Mark's Richmond Report
Welcome to my second newsletter of the session.
This week was the single busiest of the year for us. It was Peak Week, the middle week of the three full weeks before “Crossover”, that magical mid-session date when each House of the General Assembly finishes its business and puts its approved legislation into the lap of the other House (February 7 this year).
We have to move more than 1000 House Bills before Crossover! Because 99% of House bills have to go through Committee first – and 90% of the time an additional Subcommittee as well – it’s a crazy busy time.
Mark in the News
Please make sure to check out the left-hand column in this and every newsletter for stories about your Delegate in the media each week. Every single story features in some respect, big or small, something I am trying to do for the people of Alexandria, Arlington, or Fairfax.
And stay tuned for more news next week. If you, like me, are horrified by the President's attempt to use an Executive Order to shut down centuries of America opening its doors to immigrants and refugees, you should know I intend to speak out loudly and forcefully on the issue.
Yesterday's Town Hall
Thank you to the more than 200 people who came to hear Adam and me speak yesterday at the Mount Vernon Community School at our annual Mid-Session Town Hall. I appreciated all your questions and kind words. It’s always good to be able to explain what is going on in Richmond in some detail. And I thank you all for understanding how difficult it is to get progressive legislation through the House of Delegates when we are a minority of 34 out of 100.
We have to get more seats in November!
Bills, Bills, and More Bills
Proceeding through Committee
I had 14 bills this year, plus a Constitutional Amendment and a budget amendment. Last week, I described how five of my bills fared. This week seven of my bills saw action in Committee or Subcommittee. Below, I will describe what happened to each bill and provide links to video footage so you can watch the proceedings yourself.
(I committed to filming hearings on my legislation before committees when I co-founded the Virginia Transparency Caucus last year).
For a complete list of bills I have introduced and where they currently stand in the legislative process, click here.
Starting with the good news, three of my bills were reported out of Committee and Subcommittee.
The first two had to do with protecting victims of abuse and sexual violence.
1) Preserving Evidence for Survivors of Child Sex Abuse (HB 2127)
Under current law, evidence recovered from the rape of a child ten years of age and younger is only stored until that child reaches the age of 20. I think that is too soon to destroy such crucial evidence. It takes a lot of self-awareness and courage (and usually some economic independence) before a young adult can process what happened to her or him as a child and have the fortitude to prosecute what is all too often a family member or step-parent. That’s really hard to do when you are 19 years old. My bill would extend that deadline to age 28 -- ten years after reaching the age of majority -- and would thus match the current law for adult survivors of sexual violence, which preserves such evidence for ten years. The bill also allows any survivor, upon written request, to require that the evidence be preserved for an additional ten-year period.
I’m pleased to say my bill passed both the Criminal Law Subcommittee and the full Courts of Justice Committee, as both of these bodies are notoriously difficult to accept new legislation. They have referred the bill to Appropriations, but as the costs for this change are minimal, I’m hopeful that it will clear this bar next week and go to the full House of Delegates by Crossover (February 7). You can watch my presentation here:
2) Tyler’s Law: In Custody Cases, Courts Should Consider Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Occurring Outside the Family (HB 2128)
The Virginia Code currently allows courts in custody cases to consider a parent’s history of family abuse or sexual abuse in determining the best interests of the child. So far so good. But what about a parent who has a history of abusing children other than his own? Or a history of domestic violence to other intimate partners? Surely anyone who commits this other abuse is not a good parent, and that factor should at least be considered in Family Court.
Over the course of two long and difficult hearings, I managed to have this bill reported out of Civil Law Subcommittee (on a close 4-3 vote!). I couldn’t do it alone. No doubt the moving testimony of Misty Russell and her 14-year-old son Tyler about how necessary the law was in their case was the clincher in getting the necessary votes on the Subcommittee.
At the second hearing, there was even a motion to kill the bill, which failed!
The Bill now goes to the full Courts of Justice Committee this Friday. If we prevail – and this is still an uphill process because many members of the Family Law Bar still resist this change – I will name the bill “Tyler’s Law.”
3) Stop SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) (HB 2446)
Last year, after several legislators and I discouraged a gun store from opening up in a residential area near a day-care center in Arlington, the gun store actually sued us to shut us up. Even worse, this store filed suit more than fifty citizens who did nothing other than attend a protest in a public park two blocks away from the store.
This SLAPP lawsuit, a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” was ridiculous. But we – and the fifty plus citizens – had to seek legal counsel to go into court, answer the complaint, and prepare motions to dismiss it. One day before the hearing, after our lawyers filed their motions the gun store (knowing it had no legal claim against us and not filing any papers themselves) dismissed their frivolous lawsuit. But their goal was clear: it was not to win an impossible lawsuit; it was to persuade ordinary citizens and lawmakers not to exercise their First Amendment rights by making it expensive to do so.
