The 2016 General Assembly Session has ended. I am writing to let you know about some of the key legislation passed this session that will now become the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
While this Session Summary is an overview of some of the issues that I worked on during the 2016 session as well as the issues that I heard about most often from constituents, it is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that happened this year. For a full list of legislation that both passed and failed, please visit lis.virginia.gov or the Virginia Division of Legislative Services’ website at dls.virginia.gov and click on the Highlights or Summary links in the top, right-hand corner. You may also go to my website www.AlfonsoLopez.org for a complete look at my legislative agenda for 2016.
While I received hundreds of letters and e-mails from constituents this session regarding a variety of important issues facing the Commonwealth, I would love to hear from constituents who have yet to contact my office and share their views. Please fill out the Constituent Survey on my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org/2016-Constituent-Survey or contact my office at DelALopez@house.virginia.gov so I know where you stand on Virginia issues.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this update. If you have any additional questions, concerns, or issues before 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!
Constituent Service Highlight
Keeping the DMV in South Arlington: Last year, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles announced that it would be moving the Arlington Customer Service Center from its long standing location on South Four Mile Run Drive to a new location in Fairfax County – leaving Arlington without a full service DMV Customer Center. I immediately reached out to Commissioner Holcomb, his team, and community leaders to find a way to ensure that the DMV Service Center remained in South Arlington. Working together we were able to negotiate a solution that kept the South Arlington DMV in place. I am also pleased that the DMV is planning to add additional service in the area in order to better serve our community.
2016 Legislative Summary
Restoration of Rights: I am proud to report that Governor McAuliffe has used his Constitutional authority to restore the rights of felons that have served their time and paid their debt to society as of April 22, 2016. This action expands access to voter registration for approximately 206,000 Virginians who were previously ineligible, which makes this the single most significant action on disfranchisement that we've ever seen from a governor. I’ve fought to create an administrative process for automatically restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their time since I became a member of the House of Delegates, including legislation that I introduced this year (HJ134). I commend Governor McAuliffe for taking bold action to help Virginians who have paid their debt to society restore their rights as citizens of the Commonwealth.
State Budget: While there is always room for improvement, the State Biennial Budget for FY2017-2018 secures additional funding for K-12 and higher education, funds pay raises for state employees and teachers, dedicates much needed funding for Dulles Airport, and puts additional funding towards GO Virginia and other economic development programs that encourage new research, development, and commercialization to help build our economy and create new jobs.
I am especially proud that we were able to work across the aisle to secure $3 million in additional funding for the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The Housing Trust Fund, which my legislation created in 2012-13, will be funded at $5.5 million per year for the next two years, which is an increase of $1.5 million per year. This funding will help organizations around the Commonwealth develop more affordable housing and homeless service providers keep more Virginians out of homelessness. Fostering Futures also received expanded funding in the budget which means that youth aging out of the foster care system at age 18 will continue to receive housing and other supportive services through age 21.
Even though I am disappointed that we were once again unable to include Medicaid expansion, this budget keeps Virginia moving forward and improves the quality of life for all Virginians.
Apprenticeship Programs: I worked with Social Action Linked Together (SALT) to pass legislation (HB991) that encourages the use of more apprenticeship programs to meet work requirements for those Virginians receiving welfare benefits. Apprenticeship programs are a great way for struggling Virginians to maintain meaningful paid employment while also receiving the training and credentials necessary to build a lifelong career. Apprenticeship programs also represent a vitally important way for Governor McAuliffe to achieve his goal of 50,000 new credentialed workers in Virginia by the end of his term. I’m glad that we were able to pass this legislation to encourage the use of these important programs so that we can expand opportunity for struggling Virginians and help build a new Virginia economy.
Transient Occupancy Tax: In addition, I worked with the rest of Arlington’s General Assembly Delegation to pass legislation (HB1147) reinstating the transient occupancy tax on hotel visitors. While still keeping hotel taxes significantly lower than those in Washington D.C., this dedicated tax will help promote tourism in Arlington. This initiative was a priority for the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and will help bring new business and revenue to our community.
