Despite the season, it has been a balmy fifty degrees most days here in Richmond. The usually sagging coat racks have remained empty, Capitol Square has been bustling with government employees and medical professionals from the nearby VCU Hospital enjoying their lunch breaks, and the usually high-in-demand cold-weather shuttle to parking decks has been shirked by legislators in favor of pleasant strolls to their rental units. While this unseasonable warm snap is not, in and of itself, proof of a changing climate, it is an indicator of a well accepted scientific fact: our earth is warming, altering, due to human activity.
Unfortunately, neither the gentle reminder brought on by the warmer days or the rather stark realities of our rapidly declining environment have convinced our current gubernatorial administration or my Republican colleagues that we must take meaningful action to transition to a renewable energy future. In fact, GOP legislators have introduced a wide swath of bills to roll back our progress on clean energy and climate action laws.
The three central tenets of Virginia’s clean energy transition — Virginia’s Clean Car standards, our participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) – face legislative challenges in both chambers and, in RGGI’s case, through the regulatory process. If repealed, the brighter future created by the past administrations will grow dim, and our existing investment and progress would be wasted.
RGGI is a regional cap and trade program which provides hundreds of millions of dollars in flood mitigation and energy efficiency investments for low income Virginians. The state’s participation in the program currently faces multiple obstacles. Despite GOP talking points, the facts are clear: RGGI is an effective program to help individual states and our nation transition away from carbon polluting energy.
RGGI states had far surpassed Virginia with emissions reductions before we entered the compact in 2021. From 2005 to 2020, RGGI states saw their emissions drop by twice as much as Virginia—59-percent in RGGI states compared to 30-percent in Virginia. In RGGI’s first year alone in Virginia (2021), our statewide pollution decreased by 13 percent.
My 21 Democratic senate colleagues and I are prepared to defeat any legislation attempting to withdraw us from the compact. We are equally prepared to combat current attempts by Governor Glenn Youngkin to withdraw Virginia from RGGI through the administrative rule making process. Former Attorney General Mark Herring ruled this kind of act would be unlawful. Without statutory authority, it is likely the Governor’s ploy to remove us from RGGI will soon be tied up in litigation, further delaying clean energy goals and wasting your tax dollars.
House and Senate Republicans have also attempted to repeal our adoption of the 15-state Clean Car standards, which set stricter vehicle emissions limits than the federal government imposes and gradually increase the availability of EVs on car lots across the Commonwealth, in line with automakers’ own goals of going all-electric. Federal law prohibits Virginia from enacting our own regulations on tailpipe emissions. Under the federal Clean Air Act, we are required to adopt emissions standards set by either the EPA or the Clean Cars standard. The GOP proposals would kneecap our ability to reduce personal vehicle emissions, which make up 70% of all carbon pollution in our largest pollution source: transportation. I am glad to report that the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee defeated these proposals.
It is critical to play effective defense on our environmental goals, at least long enough to provide time for Virginia’s utilities to make long term investment in renewables. This strategy is already succeeding – earlier this month Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest regulated utility, announced a slate of projects in their Climate Report 2022 which will make solar energy our main power generator by 2040, phasing out coal by 2030, and steadily reducing the use of fracked gas over a 20-year period. These projects go a long way towards combating global warming and increasing air and water quality across our state.
I’ll continue fighting to defend that progress in Richmond and will fight to make even more in the years ahead.
The second week of the 2023 legislative session began with what many groups refer to as “lobby day” – Martin Luther King Jr Day, when school and work closures allow a wide range of constituencies to visit the Capitol in Richmond. The halls of the Pocahontas building teemed with advocates for education, tenants' rights groups, high school students on field trips, and parents with young children, many witnessing the process of representative government for the first time. The diverse viewpoints and perspectives shared throughout the halls of government all day on Monday were a reminder to my colleagues and me of the solemn duty of both representing our constituencies, and the complex interests of our entire Commonwealth here in Richmond.
Much agreement is found during these meetings, but sometimes, civil discourse on contentious topics does not come to a mutual resolution. One such issue, which we hear a great deal about is gun violence. Each year, advocates from the Virginia Citizens Defense League organize in Richmond on MLK Day to discuss their strongly held beliefs of an unlimited right to bear arms. While we disagree, often strongly, I always appreciate meeting with constituents with differing opinions and having robust debate over these issues.
