The 2015 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.
During this session, we tackled a wide variety of important issues including campus sexual assault, small business reform, investments in solar energy, and improvements to the State Budget. While we took some positive steps forward this session, we still fell drastically short of establishing comprehensive ethics reform, adequately funding public education, expanding Medicaid coverage, increasing the minimum wage, investing in all forms of renewable energy, improving gun violence prevention measures, addressing housing affordability, and protecting the civil rights of all Virginians.
While this Session Summary is an overview of some of the issues that I worked on during the 2015 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.govor 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 2015.
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 theConstituent Survey on my website at www.AlfonsoLopez.org/2015-
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!
2015 Legislative Areas and Issues
Banning Powdered Alcohol – This year I worked with the Attorney General on common-sense legislation to ban powdered alcohol in Virginia. This legislation was a public safety measure designed to safeguard Virginians, especially our young people, against the growing dangers of powdered and crystalline alcohol. The potential for abuse of this product far outweighs any value it may have in the marketplace. Being easily concealable, there is a growing concern that powdered alcohol could effortlessly find its way into Virginia’s schools, community events, and restaurants undetected. This legislation protects all Virginians from unnecessary health and safety concerns. I am happy to report that my bill passed the General Assembly and was signed by the Governor.
Protecting Victims of Stalking – I introduced a bill this year to allow a tenant who is a victim of stalking to terminate his or her rental agreement if the tenant has obtained a stalking conviction. This bill was referred to the Virginia Housing Commission for further study, but before session ended, we reached agreement between all of the stakeholders working on the bill. With a consensus reached, I am hopeful that we will be able to earn the endorsement of the Housing Commission and pass this legislation next session.
Campus Sexual Assault – This year the General Assembly was determined to address the complex issue of sexual assault on college campuses. While numerous bills were introduced, the final bill that was passed by the General Assembly was a combination of many of these important measures. In addition to strengthening reporting requirements, the bill requires each complaint to be reviewed by a committee including a Title IX coordinator, a representative of law enforcement, and a student affairs representative to ensure that appropriate action is taken. Also, the governing board of all public and private institutions of higher education in Virginia are required to enter a memorandum of understanding with a local sexual assault crisis center or other victim support service and adopt policies to provide victims with information on how to contact these services.
Gun Violence Prevention – Once again, the General Assembly refused to take action on any legislation to restrict access to firearms in Virginia. I sponsored two commonsense bills to address this issue. One sought to make it a Class One misdemeanor if a parent knowingly gave his or her child, under the age of four, a firearm. The other would have prohibited the sale and possession of high capacity gun magazines in Virginia. Both bills were tabled in subcommittee despite being sensible provisions that enjoy broad public support from a majority of Virginians. Although I face strong opposition, I will continue fighting to improve gun violence prevention measures in Virginia.
Retaliatory Eviction – I am proud to report that my bill to strengthen Virginia's retaliatory eviction statute was passed this year by the General Assembly. This legislation gives greater discretion to the courts to determine if a landlord has retaliated against a tenant by taking actions such as raising the rent or terminating the tenancy after the tenant does any of the following: makes a complaint regarding a code violation; files suit against the landlord; joins a tenants’ organization; or testifies against the landlord. After working on this issue for the past two years, I am thrilled to see it finally passed by the General Assembly. Living in a safe and functioning home is a basic, fundamental right for any tenant. No Virginian should have to live in fear of losing their home if they report a code violation for substandard housing.
Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund – The increasing cost of housing is having a serious impact on the daily budgets of people all across the Commonwealth. Over the past five years, increases in rental costs throughout Virginia have significantly outpaced the growth in Virginia's median family income. That means less food on the table, less fuel in the gas tank, fewer bus and metro tickets, waiting longer to visit the doctor to receive vital health care, and smaller savings for college tuition and retirement. As a result, Virginia is now the most expensive state to rent in the Southeast. In 2013, I passed legislation creating the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but Virginia remains the only state in the Southeast without a dedicated source of revenue for our Fund. This year I tried to address that by introducing legislation to create a dedicated source of funding. While this bill was not passed, the Virginia Housing Commission will be studying different funding options this summer and making recommendations for next year’s General Assembly. I will continue to stay on top of this issue until Virginia creates a consistent source of funding to address housing affordability.
