Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Now that the 2017 General Assembly Session has officially ended, I am writing to update you on important legislation and initiatives from this year. While this summary covers many of the issues that were addressed by the General Assembly, it represents only a small portion of the almost 2,000 bills that were considered. For a list of all the bills that were put forward this year, please visit lis.virginia.gov and click Bills and Resolutions under the 2017 Session. You may also go to my website www.AlfonsoLopez.org for a complete look at my 2017 legislative agenda.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this update. If you have any additional questions, concerns, or issues before our State government, please do not hesitate to contact my office at DelALopez@house.virginia.gov or (571) 336-2147. I look forward to hearing from you!
Environment and Renewable Energy
Fracking: We successfully defeated legislation (HB1679) that would have allowed companies engaged in fracking to hide the chemicals they use from freedom of information requests. In order to protect public health, communities need to know about the kinds of chemicals that are being used in the fracking process. I’m proud to have spoken out against this legislation when it came to the floor of the House of Delegates. (https://youtu.be/Ce2ixkuDI1o)
Community Solar: Working with the environmental community, the solar industry, and Virginia’s public utilities, we passed legislation (SB1393) creating a three-year pilot program for utility-administered community solar. Under the program, utilities will build 10.5 megawatts of solar and provide access for those who either cannot afford the upfront cost or whose homes are not suitable for solar panels. While Virginia could be doing a lot more to expand community solar, this legislation represents a positive step in the right direction. As the Chair of Virginia’s Environment & Renewable Energy Caucus, I will keep working to create new renewable energy opportunities and sources throughout Virginia.
Coal Tax Credits: We successfully defeated efforts to extend millions of dollars in ineffective tax credits to coal companies in Virginia (HB2198). Unfortunately, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this tax credit over the past 25 years, coal companies in Southwest Virginia continue to cut jobs and lose business due to market forces. Going forward, we need to focus on efforts to retrain workers and build a new sustainable 21st century economy for the region and the Commonwealth.
Protecting our Waterways: A recent report by Environment Virginia concluded that Virginia was among the worst states in the nation for toxic chemical dumping in our waterways. In order to address this issue, I introduced legislation (HB1870) to increase notification requirements so that local TV and radio stations are notified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) if there is an incident that is a threat to public health. I also introduced legislation (HB1860) that would have created a chemical storage tank safety program in Virginia. Currently, we don’t even have an inventory of chemical storage tanks, much less minimum safety requirements. In 2014, chemical storage tanks in West Virginia leaked chemicals into the Elk River contaminating drinking water for 300,000 people and requiring the Governor to declare a state of emergency. We need a program to ensure that our storage tanks in Virginia are being properly maintained so we don’t have the same crisis in Virginia. Finally, I introduced legislation (HB1859) to create a hazardous waste site inventory in Virginia so that citizens are able to go to one place and look up all the hazardous waste sites that could pose a threat to public health. Even though each of these bills was defeated, I will continue leading the fight to protect Virginia’s waterways from toxic chemicals.
Protecting Firefighters and Children: I introduced legislation (HB1861) that would ban the use of chemical flame retardants in children’s products and upholstery. These flame retardants have been proven ineffective in fire protection, which is why this legislation was supported by Virginia Professional Firefighters. They also pose a serious health hazard to children. In addition, flame retardants are dangerous to firefighters who encounter the toxic, carcinogenic “soups” they create when entering a burning building. While the bill was not passed this session, I was able to secure bipartisan support. I’m hopeful that we can find agreement on this legislation next year.
Lead in Drinking Water: The water crisis in Flint should have been a wake-up call for the entire country. We need to strengthen our safe drinking water regulations so that our children are protected from lead in their drinking water. This year I introduced two bills (HB2384 & HJ639) and a budget amendment to address this issue. The first bill would have lowered the lead action levels from 15 ppb to 5 ppb to better protect children and other vulnerable populations. This will make our drinking water system more resilient and give us a quicker warning if there is contamination. I also introduced a resolution requiring the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking water to do a comprehensive study of our drinking water infrastructure and identify ways that we can strengthen our regulations and rebuild our infrastructure. Finally, I proposed a budget amendment to support the Water Supply Assistance Grant program, which uses state dollars to help localities with the cost of replacing lead service lines in Virginia. With just $4 million dollars we could replace around 1,000 lead service lines per year in the Commonwealth. While these measures did not move forward, I am currently working with the Governor’s Office and the Virginia Department of Health to take administrative action on a comprehensive study of our drinking water infrastructure.
Public Lands Day: Working with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, I am proud to have passed a resolution (HJ640) designating the last Saturday in September every year as Virginia Public Lands Day. Our public lands are an important natural and economic resource that should be protected and celebrated every year.
Streamlining SWaM Certification for Virginia Small Businesses: I introduced and passed legislation this session (HB1858) allowing federally certified small, women, and minority-owned businesses to be automatically certified as a SWaM business in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Virginia Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity has a major backlog of companies applying for certification. This will help streamline the process, cut red tape, and speed certification for companies that have already availed themselves of the rigorous federal process.
