptly ended by the majority. This is one of many reasons why I did not vote for passage of the ERA. What sounds good and right as an idea does not always translate into the practical realities of governing.
This includes the gun control bills that passed through the House this week, and I did not vote in favor of any of them. Such bills include one handgun a month, background checks on firearm transfers between family members, and red flag laws that can be adjudicated by a magistrate, rather than strictly a judge. Another bill passed that raises the minimum age of gun ownership to twenty-one and makes it a Class 6 felony for a firearm to be “recklessly” left in the open in the presence of minors. When the patron of the bill was asked whether or not this meant a parent would be arrested and charged for allowing a 17-year-old to hunt on his own, the response was to say it would be the case if the situation was deemed “reckless”. Hunting is part of our heritage, and to make it a Class 6 felony based on ambiguous language is itself reckless.
The rural urban divide is certainly responsible for this lack of understanding. A bill that seeks to ostensibly acknowledge and accommodate for this difference passed through the House. It allows each locality within Virginia to individually adopt gun laws. Again, maybe a bill with good intention, but impractical when fully considered. Creating a patchwork of laws in regard to a constitutional right creates an undue burden for citizens traveling through jurisdictions. Simply driving through an area that has a stricter set of laws than its neighboring locality needlessly places a law-abiding citizen at risk.
On the economic front, public sector collective bargaining passed the House, allowing for various state and local entities to demand higher wages and benefits. Teachers should be paid fairly, but this is not the way to go about it. Our Constitution mandates us to balance the budget. As is happening this session, the Governor introduces a budget and the General Assembly promptly amends it. The priorities of the Executive and Legislative branches are then coalesced through debate and negotiation as session progresses. The result of this process speaks for itself. Virginia has consistently maintained its triple-A bond rating and was recently named the number one state for business.
With public sector collective bargaining, our state government will have already enacted a balanced budget, and any funding gaps will have to be filled by the respective localities. The only way a locality would be able to do so is to increase its tax base by attracting new business or increase real estate and property taxes on residents in order to pay for the newly demanded higher wages. With the current portfolio of bills being introduced this year, it is not difficult to ascertain what will be the more likely outcome. My colleagues have already received a letter of strong opposition from a county that understands the potential burden this legislation will place on its residents and government resources.
Regarding legislation, I am pleased to report that my bill HB1376 passed unanimously through committee on Monday and the House this past Friday with a vote of 99-0. HB1376 allows an entity such as the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) to have the option of increasing its membership from five to seven members. Allowing a broadband authority the opportunity to increase its membership will result in a board that more adequately represents the diverse voices and opinions of the local communities, citizens, and businesses it serves.
We desperately need to expand broadband access in our region and having more resources focused on the issue will serve to expedite the process in a more targeted and effective manner. Having access to broadband needs to become the rule rather than the exception. Coupling RVBA resources with those of Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative’s (CBEC) will place the 19th District in a stronger posture to achieve this goal. Thank you to James Huffman and Jeff Ahearn of CBEC, who visited this week to discuss the progress of their broadband expansion efforts and plans for the future.
I continue to advocate on behalf of my budget amendments. One very important amendment seeks to ensure that TAG recipients of online schooling are able to continue receiving their education. The Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant helps students with the cost of private college tuition. In the Governor’s budget TAG funding is increased overall but at the expense of those TAG recipients who are taking their classes online. Online degrees are typically sought by active military, veterans, first responders, working parents and students studying to be nurses or teachers. We should be providing a hand up to those who want to work for it. Eliminating this choice reduces their opportunity to do so. Removing this funding runs counter to the notion that broadband should be expanded in order to increase opportunity. And to do so abruptly will leave these enterprising men and women without a financial option to continue their studies.
As always, please contact my office to let me know your position on current issues. I can be reached on the Richmond office phone number (804) 698-1019 or via email to email@example.com. The General Assembly Building continues to be renovated and my office is now located at Room E405 in the Pocahontas Building on 900 East Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219.
Delegate Terry L. Austin
19th House District