I was glad to stand with a group of my colleagues including Senators Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax), Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), and Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax) to announce the roll out of the Senate Democratic Caucus’s gun violence prevention priorities, which includes two bills I introduced. Our legislative agenda includes bills to ban the sale of assault-style weapons, create penalties for the negligent storage of firearms in homes with minors present; establish civil fines for leaving an unsecured firearm in a vehicle; establish standards of responsible conduct for the firearm industry in Virginia, and enacting clear criteria and parameters for judges to review when filing Extreme Risk Protective Orders (also known as red-flag laws).
My two pieces of legislation ban the sale of “ghost guns” and the open, public carry of assault-style semi-automatic weapons. Ghost guns are untraceable firearms which can be bought online, assembled from kits with ease, and function precisely like any other firearm. These weapons pose a serious and deliberate problem. Law enforcement report seeing a rise in the use of ghost guns in criminal acts and accidental shootings. The process of converting ghost gun parts — which can be purchased without a background check, license or record of sale, into a functioning firearm — involves just a few steps and can be completed without any special skill. They are particularly enticing to people who cannot pass a background check — domestic abusers, minors, organized crime, and those with a violent felony record. My legislation seeks to fix a loophole: manufacturers are required to put a serial number on finished firearms but not on individual parts. This bill requires manufacturers, dealers, and distributors to add a serial number, which legitimizes a weapon and makes it traceable if used in a crime.
My second bill bans the public carry of assault style weapons, whose definition closely reflects the highly successful 1994 assault weapon ban. Weapons of war have no place in civil society and certainly not on our streets where they frighten our families. Regular issue law enforcement service weapons aren’t a match for these military weapons and their standard issue vests can’t stop a high velocity bullet. This legislation is critical both to preserving safety in public spaces, but also to protect our public servants.
I look forward to a spirited debate on these important bills in the coming weeks.
It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.
The General Assembly gaveled into the 2023 legislative session on Wednesday, January 11th at noon. We began the session just one day after three special elections occurred across Virginia. In the House, the partisan makeup remains unchanged at 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats, with Delegate-elect Holly Seibold (D-Fairfax) replacing former Delegate Mark Keam, who resigned from his seat to join the Biden Administration, and Delegate-elect Ellen Hamilton Campbell (R-Rockbridge) succeeding her late husband, former Delegate Ronnie Campbell, who sadly passed away from cancer in December.
In a hotly contested race to replace former senator, now Congresswoman Jen Kiggans in Virginia Beach, Democrat Aaron Rouse defeated Republican candidate Kevin Adams. I look forward to welcoming Senator-Elect Rouse to Richmond this week, where his swearing in will expand our Democratic majority to 22-18.
With this split legislature and a Republican executive branch, I expect the session will play out much like the 2022 session – in which compromise on nonpartisan issues created some incremental progress, and tie-breaking votes moved forward portions of the Governor’s agenda, creating unnecessary and deleterious backslides. My legislative agenda contains a number of pragmatic, nonpartisan proposals to benefit the 30th District, including battling inland flooding, regulating intentionally loud modified car mufflers, protecting the privacy of our genetic data information, and protecting election officials from harassment and intimidation. But I will also continue to push on crucial, progressive priorities including the regulation marijuana sales, gun violence prevention, and LGBT marriage equality. For these proposals to become law this year, it will require political courage from members of the legislature to vote their conscience.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that over the next 46 days, my colleagues and I will make significant progress for Virginians. We expect to hear up to 2,000 pieces of legislation and will amend the second year of our biennial budget. The Governor laid out his priorities in early December and provided the Money Committees with a starting point. I feel strongly that the Governor’s proposals fall short in many areas, continuing to prioritize tax gimmicks over funding of core services like public education. I look forward to working with my colleagues to make meaningful investments in the needs of the Commonwealth as a whole, rather than reducing taxes for major corporations and the wealthiest Virginians.
I also expect that my Democratic Senate colleagues and I will have our work cut out for us defending the progress Virginia has made over the last several years. Already we have seen bills filed to restrict reproductive rights, siphon public dollars to private schools, and discriminate against transgender students. I look forward to working with my colleagues, and using my new chairmanship over the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee to both move forward the operation and efficiency of Virginia government, and to defeat any antiquated, backwards proposals and defend our shared priorities and rights.