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Vivian WattsA redistricting bill. Tax relief. Coal ash clean-up. A surge in education funding.

Lee District legislators, speaking to a packed house at the Lee Dems March 13 meeting, cited those key victories and other battles won and lost in Richmond during a chaotic 2019 session.

“There were lots of controversies in the executive branch, but we focused and got things done,” Sen. Adam Ebbin said.

Six of the seven state legislators whose districts include Lee were on hand for the two-hour meeting, which also drew more than a dozen June primary candidates vying for office in Fairfax County.

With a mix of pride and frustration, Senators George Barker, Scott Surovell and Ebbin, along with Delegates Mark Sickles, Vivian Watts and Paul Krizek reported on the 47-day General Assembly session that adjourned Feb. 24, a day later than scheduled. Their victories, near-wins and losses underscored the urgency of November’s statewide election, when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 in the Senate are on the ballot. In 2017, the mammoth efforts of Lee volunteers and their counterparts across Virginia led Democrats to pick up 15 seats in the House, narrowing the Republicans’ hold on power to a single seat in both chambers.

“The freshmen thought, ‘We’re 49, we can do anything,’” Krizek said. “Well, 49 isn’t 51.” Even so, he added, “49 is a good place to be. [The Republicans] had to make sure they were all in their seats. It’s a heck of a lot better than when I was elected and it was 34.”

Mark SicklesLegislators stressed that protecting the hard-won Medicaid expansion that went into effect in January will take every seat the Democrats hold now—and probably more. “Today it’s been two months and 13 days that we’ve had health care” for 400,000 uninsured Virginians, Sickles said. “It took a long time to get there. How to get it through the House was one problem. The Senate was a bigger problem.”

Kicking off the reports, Barker touted the tax relief, a “very good budget” and the redistricting bill that “will end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia.” Sponsored by Barker, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate. “There were a lot of Republicans who never voted for redistricting bill before now,” he said.

Barker didn’t boast about his own role in the bill’s success so the delegation at his side did it for him, making clear how essential his stewardship was.

“The redistricting bill was his idea,” Sickles said. “This is one that he’s going to have on his gravestone. He came up with a plan that was supported on a bipartisan basis.”

The bill isn’t a done deal entirely—the Assembly has to approve the redistricting plan again in the next session, with voters making the final call on the 2020 ballot. But given the level of support in both parties, Lee’s legislators are optimistic.

Bipartisanship overall, however, was fleeting in the 2019 session.

“Every time I come back and say I’ve never seen it more partisan, only to see it more and more so,” Watts said.

She was encouraged early in the session when there were enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Virginia was on its way to becoming the 38th state to ratify the ERA. But the bill sat in a House subcommittee, “never to see the light of day,” Watts said. Democrats used procedural moves to try to bring it to the floor but their attempt was killed on a party-line vote, save for one Republican. The tally was 50-50, a defeat in the GOP-controlled House.

Her colleagues at the meeting shared her disgust. While legal questions are unsettled, if Virginia had passed  the ERA, proponents theoretically would have had had the two-thirds majority of states needed to add it the U.S. Constitution.

On other battlefronts, here’s a quick look at some of 2019 wins:

  • Democratic pressure led to a far better tax bill for working Virginians than Republicans wanted, one that attempts to adjust for the sweeping federal changes that are causing taxpayers so much anxiety in the current filing season. For instance, lawmakers raised the standard deduction by 50 percent, to $9,000 for a couple, and are removing the caps the federal government placed on state and local taxes. Those changes are in effect for 2019 to 2024. Meanwhile, many Virginians stuck with higher tax bills this spring will see relief in the form of rebate checks later this year.
  • Lee’s delegation was heavily involved in substantial gains in education funding, from pre-K to universities, including matching funds for raising teachers’ salaries, tuition relief and greater support for community colleges.
  • Surovell, with support from the Lee delegation, helped lead the fight to clean up toxic coal ash in four locations around Virginia where ash ponds full of toxins are leaking.
  • Surovell also introduced and passed a bill putting teeth into the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Noting that local government bodies “violate the open meetings law pretty much on a weekly basis,” they can now face fines for going into closed session without legal cause. The bill also includes penalties for destroying public documents.

—Janelle Hartman

Photos by Elza Daniel