The end of session is upon us. With limited time to take action, the speed at which bills meet their fate has rapidly accelerated. As the remaining bills pass back and forth between the House and Senate, edits are made to their language--some of which are considerable--resulting in the House and Senate passing what can be substantially different pieces of legislation. These differences are reconciled through a Conference Committee. The committees are generally made up of three Delegates and three Senators, but the committee that reconciles differences between the budget bills that passed the House and Senate is composed of seven members from each chamber. The makeup of this committee heavily favors the majority party, with five Republicans and two Democrats representing each body. Senators Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) are among those representing the Senate.
There is general consensus on the budget this year. Much of the Commonwealth’s surplus revenue, resulting from differences in federal and state deductions due to the passage of federal tax cuts, was returned to taxpayers. Governor Northam has signed tax conformity legislation that aligns the federal and state tax codes with an “emergency clause.” The bill became law upon his signature and the Department of Taxation is now finally able to begin tackling a backlog of approximately 900,000 returns that have already been filed. However, the delay in the passage of this legislation will lead to some taxpayers experiencing a slower turnaround in the processing of their returns than in previous years.
This Valentine’s Day there was a noticeable shift in the often congenial nature of the General Assembly. As that day’s session drew to a close, I made a “point of personal privilege” on the anniversary of the Parkland massacre. While most of the offices in the Pocahontas legislative office building were decorated for Valentine’s Day, the wall outside my office displayed photographs of the 17 students and teachers who lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. I reminded my colleagues that in the year since Parkland, we have failed to pass a single piece of gun violence prevention legislation, and requested that we adjourn in the honor and memory of those lost.
This inspired a long, impassioned debate on the floor. Some conservative members decried efforts to honor the victims of the tragic massacre as an attempt to drive a “wedge issue,” rather than a reminder that, in the words of now-Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton, the people sent us here to “do something,” and thus far, we have failed to do so. The contentious, and sometimes disconcerting responses to these tributes were a painful reminder that while we can often work together for the future of Virginia, certain issues will never see a floor vote under the current majority. Since Parkland, 1,200 children have died due to gun violence--a devastating, preventable public health crisis that we cannot continue to ignore.
Later that afternoon, in the House General Laws Committee, my bills to outlaw discrimination against LGBT persons in public employment and housing were intentionally left off the docket for the final committee meeting of the session. This pre-orchestrated plan effectively killed these bills without giving them any hearing for the second consecutive year. When Democrats on the committee demanded the bills be heard, Republicans gaveled the meeting to a sudden close--turning their backs on a room packed with advocates. This was the same tactic used to kill Delegate Roxann Robinson’s (R-Powhatan) bill to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in housing. This series of events has been personally frustrating for me; I have been working on this issue since 2000, first as an advocate, then as a legislator.
In response to these parliamentary shenanigans, I worked with a bipartisan group of legislators on the Senate General Laws committee to amend a bill by Delegate Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) that masqueraded as an employment non-discrimination bill, but did not address hiring and firing practices. It also exempted local government and other large swaths of the state and local government employee population from these protections and did not explicitly protect LGBT Virginians. We incorporated language contained in my legislation to outlaw discrimination in public employment into the bill, outflanking House leadership’s attempts to quietly kill my bill in committee. If passed by the Senate, the full membership of the House of Delegates will have an opportunity to vote on accepting this commonsense protection.
House Republicans took a page out of the same playbook to refuse to bring the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to a floor vote. Delegate Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) introduced a rules change in the House which would allow a simple majority of Delegates to discharge the ERA from committee and force a vote on the House floor, in an attempt to avoid efforts to kill the resolution in unfriendly subcommittees.
Heading into this session, a handful of members of the majority party joined Democrats to support for LGBT protections and the inclusion of the ERA in the Constitution, many for the first time. Despite the efforts of a few members of the majority party to align their votes with the evolving views of their districts, House leadership continues to keep these bills off the floor. Though we face entrenched resistance from a minority of legislators, Democrats are doing our best to ensure that we listen to, advocate for, and vote on important matters that ensure our laws reflect the wishes of the majority of Virginians.
This week gave a clear view into Virginia politics. Progressive legislators are forced to adopt creative approaches to get a fair hearing for legislation that enjoys the stated support of a majority of members. Still, we are pressing forward where we can. We incorporated funding in the proposed budgets for key priorities including affordable housing, 5% raises for teachers, higher education and workforce development, and investment in transportation that will directly affect the 30th district. We have also made steps to improve access to renewable energy, clean up the environment by addressing coal ash waste and are in conference on legislation to reform our redistricting process. We have come up against the glass ceiling of progress that can be achieved under current leadership. It’s time to shatter it.
It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District,
Adam P. Ebbin
Member, Senate of Virginia