Increase the Minimum Wage: Virginians who work full-time should not be living in poverty, which is why the majority of Virginians support a living wage. Unfortunately, every bill this year that would have increased the minimum wage in Virginia from $7.25 per hour was defeated.
Dedicated Source of Revenue for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund: In 2013, my legislation created the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I introduced legislation this session that would have created a dedicated source of revenue for the Trust Fund. Despite bipartisan support and a recommendation from the Virginia Housing Commission, this legislation failed to move forward. However, we were able to protect and secure $5 million in each year of the budget for the Trust Fund. Nevertheless, Virginia needs to create a dedicated source of funding if we want to make a serious, long-term commitment to housing affordability throughout the Commonwealth.
Protecting Renters and Landlords from Pest Mitigation Problems: I passed legislation this session (HB1869) that will help protect tenants and landlords from conflict over who is responsible for the cost of pest mitigation. Under Virginia’s previous law, the statute was so confusing that it could be interpreted in different ways. This led to an increase in litigation and inconsistent rulings for both sides. Working with the Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Virginia Association of Realtors, we reached an agreement on language that would benefit both landlords and tenants.
Expanding Coverage for Contraception: I’m proud to have co-sponsored and helped pass legislation (HB2267) requiring insurance companies in Virginia to cover a twelve-month supply of hormonal contraception.
Medicaid Expansion: Despite tremendous public support for expanding Medicaid coverage and closing the coverage gap for families in Virginia, many members of the House of Delegates continue to oppose Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to bring Virginia taxpayer dollars back to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis has estimated that 6,100 residents of the 49th District would benefit from Medicaid expansion. As your representative, I will keep fighting to expand Medicaid and improve access to quality health care for all Virginians.
Efforts to Defund Planned Parenthood: I voted against this legislation when it came before the House of Delegates and I was proud that we were able to sustain the Governor’s Veto.
Criminal Justice Reform
Driver’s License Suspension for Nonpayment of Court Fines: Working closely with the Governor’s office, I introduced legislation this session (HB1866) that would have removed the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court fines and fees. Many Virginians need their licenses to drive to and from work to pay these fees. Our current law creates a trap where nonpayment of fees automatically requires your license to be suspended, which makes it more difficult to pay your fees. Unfortunately, this legislation was tabled for the year.
Increasing the Felony Larceny Threshold: Virginia’s threshold for felony larceny has not increased since 1980. At just $200, it is one of the lowest felony larceny thresholds in the nation. Consequently, individuals who may make a mistake in their youth are tarnished with a felony conviction that has far reaching implications for the rest of their lives. Despite bipartisan support this year, all legislation to raise the threshold to a more appropriate level was defeated.
Diverting Funding from Pubic Schools: I opposed legislation (HB1605) that would have taken funding from public schools and put it into individual private accounts that parents could use to pay for private school. This voucher system would weaken our public schools, which are already struggling to make ends meet and pay teachers a competitive wage. I was proud to support Governor McAuliffe’s veto of this legislation.
Educational Censorship: I also opposed legislation that would have created a slippery slope to backdoor censorship in schools. Under the overly broad standard set by the bill works by Shakespeare and Nobel Laureates like Toni Morrison would be deemed objectionable. Taking certain portions of educational materials out of the larger historic, artistic, literary, or scientific context is wrong. Instead of trying to create a one-size-fits-all mandate in state code, we should trust parents, teachers, administrators, and local school boards to determine what is appropriate in a given classroom.
Dream Act: I’m proud to have worked with Attorney General Mark Herring to expand access for in-state tuition for DACA students back in 2014. This year I introduced the Dream Act again in order to ensure that in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) and Dreamer students is protected and cannot be taken away in the future. Despite bi-partisan support to report this legislation and refer it to the Appropriations Committee, it was defeated in the House Education Committee. I will keep fighting to ensure we help these bright young students.
Short-Term Rentals (AirBnB): The General Assembly passed legislation this session allowing localities to pass ordinances regulating short-term rentals. This is a major improvement over last year’s one-size-fits-all approach. Working with local stakeholders, communities like Arlington and Fairfax County can adopt regulations that meet the needs of their community and allow them to address any concerns that may arise from short-term rentals in their neighborhoods.
Protections against Predatory Towing: Last year Arlington adopted new protections against predatory towing in our community including a “second signature” requirement. Legislation was introduced this session that would prevent Arlington and other localities in Northern Virginia from adopting this requirement even though it has been a requirement in other parts of the Commonwealth for years. I spoke against this legislation when it came to the floor of the House of Delegates (https://youtu.be/nxcc0xL7pZU). While the bill was passed by the House of Delegates, the Governor made a recommendation to remove the second signature provision. Unfortunately, this recommendation was rejected by the General Assembly.