SOL Reform: Working across the aisle, we were also able to pass legislation (HB241) that would have the Board of Education consider alternative Standards of Learning assessments for English language learners in Virginia. Our community in South Arlington and Eastern Fairfax represents one of the most diverse communities in the entire country with people from all over the world. While our schools do a great job of preparing these students no matter what native language they speak, Virginia’s one-size-fits-all approach to the Standards of Learning assessment does not always accurately reflect the tremendous work that is being done in these schools. The State Board of Elections needs to consider alternative assessments that give a clearer picture of the great strides in education that these students are making every day thanks to the amazing effort and dedication of their teachers. This legislation will move us in the right direction so that we can continue the great work that is being done at schools like Glen Forest, Randolph, Hoffman-Boston, Glebe, Claremont Immersion, and Patrick Henry Elementary.
Chagas Disease Awareness Day: Another important issue that I was able to address this year was to raise awareness about Chagas disease (HJ197). This debilitating disease is caused by a parasitic infection and mostly affects people from Latin America. However, due to the large number of New Americans in our community and the lack of awareness among doctors and patients, this disease is often misdiagnosed and mistreated. This resolution recognizes April 14th as Chagas Disease Awareness Day in Virginia, which coincides with International Chagas Disease Awareness Day. I hope that this effort by the General Assembly to raise awareness will help those who are afflicted with the disease to obtain the proper diagnosis and treatment that they need.
Expanding Access to Driver’s Licenses: This year I introduced legislation (HB987) to allow Virginians with "withholding of removal" status to obtain a driver's license. These Virginians are lawfully present, pay taxes, and allowed to live and work in Virginia, but are unable to lawfully acquire a driver's license due to outdated language in Virginia Code. While this legislation did not move forward in the General Assembly this session, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee wrote a letter to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles asking the Department to study this important issue. Expanding access to driver's licenses is an easy way to increase driver safety, decrease "hit and run" incidents, lower insurance premiums for everyone, and ensure all Virginians have access to economic opportunity. I am hopeful that we can continue working on this legislation over the summer and reach an agreement for next session.
Reproductive Health and Freedom: While the General Assembly passed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood (HB1090), Governor McAuliffe vetoed this legislation and I was proud to vote with the Governor to sustain his veto in the House of Delegates. Unfortunately, the General Assembly also defeated legislation that would repeal Virginia’s ultrasound requirement before undergoing an abortion procedure (HB43) and legislation that would have removed the prohibition on insurance coverage for abortions in health insurance plans that are sold or offered through a health benefits exchange (SB183). I promise to continue fighting to protect a woman’s right to choose in the Virginia General Assembly.
Civil Rights: The House of Delegates passed legislation giving Virginians a license to discriminate against others based on their sexual orientation and gender identity without any repercussions from the state (HB773). I spoke out against this legislation and it was defeated in the State Senate. You can watch my speech online at https://goo.gl/f2ynW8 and read my op-ed about why this backwards legislation was wrong for Virginia at https://goo.gl/5Iz0Z0. The State Senate passed legislation to prohibit employment discrimination (SB12) and housing discrimination (SB67) based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but unfortunately, these bills were defeated in the House of Delegates. I am happy to report that the House of Delegates also defeated legislation that would have stigmatized transgender individuals by requiring them to use inappropriate restrooms and public accommodations (HB781).
Environment: I am happy to report that legislation to stall compliance with the Clean Power Plan (HB2) was ultimately defeated in the General Assembly. I helped sustain Governor McAuliffe’s veto and spoke out about the importance of reducing carbon pollution and investing in clean energy - https://youtu.be/zgshw45ieRc. However, I am extremely disappointed that we failed to pass meaningful legislation to protect our environment (HB977&HB976) and promote new clean renewable energy in Virginia by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (HB351), investing in solar energy (HB1286), increasing energy efficiency (HB576), or encouraging more efficient biomass energy production (HB973). As the Founder & Chair of the Virginia Environment and Renewable Energy Caucus, I will continue fighting to protect our environment for future generations and invest in clean, renewable energy so that we can build a new Virginia economy.