Luckily, we had good lawyers who generously offered their services without charge. But other protestors who have to defend SLAPP suits are not so lucky. I don’t believe anyone should be sued for a non-violent legal protest about public policy. And I think only if we punish those who would sue people for practicing their First Amendment rights can we stop this disgusting practice.
It’s not a Left-Right issue. People should have the right to protest Trump, just as they had the right to protest Obama. So I joined forces with Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore who represents Southwest Virginia and was putting forward a similar measure. I am now Chief Co-Patron of this joint measure, HB 1941, which has passed the Civil Law Subcommittee and will be heard in the Courts of Justice Committee this Friday. (The footage from the hearing will be posted tomorrow on my website and Youtube channel.)
So Friday will be a busy day for me, with two bills up before the same Committee!
The other four bills I introduced this week did not survive the Committee process.
4) Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program (HB 2126)
This bill was a comprehensive proposal to allow paid family and medical leave in Virginia, which is currently in place in some form or another in California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and virtually every other nation on the planet.
The idea was that employer and employee each pay 0.2% of an employee's salary into a trust fund. Then people eligible under the Federal Family Medical Leave Act (e.g. parents of newborns and people taking care of dying family members) could receive 2/3 of their wages for up to sixty days.
Some things are more important than work. When births and deaths occur, the last thing a new parent or a child of a dying parent should be thinking about is how to do their job.
In the four states where it has been tried, it has saved money for businesses who find that it increases worker morale and prevents employers from having to hire and train new workers to replace those who have to quit due to these vital family obligations.
But such a tiny amount of money – costing less than $2 a week for someone earning $50,000 a year – was too much for the Republican Delegates who unanimously hated the proposal and refused to even let it get a vote on the House Floor. It seems Republicans will move heaven and earth to protect fetuses, but their message to families who actually choose to give birth is “Forget the baby. Stop complaining about having to recover after your C-Section. AND GET BACK TO WORK!” It seems their “family values” are restricted to opposing birth control and punishing LGBT families, instead of helping all of Virginia families with real needs.
I believe the Virginia businesses who opposed this measure are not just heartless; they are harming themselves financially. In places where this has been tried, 90% or so of the businesses said providing this benefit ultimately improved their bottom line. You can watch the debate here:
5) License the Loan Sharks! (HB 2445)
Current law does not regulate – or even license – one (and only one) class of lenders in Virginia: those that provide open-ended lines of credit. These loan sharks can charge 1000% interest and unlimited fees and turn a $100 loan into more than $1000 in less than a year. Obviously these lenders prey on poor people. My bill was a modest measure to require licensing these predatory lenders, most of whom are from out of state and trick unsophisticated or desperate people on the Internet. The Republican majority voted down the measure.
On the bright side, I have requested to join a commission that will examine this issue carefully and hopefully find solutions to recommend for next year. I hope to work with my colleagues over the course of 2017 to protect vulnerable people from the unscrupulous lenders who would exploit them. You can watch the proceedings here:
6) More Resources for NOVA Transportation (HB 2130)
I’ve been working hard to find a funding mechanism sufficient for Northern Virginia’s transportation needs. Working in bipartisan coalition with my colleagues in Hampton Roads, I drafted a bill to provide a floor for the regional gas tax. I was able to bring the local business community together with the regional transit groups to support this compromise plan that even the gasoline distributors and gas stations did not oppose. Local Chambers of Commerce endorsed the bill as well.
But election-year politics proved to be too much for the Republican-led subcommittee, which would rather let our transit deteriorate and leave our highways clogged with traffic than ever be accused of raising revenues--even revenues that did not increase for their own constituents!
Everyone has to deal with the daily commute, Democrats and Republicans alike, and I only wish the majority would work with us to find common-sense solutions to this critical regional problem. There is a companion bill being put forward in the Senate that I will continue to support and could still pass, but I concede this measure may well be an uphill climb for us.
[One piece of good news on the transportation front though: this week, the House passed HB 2023, a bill that would allow cities to add up to fifty miles of new bike lanes without risking their state highway money. I was pleased to vote for this bill, and I urge the Senate to pass it as soon as they can. With HB 2023, we can expand Alexandria’s network of bike lanes and get more people out of their cars as they move around the City.]
Watch me argue for transportation funding here:
7) Count the Vote! (HB 2133)
Last year, we worked hard to move Virginia’s election system entirely to paper ballots by 2020. I support paper ballots to protect the integrity of our voting system. We must be sure, in close races, who actually won the election.
But there's a problem: these paper ballots are counted by machines! So I proposed this year that in close races, where a sample of 1% of ballots proves the machines unreliable, that we count the ballots by hand.
No dice. The Republican majority deep-sixed the proposal.