Numerous bills were introduced this session to demonize immigrants in Virginia. With over one hundred different languages spoken in the 49th District our diverse community is special. We truly are the world in a zip code. As presented, these bills were a direct attack on the diversity that our community embodies. HB2002 would have required private nonprofit organizations that resettle refugees to track and monitor everyone they help and provide that information to the Commonwealth of Virginia. This would have made their humanitarian efforts much more difficult. HB2000 went after nonexistent “sanctuary cities” in Virginia and would have required local law enforcement to decide between holding an individual past their lawful release date in violation of the Constitution or violating Virginia law. These bills are costly to localities, unconstitutional, and do nothing to make our communities safer. They were simply designed to stoke irrational fear of immigrants, which is why I spoke out against them (https://youtu.be/DymUpVDBTOs). I’m proud that we sustained the Governor’s vetoes on each of these bills.
Welcoming Resolution: I introduced a resolution (HR303) affirming the commitment of the House of Delegates that Virginia remain a welcoming and open Commonwealth that denounces discrimination, intimidation and hate crimes. Despite the positive message of this resolution, it was defeated in the House Rules Committee.
Child Labor on Tobacco Farms: This year I continued the fight to ban child labor on Virginia tobacco farms (HB1868). Young children should not be working in direct contact with tobacco. They are especially vulnerable to acute nicotine poisoning due to their size and stage of development. Indeed, a recent report from the Surgeon General suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have lasting negative consequences. In many instances, these are immigrant children who are forced to work to make ends meet. Instead of working on a tobacco farm, they should be focusing on their education. Unfortunately, this bill continues to face roadblocks in the House Commerce and Labor Committee.
Driver’s Licenses for Lawfully Present Immigrants: Last year the Virginia DMV commissioned a working group at the request of the chair of the House Transportation Committee. This working group reviewed Virginia’s requirements to obtain a temporary driver’s license and confirmed that individuals who were lawfully present in Virginia were being denied a license. This legislation would have fixed the current statute so that Virginians who are authorized to be in the United States can obtain a Virginia driver’s license. Not only is this the right thing to do, it would also increase the safety of our roads because these Virginians will undergo the training and testing required to obtain a license. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated by the Senate’s Transportation Committee. (HB1866)
WMATA (Metro) Compact: The General Assembly passed legislation updating the WMATA (Metro) Compact to meet new safety requirements from the federal government and improve the operation of Metro in the region. (HB2136)
Gun Violence Prevention
I introduced legislation this session to close the “default proceed” background check loophole, which allows a gun seller to proceed with the sale if it takes longer than 24 hours for the Virginia State Police to complete the check. (HB1865) This is the loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain a gun in South Carolina despite later red flags that could have caused him to fail the check.
I also introduced legislation restricting access to firearms for children under the age of five. (HB1864) Handing an infant or child under five a loaded gun goes beyond child endangerment, neglect, or improper handling of a firearm. A 3 or 4-year-old child is only just becoming capable of correctly naming colors, remembering parts of a story, counting, understanding time, and sorting objects by shape. They are not yet capable of handling the responsibilities of firearm safety. Unfortunately, these commonsense gun violence prevention measures were defeated in the House of Delegates.
Right to Discriminate: Legislation was introduced this session to give people a right to discriminate against LGBT Virginians under the guise of religious freedom. (HB2025) The U.S. and Virginia Constitutions already provide protections for religious freedom. This bill would have preferred one religious viewpoint over all others. I voted against this legislation on the floor of the House of Delegates and was proud to vote to sustain the Governor’s veto of this bill.
Discrimination in Housing and Employment: Legislation was again introduced to protect LGBT Virginians from housing and employment discrimination. I continue to support these bills, but unfortunately, they were not passed by the General Assembly.
Redistricting Reform: I remain a strong supporter of establishing a fair, nonpartisan process for redistricting. Gerrymandering has soured our political discourse in Richmond and in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, every single bill to reform the redistricting process this year was defeated.
Opposing Restrictions on Voting Rights: From early voting to no-excuse absentee voting, we should be making it easier to vote in Virginia, not harder. I opposed all legislation that would make it harder for Virginians to vote such as HB1428, which would have required voters to mail in a “photocopy” of a voter ID when requesting an absentee ballot. Thankfully, the Governor vetoed this legislation. With the major drop in voter turnout in odd numbered years, Virginia should be doing much more to make it easier for people to vote. Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy. It should be protected and encouraged.
Restoration of Voting Rights: Legislation was introduced this session to try and change Virginia’s Constitution to restrict access to voting for Virginians that have served their time and paid their debt to society. (SJ223) I’m proud to report that this legislation was defeated.
For the most up-to-date information about what is going on in the Virginia General Assembly and the 49th District, please follow me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Lopez4VA) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/Lopez4VA). For additional constituent resources, useful information, and news updates, please visit my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org.
Once again, thank you for your interest in our community and the issues before the Virginia General Assembly. If you ever need help with a State Agency, want to express your support or opposition to a bill, or arrange a meeting with me down in Richmond or at home in the 49th District, please do not hesitate to contact my office at (571) 336-2147 or DelALopez@house.virginia.gov.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Alfonso H. Lopez
Member, 49th District
Virginia House of Delegates