Gun Violence Prevention: The General Assembly passed commonsense gun violence prevention legislation prohibiting individuals with permanent protective orders from being able to possess a gun (HB1391) and allowing for voluntary background checks at gun shows (HB1386). As a part of the deal to secure the passage of those two bills, the General Assembly also passed legislation guaranteeing reciprocity for individuals with concealed carry permits (SB610).
As your delegate, I introduced commonsense gun violence prevention legislation to close the default sale loophole (HB979), close background check loopholes by requiring a permit to purchase a handgun (HB980), strengthen the requirements to obtain a concealed carry permit (HB981), ban large capacity ammunition magazines (HB983), and make it illegal to hand a gun to a child under five years of age (HB982). Unfortunately, none of these sensible gun violence prevention bills were reported out of subcommittee. We can and should be doing a great deal more to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands.
Protecting Workers: Although Virginia is already a right-to-work state, the General Assembly passed legislation (HB4) continuing the process of amending Virginia’s Constitution to include anti-union provisions. This measure will now be added to Virginia ballots this November, and if passed, become a part of our Constitution. The General Assembly also defeated every attempt to raise the minimum wage including my legislation (HB988), which would have given tipped workers a raise. As your delegate, I will continue working to build an economy that works for all Virginians and not just those with the most money and resources.
Healthy Democracy: Legislation to allow Virginians who are age 65 and older to vote absentee (HB100), allow no-excuse in-person absentee voting (HB430), create a non-partisan redistricting process (HB26), and give the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council investigative power (HB152) were all defeated.
Public Safety: The General Assembly passed legislation to allow Virginia to electrocute individuals who receive the death penalty if lethal injection drugs are not available (HB815). Governor McAuliffe amended this legislation to allow the Commonwealth to contract with a pharmacy to purchase compounded drugs for the purpose of lethal injection. This recommendation was accepted by the General Assembly during the Reconvene Session on April 20th. The General Assembly also passed legislation (HB301) requiring the state police to keep track of justifiable homicides involving law-enforcement officers in the state’s annual crime report and strengthening Virginia’s stalking law (HB752).
Education: The General Assembly defeated legislation to give the State Board of Education the power to establish charter schools in any jurisdiction regardless of the wishes of the local school board (HB3). I spoke against this legislation on the floor of the House of Delegates because this decision should be made by a local school board and not imposed by the State Board of Education. You can watch the video of my speech online at https://youtu.be/jo7XTC6E41o.
In addition, the General Assembly passed legislation (HB516) requiring teachers to notify parents of any instructional materials that could be deemed “sexually explicit” as well as an option for alternative curriculum and assignments for any student whose parents objected to these materials. This bill did not define what type of material would qualify as “sexually explicit” and would have applied to all academic subjects, including history, science/biology, art history, civics, as well as English and literature. It was also strongly opposed by national anti-censorship organizations.
When the government establishes laws to label literature in terms of a single factor, regardless of that factor's significance to the larger world of literary merit or meaning, it edges closer to censorship. It means we are labeling content for the sole purpose of suppressing it. Diminishing and reducing Romeo and Juliet to a play that is just about "teen sex" and suicide does a disservice to the student, our school systems, and the Commonwealth. The decision about what is appropriate in a given classroom belongs between parents, teachers, school administrators, and local school boards. This bill created a one-size-fits-all approach throughout the Commonwealth that does not account for the age of the students, regional or cultural considerations, the subject matter, or the context in which the material is being taught.
Thankfully, Governor McAuliffe vetoed this legislation and his veto was sustained. I spoke out against this legislation when it came to the floor of the House of Delegates. You can watch the full video of my speech online at https://youtu.be/lo2UiqPduHI.
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 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