Virginia Transparency Caucus
We had an excellent bipartisan, bicameral turnout of members for our first 2017 Virginia Transparency Caucus meeting. We agreed on a Tagline:
Increasing Transparency in Virginia Government
and a Mission Statement:
Our goal is to increase public awareness of the inner workings of Virginia Government and the legislative and political process, in order to make Government more easily accessible to all Virginia citizens throughout the Commonwealth.
We also agreed to circulate a letter among General Assembly members advocating for the inclusion of filming capability for committee and subcommittee hearings in the New General Assembly Building.
I'm proud to say more and more members are filming the proceedings on their bills as I and co-founder Senator Amanda Chase do. And another group – Progress Virginia – has chipped in to film almost 75% of subcommittee proceedings.
We also promoted transparency in bills before the General Assembly, such as a bill this year by Republican Delegate Ben Cline that would have required each committee and subcommittee to record its votes (but unfortunately was killed by the Republican Leadership).
We want to see more of this type of bi-partisan legislation. Transparency is something that’s good for both sides of the aisle.
Remembering the Holocaust
Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. We will never forget the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Nor will we forget the 5 million others of all religions and nationalities who perished along with them. I stood up on the Floor of the House of Delegates to ask the body to adjourn in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the millions of people worldwide who continue to be persecuted today – and sometimes murdered – just for holding a different religious belief.
Defending Immigrants Against GOP Attacks
No doubt you are aware of the new President's scary Executive Order closing our doors to fully-vetted persecuted refugees from around the globe who seek safety on our shores. Like the German Jews of 1939, turned away by the USA when their ships reached our shores, Trump would send thousands of Syrian refugees (both Muslims and Christians) to an almost certain death at the hands of his friends, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
House Republicans are following in Trump’s footsteps to vilify America’s immigrants and refugees.
One bill, HB 2002, that came before me on the Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee would have required Virginia to track down every refugee! I asked some tough questions of the patron and encouraged my Democratic colleagues to oppose the bill. Although the bill passed the subcommittee on a party-line vote, I will try, if we can't defeat the bill on the House Floor, to persuade Governor McAuliffe to veto the bill.
The House of Delegates also passed Delegate Bob Marshall's bill, HB 1468, which would require local officials to detain undocumented immigrants beyond their release date, even without a judicial order, so that they can be turned over to federal authorities. We Democrats stood firm in opposing this law, and I’m confident the Governor will veto the bill.
When Republicans and the President demonize immigrants who have come here just to provide a better life for their families, I’m reminded of my great grandparents who did the same thing under more liberal immigration laws at the turn of the 20th Century.
Virtually all of us in the USA are descendants of immigrants. I’ve long said the only people who legitimately have a right to complain about immigration here are Native Americans. Ironically, many of the “Mexicans” criticized by Donald Trump as mostly “criminals and rapists” are descendants of the native tribes of America. So they have more right to be here than he does! (Trump's mother was a Scottish immigrant who came to this country as a domestic maid seeking greater opportunity during the Great Depression in 1929.)
Teachers from the Virginia Education Association visited me to discuss the budget for teacher pay increases and provisions for charter schools.
Several visitors came to my office for Mental Health Advocacy Day,
including former 45th Delegate, Rob Krupicka (in the center of the picture)
and Debbie Bernick (on the right).
Debbie Evans and her colleagues from the Alexandria Domestic and Sexual Violence office came to discuss my two bills on these issues (described above).
Commander Rex Maddox, USN Retired, came to talk to me about veterans' issues. I was honored to meet with him. Commander Tillerson is a 30 year veteran who served during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
William & Mary students, Hannah Ferster and Jennifer Seidenberg, stopped by to thank me for speaking at the Women's March on Washington.
Arlington County Treasurer
Carla de la Pava and me.
Cancer patients advocating for patient access to tumor-reducing medicines derived from cannabis, Cindy Cutler and Jenn Michelle Pedini.
These medicines can't get you "high," but a recent GWU/FDA study shows they can stop the spread of cancerous tumors and protect nerves from damage due to chemotherapy.
And Last, but Definitely Not Least:
Mark's Monthly Meetup
Thank you to the more than 50 people who attended My Monthly Meetup last week. I really appreciated hearing your concerns and our spirited discussion of how to address them.
Mark your calendars for the next Monthly Meetup at the end of February.
Mark’s Monthly Meetup
Sunday, February 26
2615 Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray (Alexandria)
It’s hard to believe that by the time of that Meetup, in just one month, my entire session in Richmond will already be over. Come have lunch with me and hear how it went!
I'm sorry my newsletter is so long. As I said, it was a very busy week! If you actually read this far, you deserve a special commendation for caring about your Commonwealth and your community....
It is always my honor and privilege to serve you.
Delegate Mark Levine
Serving Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax
in Virginia's 45th District