Under the chaotic national headlines of a deadly pandemic, fights in Congress over relief bills for people struggling in that pandemic, and a second presidential impeachment, state legislators are busy passing laws that could change life in the commonwealth for everyone.
The 2021 General Assembly session is unusual in almost every way: the pandemic has many members participating online from home for the first time. The session’s calendar has been extended by Gov. Ralph Northam, giving legislators more time to work. And the General Assembly has already passed or is well on its way to passing landmark bills legalizing recreational marijuana use, abolishing the death penalty and requiring schools to reopen in the fall.
For Loudoun’s Richmond delegation, too, 2021 stands to be a big year. For one thing, after decades of trying and getting stopped short, bills to fight toll increases on the Dulles Greenway have cruised through both chambers with overwhelming support.
“I think in the past, the Greenway and its operators have essentially divided the delegation, and confused people on some of the basic facts around this,” said Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87), who along with other Loudoun representatives this year introduced a bill designed to curb toll increases and close financing loopholes.
“I think this year is different because the entire delegation is united, and because I think there’s been enough education and enough awareness of what needs to get done,” Subramanyam said. “[…] I think it was just a matter of in the past educating our general assembly colleagues, I think we did that with a lot of hard work and preparation this year.”
That bill incorporates not only some of the main points pushed since it was first introduced years ago by then-Del. David I. Ramadan, Subramanyam’s predecessor in the seat, but also addresses some of the issues pointed to by a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner in an ongoing application to increase tolls for the next five years.
“It wasn’t a Republican solution or a Democratic solution, and this is the first time it’s been a joint solution of the Richmond delegation and the local officials, so it’s the first time we’ve all been on the same page—that’s huge,” said Sen. John J. Bell (D-13). “Second, we just got an examiner’s report from the SCC on the rate case, and that really gave us all the specific recommendations we needed.”
“We’ve tried to work with the representatives of the Greenway to ty to get them to do something on their own, and we haven’t had that success,” said Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33). “I know that the Secretary of Transportation has been trying as well, and I think the thought behind it for us as legislators is, we’ve got to take action. No more waiting. We’ve tried in good faith to bring everybody to the table.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with our wonderful Board of Supervisors, because they came together,” said Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10). “It was hard for us to be together in Richmond when our localities weren’t getting together yet.”
With hundreds of bills wending through the state legislature in the space of several weeks, many passed without grabbing headlines but will have real impacts on day-to-day living. For example, Subramanyam has signed on to several bills to increase oversight of Dominion Energy Virginia’s prices and bookkeeping practices, intended to push power bills down.
The Dominion and Greenway bills, which have passed the House and are in the Senate, represent victories over what once were seen as unassailable lobbying forces in Richmond.
“I think you have to find friends, and then you have to talk to people who have been in the way before, and educate them on why this is so important,” Subramanyam said of that success. “People don’t realize that a lot of the reasons why big things have not gotten done Richmond is because of misconceptions that have been performed by the lobbyists representing those special interests, and so it was just a matter of educating my colleagues. You know, my colleagues in the General Assembly—we’re not beholden some money, you know, a couple thousand dollars isn’t going to buy anyone’s vote, no matter what people think, but what will get their vote is when you make a really strong case for why something needs to get done.”
Another bill, the Consumer Data Protection Act, would stand up some privacy protections around the data companies like Facebook or Google collect on people living in Virginia, including granting Virginians rights to access, correct, delete, and obtain a copy of their personal data and to opt out of the processing of their personal data for targeted advertising.
“My niche has been finding issues that other delegates aren’t working on as much, and maybe the public isn’t even aware of, and fighting for Virginians on that front,” Subramanyam said. “Because there are a lot of issues where, especially, monopolies or special interests have just completely controlled the General Assembly.”
Gooditis, on the other hand, called herself the “emoter delegate,” and tends to tie bills back to an experience from her own life to explain their importance.
