With one week remaining in the 2021 legislative session, Senators and Delegates are putting the finishing touches on legislation, and preparing to head home to the districts they represent in Richmond and throughout the year.
One of the great features of the 30th Senate District, which I have been privileged to represent since 2011, is its sweeping access to the Potomac River, and the many tributaries that feed into it. Despite sitting miles from the Bay and Ocean, water is all around us, bringing with it cool, fresh air; rich, diverse marshland; and the ability to walk from the office to multitudes of freshwater activities in moments. With these benefits, as those who live in our area know all too well, also come a number of challenges. The most obvious of which is the damage and danger of inland flooding.
As our climate is altered by a multitude of manmade factors, we face the reality of storm intensities beyond what our infrastructure was ever designed to handle. In just the last year, the city of Alexandria has faced three “ten-year” storms (storms that have a one-in-ten chance of happening in a given year that drops 2.28 inches of rain over an hour or 4.81 inches in a day). The intensity of this rainfall has overburdened our stormwater management systems, creating serious backups and flash flooding in underprepared areas of Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax.
Areas such as Del Ray and Four Mile Run, among many, have faced serious flooding. Many individuals have felt the brunt of the inadequacy of our existing stormwater infrastructure to handle the quantity of water it is facing on a much more regular basis. Basements and properties have been severely damaged, people have been trapped in cars during flash floods, and the problem is only getting worse. We face both a short and long-term problem: protecting the homes and properties of those who live in the affected areas, and also fixing an overrun and aging infrastructure system to mitigate flooding issues.
In Alexandria, residents are looking to the city to do everything possible to deal with the recurring flooding that’s impacting our community. The city is currently working on a Flood Mitigation Action Plan which includes more than $170 million in infrastructure investments and capacity projects throughout the community which will take ten years to complete.
While that crucial long-term investment is underway, we must find ways to support those people who are being affected now. I was glad that local officials in Alexandria worked with me on legislation to give them flexibility to address the immediate needs of constituents. Often, our local officials are placed in a jam in Virginia -- they have the ideas, money, and staff to pull off incredible projects, but their hands are sometimes tied by the “Dylan Rule.” Unlike “home rule” states, Virginia localities draw their power from the state legislature, and any new power they wish to adopt must be approved by the legislature.
In this case, localities have created a flexible grant fund, drawn from their own coffers, to address stormwater management, but they were limited in how they use those funds to address flooding. That is why I introduced SB1309, which grants increased power to preserve at-risk properties through flood proofing, grading, and other flood protection products. These cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly projects should grant some much-needed reprieve to our water-adjacent neighborhoods, protecting the most vulnerable neighborhoods while Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax governments work diligently to overhaul their stormwater management systems.
I was glad to unanimously pass this legislation and send it to the Governor’s desk last week. I look forward to this becoming law and will continue working to address the underlying issues resulting in environmental and infrastructure threats in our community.
Last year was my first on the influential Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, where I was glad to gain direct experience in the allocation of funds and the tweaking of expenses which together create our state budget. At the time, the economic outlook was strong, and we reported an incredibly bold, progressive budget. Within a month of its adoption it was clear many of our lofty funding goals would need to be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparably, Virginia has weathered the economic storm well, and we were able to restore some of these funding priorities this year, as well as take important new steps to begin the process of rebuilding our economy.
Last week the Senate and House reported our respective amendments to the second-year appropriations of Virginia’s biennial budget. The differences between these versions will be reconciled in the coming weeks by the joint budget conferees. The Senate budget prioritizes repairing the damage COVID has done to our students’ ability to learn, bolsters our education system, protects small businesses, expands access to broadband, increases affordable housing opportunities, and funds growing vaccination efforts as well as directing aid to at-risk medical patients.
In healthcare, we made prudent decisions to increase federal matching dollars for children’s healthcare and foster care, and secured a large amount of federal funding to support a statewide vaccination program. Since my last column, Virginia has become one of the most successful states in vaccine distribution, and this funding will help us further advance that mission while saving nearly $100 million for other priorities. We also appropriated dollars to add slots for Developmental Disability Waivers to support those vulnerable residents most impacted by COVID-19.
