Session Update: February 27, 2023

And that’s a wrap.

Sort of.

In what has become a familiar story, the General Assembly did not finish its business within the six weeks it was supposed to. While we adjourned “Sine Die” Saturday evening, we have significant issues still to decide, including–most importantly–the budget. So at some point–hopefully soon–I’ll be headed back to Richmond. More on that below.

We did have some notable accomplishments. As I’ve reported to you throughout the session, the Democratic Senate blocked all of the awful bills the House Republican majority rammed through the House. It is disappointing to have to include blocking bills as an accomplishment, but in today’s environment in Virginia defending the progress we made when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion is indeed something to be proud of. “Defense, defense, defense” was the name of the game this year.

On the very last day of session we had one surprisingly bipartisan accomplishment: we passed ground breaking–even historic–legislation changing the way we regulate our electric utilities in Virginia, reining in Dominion’s ability to set its own rules and overcharge Virginians for electricity, and restoring the power of our State Corporation Commission to oversee and determine electricity rates and Dominion’s profit margin. You can read about it here and here.

As I said on the floor just before we passed the bill: it was a good day for anyone in Virginia who has to pay an electric bill. The legislation was the result of years of effort–mostly from our side of the aisle, but with some growing Republican support as well–to wrest control over electric rates (and the resulting soaring electric bills) from Dominion, and return the regulatory power to the SCC that it once had.

I was proud to play a role in the negotiations, and to have helped create the momentum for the success by also leading the effort to pass the Affordable Energy Act (HB1604), and its Senate counterpart (SB1321), which are both headed to the Governor’s desk. That legislation kicked open the door for returning rate-making authority to the SCC, and lit the fuse for the last-day drama which completed the shift in Virginia’s regulatory policy. It was exciting to reprise my partnership with Senator (now Congresswoman-elect) Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) (we passed the Clean Economy Act together three sessions ago) and enjoyed working with the other co-patrons Delegate Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), and Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) to get the Affordable Energy Act passed. I am grateful to all of the many stakeholders involved for working to get this bill to the finish line. To see an article from the Virginia Mercury outlining the bill’s passage, please click here. 

And speaking of Jennifer McClellan, last Tuesday was an exciting and historic day. My colleague, dear friend, and collaborator Senator Jennifer McClellan was elected to represent the 4th Congressional District and become the first Black woman ever to represent Virginia in Congress. Jennifer led the efforts to pass groundbreaking legislation throughout her time in the General Assembly, including passing the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia, the Virginia Voting Rights Act, and being my partner in passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Jennifer will be an outstanding member of Congress working to advance policies that uplift Virginians. 

One issue I was glad to see NOT come before the General Assembly this session was Virginia’s Red Flag law. Last session a bill passed the House to repeal the law. The Senate killed it. This session the same bill was introduced again in the House, but was never heard in committee or on the floor. I took to the House floor on Wednesday to point out the obvious reality that the Republican majority did not want to put HB1394 up for a vote because they know the law is working and voters do not want it repealed. This is an election year, and it would be a terrible time from the Republicans’ perspective to remind Virginia voters that the Republicans want to go backward on gun safety.

I told a couple of chilling stories of situations in which the Red Flag law has been used in Virginia to save lives. You can see my speech here.

What’s even more disappointing is that the Youngkin administration has NO plans to use any of the federal money made available in last year’s bipartisan federal gun safety bill to broaden and strengthen the use of our Red Flag law in Virginia. No plans to help avoid another tragedy. The Governor’s most important responsibility is to protect Virginians. He talks a good game but fails to make that promise a reality. I hope the Governor can find the political courage to acknowledge that his decision is wrong, reverse course, and take steps to ensure that more law enforcement and more citizens know how to access the Red Flag law when they are concerned that someone may be a danger to themselves or others. Let’s not miss any red flags in Virginia.

It was an honor to participate this week in a Center Aisle presentation on the Senate floor, alongside Senator Barbara Favola and the entire Arlington delegation, to honor Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. An Arlington native, Joan is a civil rights activist who was a freedom rider in the 1960s. In 1961, Joan was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi and spent two months in the Maximum-Security Unit of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Joan ultimately participated in more than 50 demonstrations and sit-ins, drawing the ire of the Ku Klux Klan, which marked her for assassination. She became the first white student to enroll at Tougaloo College. Joan Mulholland’s story has been immortalized in award-winning documentaries, such as An Ordinary Hero, directed by her son, Loki, and in books by noted historians, such as Breach of Peace and We Shall Not Be Moved. She has appeared on national television programs and in magazines and newspapers and is a frequent speaker at local universities, charitable events, and meetings. Joan is a national treasure.