“I’m definitely sort of emotion-based. My sense of wanting to care for the world is pretty overwhelming,” Gooditis said. “So in terms of minimum wage, and benefits, and unions, the right to form unions—all of those things are, for me, a sense of caring for the people who, in many, many, many cases have not been as fortunate as I have.”
That includes a bill this year that the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act would no longer exclude domestic service, after the experience of her own parents who died in May.
“The reason they died peacefully, at home, with no COVID, in a beautifully clean house with the most carefully prepared meals a person could have was because of domestic workers,” Gooditis said. “We had wonderful home healthcare aids who took care of them as though they were their own parents.”
But she recalled her father’s stubborn refusal to use a cane or wheelchair, which meant those aids supporting him while he walked and took the occasional fall. One of those aids was a 72-year-old woman, she said, who was her house’s only source of income.
“The thought of, if she had wrenched her back when my father pulled her down, and of her not having the right to worker’s comp, it’s actually ludicrous,” Gooditis said. “Why on Earth would someone like that not deserve worker’s comp? It’s time.”
And the sight of empty grocery store shelves early in the pandemic contributed to her support for bills to support small- and medium-sized agriculture businesses, such as a Local Food and Farming Infrastructure Grant Program with grants up to $25,000, and a Virginia Agriculture Food Assistance Program for Virginia farmers and food producers to donate or sell their products to charitable food assistance organizations.
“I think that if COVID taught us anything, hopefully it taught us that supply chains are not that reliable,” Gooditis said. “And if a lot of them are out of state or suppliers that aren’t local, then when you do have a crisis, not only are we not supporting our local producers, but we’re risking our own resources, our own supply chain.”
Meanwhile in the Senate, Bell has proposed allowing localities to create tourism improvement districts, with fees charged to businesses and used to fund tourism promotions and capital improvements. The locality would be authorized to contract with a nonprofit—such as many visitor bureaus, and in Loudoun’s case likely Visit Loudoun—to administer that program. Another bill would allow restaurants and farm wineries to sell mixed drinks to go.
All of that, he said, is meant to help small businesses and the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic—with tourism and restaurants some of the hardest-hit.
“The most important thing coming into this session was, what can we do to help our economy return?” Bell said.
Boysko has introduced a bill revising how Commonwealth’s Attorney Office staffing and pay levels are determined, and signed on to criminal justice reforms such as eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences and the death penalty. Many of those are meant to create a more flexible criminal justice system, support “diversion dockets” such as drug courts or mental health dockets, or better handle people with developmental or intellectual disabilities who have been charged with a crime.
“There are many examples, and I work closely with the ARC of Northern Virginia, and have sat down with families who have loved ones who got caught up in something that they really didn’t understand what they were doing and their lives were completely ruined because of it.” Boysko said. “So I think giving the judges—that’s their job, they are the experts here—the opportunity to be able to listen and deliberate, is what the system was intended to do.”
She, too, said she has prioritized legislation to usher a recovery from the pandemic, such as expanding the number of people who can qualify to administer a vaccine.
Sometimes the less attention-grabbing bills, said some lawmakers, will have the biggest effect on day-to-day life for Virginians.
“Legislation on trying to put and keep Dominion in check, the Greenway bill—these are pocketbook issues, that people may not realize it, but what we’re doing the session is trying to put money back in their pockets with this legislation,” Subramanyam said. “So while guns and abortion may make the front page or marijuana may be a big issue, I think what’s going to affect their everyday lives are those issues.”
Gooditis pointed to raising the minimum wage, expanding workers’ ability to unionize, and criminal justice reform bills, and said they will change life for people affected by system inequalities.
“I think it’s time to try to undo some of the systemic racism, and so for me some of the criminal reform stuff including repeal of the death penalty, that goes a little way towards repealing some of those huge decades, centuries-long injustices,” Gooditis said.
Track bills and legislators’ votes on the General Assembly’s Legislative Information System at lis.virginia.gov.