Virginia’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which funds short and long term projects to reduce barriers to ownership and renting of affordable housing, as well as projects reducing homelessness, has been funded at or around $5 million a year since its inception. That was simply not enough, and I am glad the Senate budget takes the issue seriously by allocating $110 million to the Trust over the biennium. We also allocated significant federal relief dollars for rent and mortgage relief. As this year has proved, access to the Internet is not a commodity, but rather a necessity. To address this reality the Senate included nearly $50 million for broadband infrastructure grants. We also included expansive tax breaks and small business loans to protect and bring back small businesses and jobs in the coming year -- a major priority for members of the Senate Finance Committee.
Everyone has suffered during this pandemic, but especially of concern are Virginia’s children, who have been uniquely affected during their formative years. The Senate budget moves to address those concerns in order to get kids back into even better schools than the ones they left, with more support and a higher chance at life-long success. We increased salaries for hard-working educators, and also allocated significant dollars in order to add three additional support staff (including mental health counselors and nurses) per 1,000 students statewide. We also increased per-pupil funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative to level the playing field, so that disadvantaged early learners have a better shot at success.
Despite economic struggles, I am glad that the Senate did not adhere to austerity economics as was done during the 2008 financial crisis. This legislative session has been one to address needs, not wants, and I am glad to support a budget that addressed those needs aggressively and responsibly. With the funds allocated in this year's budget, Virginia will recover.
It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District,
Adam P. Ebbin
Member, Senate of Virginia
Last Friday, February 5th, the General Assembly reached “Crossover” the point where all bills must have passed their house of origin to continue on their legislative journey. For my part I was glad to pass seven of the nine bills I introduced and a Constitutional Amendment, all but one on a bipartisan vote, out of the Senate. By a unanimous vote the Senate approved legislation I introduced for the City of Alexandria to give localities enhanced ability to fund short-term flood mitigation measures. This will allow the city, and other localities, to fund projects to protect homes and neighborhoods from the shocking increase in inland flooding we have experienced over the last few years. By a vote of 27-12 the Senate approved my legislation to give Virginia's illegal eviction statute statutory teeth, addressing a major concern during COVID-19 of evictions being carried out, without the court's approval, against low-income residents. By a vote of 24-14 I was able to pass legislation, brought to me by a constituent, to remove an unnecessary barrier to patient-centered-care from Virginia’s genetic counseling licensure program. My legislation to create a regulated adult use market for cannabis passed 23 to 15 but is expected to have continued changes as we reconcile differences between the House proposal and the Senates.
On the last day before Crossover, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee took up a number of potential amendments to the Constitution of Virginia. In order to be adopted, these amendments must pass this year and then again after this fall’s election in order to be sent to the voters for their consideration.
As sometimes happens, I was called on to chair the committee when Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) presented a bill in another committee. That opportunity gave me the pleasure of presiding over one of the most important votes I believe the committee will take this year: approving Senator Mamie Locke’s (D-Hampton) constitutional amendment to end felony disenfranchisement. Virginia is one of four states where a person loses their right to vote entirely after they are convicted of a felony-level offense. This disenfranchisement is a lasting vestige of the “lost-cause” of white supremacy. Added to Virginia’s Constitution in 1902, the practice of disenfranchising criminals was leveraged as one of the most powerful and pernicious tools of Jim Crow. At the Constitutional Convention a number of barriers to the ballot box for Black Virginians were enacted, with purpose and conviction, effectively ending the right to vote for Black Virginians within two years of its enactment. Many were later stripped away during the Civil Rights Era, but felony disenfranchisement has persisted. Though we have taken many steps to reform our criminal justice system in the two years since Democrats took the majority in Richmond, the fact remains that proportionately there are many more Black Virginians with felony convictions than any other race. As long as the right to vote is tied to criminal history, it will have the effect that the drafters of the 1902 Constitution intended: racially motivated voter suppression. The Amendment went on to pass the full Senate.
I also carried two Constitutional Amendments to the Senate floor which I have been working on for several years. SJ271, which allows a Governor to run for two consecutive terms, provoked extended floor debate, but ultimately failed. Currently Virginia is the only state which does not allow their Governor to run for consecutive terms. I believe this hampers government accountability, continuity in planning, long term budgetary decisions, and limits the benefits of experienced and talented Governors.