Last week I had the pleasure to welcome my sister Betsy Gardiner. It was great to see her. 

One issue that has been a constant source of controversy since Governor Youngkin was elected is education. Particularly K-12 education. On a Monday the Governor might be praising the importance and professionalism of our teachers and claiming he wants to pay them better. But on Tuesday, he creates “snitch lines” for people to report teachers to him, and claims our public school teachers are to blame for everything from school shutdowns during Covid to phantom bad test scores to “indoctrinating” our children with what he calls “divisive concepts.” It is frustrating, and maddening.

I had the opportunity this session to honor two of the very best teachers I have ever had. Janet Martin and Jayne Karsten were legendary teachers at Langley High School. Both of them died this year. I took the 11th grade course they developed called American Civilization. They had a profound impact on my life, and the lives of countless high schoolers. “AC,” as it was called, was an interdisciplinary humanities program that integrated the history of American civilization and literature with philosophy, music, art, and even dance. They taught us hard work and discipline, how to be critical thinkers, to think outside the box, and prepared us for college or whatever our next step in life would be. We read books, looked at art, and learned the facts and history of the American experience that some people these days would want banned. I am forever grateful to these brilliant and accomplished women–and their third collaborator, Mary McDiarmid–for helping to set the foundation for my life’s educational and civic journey. You can read the Resolutions that the General Assembly passed to honor the lives of these remarkable women here and here.

I mentioned at the beginning that the lack of a budget agreement is a disappointment of this session. The impasse is rooted in the two very different visions–very different priorities– that the Democrats and Governor Youngkin have with regard to our budget surplus. The Governor would give an additional $1 billion tax cut (in addition to the several billion from last year) to corporations and high income Virginians. Most Virginians would receive less than $50; high income Virginians would get hundreds, even thousands more. The top 1% of Virginians would get nearly 20% of the money. The Democrats, on the other hand, would use that $1 billion to address important and long standing needs, particularly in our K-12 education system. The contrast in priorities could not be more stark.

Another, less-talked-about disappointment from the session was our failure to elect two new State Corporation Commission judges. There are only three spots, so the Commission is hampered with only one judge at the moment. This is an institutional failure in my view. Both sides had a responsibility to make this happen, and the negotiations got hung up on political bickering of the sort we see in Washington but like to think we do less of in Richmond. Given the new and important responsibilities we’ve restored to the Commission this year, resolving this impasse is even more important than ever. I hope we find a way to get this done quickly.

On Friday, my dear friend and colleague Kathleen Murphy announced her decision not to run for re-election. I am proud to have served Mclean alongside Kathleen. We have been a great team as we both represent part of McLean. Kathleen has served in the House of Delegates with great distinction, tenacity, civility, class, and grace. Kathleen has been a leader on issues impacting countless lives in Virginia. Her work with women veterans, her success in shining a light on rare diseases, and her tireless efforts to reduce gun violence, have been inspiring to witness. I am proud to call her a colleague and friend. Though her time in the General Assembly is coming to an end, I am certain her time as a servant leader will continue. I wish Kathleen and her husband Bill Sudow all the best in her next chapter.

To see a video of my comments on Kathleen, please click here.

Finally, I want to thank my team for their great work this session. You all already know my Chief of Staff John Daniels, but I would like to also thank my session intern Addisyn Winston, who is a 1st year at the University of Virginia studying to complete a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Studies. (Go Hoos!).

And with the adjournment of the General Assembly, election season begins. I look forward to seeing you all in the months ahead, knocking on many of your doors, talking with you about your concerns, and asking you to return me to Richmond representing the new 6th House District, to continue this important job you’ve entrusted to me. You can see my re-election announcement here.

I will be kicking off my campaign at an event on the evening of March 9, joined by Senator Tim Kaine, and Delegate Kathleen Murphy. I’d love to see you there. Click here for the details.