I was glad to pass SJ270, which begins the important process of repealing the stain on our state Constitution of the now inoperative ban on same-sex marriage, enacted in 2006, and replacing it with an affirmative right to marry regardless of gender. Though the US Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in 2014, removing this now defunct ban from our Constitution is important both in affirming our values and ensuring protections against any actions by the current far-right Supreme Court. If the amendment is approved next year, and by the voters, it would make Virginia the second state in the nation to enact an affirmative right to marriage. Virginia is not often a leader on social justice or equality, but I am proud that in this case, we are blazing a trail not just in the south, but nationwide.
The Senate has passed a total of 296 bills to the House, and we will receive 416 for review. Among those passed were a ban on the death penalty in Virginia, strengthened protections against workplace harassment, expanded access to healthcare, and tax credits to increase affordable housing development.
It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District
Adam P. Ebbin
Member, Senate of Virginia
If one tuned into the Senate floor stream for the first time last week, they might think much of the Senate’s work is solely focused on dealing with the actions of just one member -- Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield). Over several days hours long debate was held over a resolution to censure Senator Chase, whose participation in the rally that led to the attempted overthrow of our federal government, and her public support of those seditionists, have made headlines. The censure eventually passed by a vote of 24-9, with several Republican colleagues speaking in support of the measure, but then walking off the floor when the time came to cast a vote.
It is my hope that prolonged debate does not overshadow the legislative work being done in Richmond, of which, even during this short session, there is a great deal. With only one week of committee work left on Senate bills, I was glad to move several important measures forward to the floor. These measures include legislation to create serious repercussions for illegally evicting someone (SB1215) and a bill which will codify a ban on dangerous weapons from state-owned buildings and Capitol Square (SB1381).
Despite a clear statutory prohibition against “do-it-yourself” evictions, the number of unlawful evictions executed by landlords without any due process for tenants or judicial oversight rose dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis. Unscrupulous landlords have used illegal lockouts and utility shut-offs to evict tenants, knowing that the only penalty that could be imposed on them was an order to allow the tenant back into the home and possibly paying that tenant’s attorney’s fees. One legal aid attorney who spoke in favor of this legislation said they have been fighting this problem since 1990. That is why Delegate Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) and I introduced legislation to create strong penalties for illegal evictions: four month’s rent or a $5,000 payment, whichever is greater, along with attorney’s fees so that the cases are taken up, and a requirement that a judge hear cases involving illegal evictions within five days, ensuring an immediate response to someone losing their home. This legislation addresses the bad actors in the rental industry, and enhances tenants’ rights, which is why it’s supported by the Apartment and Office Association, the Virginia Apartment Management Association, the Virginia Realtors, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center. Delegate Hudson’s bill has passed out of the House and is headed to the Senate. My bill passed out of committee unanimously with one abstention and is headed to the Senate floor.
As we saw last month in Washington, there is a dangerous faction of extremists that have been emboldened over the last few years to the point that they felt comfortable attempting to breach the nation’s Capitol, some calling for the execution of members of Congress who they did not agree with. Violence and intimidation have no place in the public square, which is why I introduced legislation to codify a ban on dangerous weapons, including firearms, from state buildings and extend this ban to Richmond’s Capitol Square grounds. The violence in Washington last month was not a one off -- last year when a large pro-gun rally occurred in Richmond, there was no violence -- likely only because the FBI arrested several would be rally-goers armed with 1,500 rounds of ammunition who planned to “literally hunt people” according to court filings.
For those who have not yet come to Richmond to lobby, you may not realize just how many people visit the legislature during a normal year. On a given day, thousands of people come to lobby their legislators, hold rallies, and tour the Capitol. Children, college students, doctors, business owners, disability advocates, and advocates from across the political spectrum crowd the hallways, bumping into one another in their haste to get to their next appointment with a lawmaker. Virginia’s Capitol police force has enough trouble keeping the hallways orderly and ensuring the safety of all citizens when so many people crowd the building. They don’t need the added concern of a firearm accidentally discharging, causing a panic. These concerns aren’t just hypothetical -- some years ago, a delegate's firearm accidentally discharged, only stopped from entering a fellow delegate's office by a bullet proof vest on the back of his door. For these reasons I was glad that this bill advanced out of committee this week and is headed to the floor.
I look forward to passing this legislation through the House and sending it to the Governor’s desk, along with several other bills to address inland flooding, access to medical care, and marijuana legalization, in the coming weeks.
It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District,
Adam P. Ebbin
Member, Senate of Virginia