Veterans’ Housing – On any given night, there are over 600 veterans in the Commonwealth experiencing homelessness. From June 2014 to the end of 2015, it is estimated that more than 2,000 veterans in Virginia will face homelessness. Of the 2,000, approximately 1,500 will need a form of financial assistance to return to housing. This is why I introduced legislation this session to make it easier for homeless veterans to get the housing they so desperately need and deserve. Virginia is already increasing the number of rental vouchers made available to homeless veterans and their families. This bill makes it unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to rent to any veteran, including veterans paying rent with a voucher or another form of financial assistance. The bill was referred to the Housing Commission where I will work on it over the summer with the relevant stakeholders. I am confident that we will be able to reach an agreement so that we can address this important issue next year.
Growing Virginia’s Economy
Improving Virginia’s Small Business Definition – After working on this bill since my first session in 2012, I am proud to report that the General Assembly passed my legislation to update Virginia’s small business definition. Virginia currently defines a small business as having 250 or fewer employees, or annual gross receipts of $10 million or less averaged over the previous three years. This definition is broad enough that 95% of all businesses in Virginia could qualify as a certified small business. My legislation gives us an opportunity to fix the current broken, one-size-fits-all definition by applying the U.S. Small Business Administration’s industry specific size standards to Virginia small businesses and tasking the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to establish a workgroup to further examine the definition and report its findings to the General Assembly and the Governor by December 1st of this year. This will help improve Virginia’s Small, Women, and Minority-owned (SWaM) Business Certification Program and make the Commonwealth’s procurement system more fair and equitable. Virginia’s small businesses are the backbone of our economy. We need to make sure they have every opportunity to grow and thrive so that they can create new jobs across the Commonwealth.
Increasing the Minimum Wage – This year numerous bills were introduced to raise Virginia’s minimum wage. At $7.25 per hour, a full-time worker on minimum wage makes around $15,000 per year. That is simply not enough money to support one individual in Virginia, much less a family. With 90 percent of minimum wage workers being 20-years-old or older and the average age of a minimum wage worker at 35-years-old, we need to make sure that these working Virginians are not falling further and further behind. If we raise the minimum wage in Virginia, 300,000 children have at least one parent that would benefit from the increase. If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to make ends meet. Unfortunately, minimum wage workers in Virginia will have to wait another year before they see any relief.
Clean Energy and the Environment
Raising Virginia’s Cap on Solar Net Metering – I am proud to report that my bill to double the non-residential project cap for solar net metering customers from 500 kilowatts to one megawatt was combined with identical legislation sponsored by Delegate McClellan and passed by the General Assembly. By embracing this simple, common-sense change to the existing law, Virginia can reduce its overall carbon footprint while also closing the investment gap for clean energy. While this is an important step forward, the Commonwealth needs to be doing much more to make smart, sensible investments in clean energy to grow a new Virginia economy and protect our environment for future generations.
Solar Development Authority – Another important advancement in clean energy made this session was the creation of the Virginia Solar Development Authority. The Authority is tasked with assisting investor-owned utilities with the deployment of at least 400 megawatts of solar energy projects in the Commonwealth by 2020. Unfortunately, we still missed numerous opportunities to further develop our renewable energy resources in Virginia. Whether it’s joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, adopting a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard Program, or lifting restrictions on residential solar net metering, Virginia has an abundance of options to reduce carbon pollution and grow our clean energy industries. With our capacity for renewable energy and exceptional higher education institutions, Virginia could (and should) be a leader in developing green, sustainable energy along the eastern seaboard, but every year the General Assembly refuses to take meaningful action. We need to make a significant change or else the Commonwealth will continue to fall behind our neighboring States in this area.
Funding Stormwater Management Programs – This year I introduced budget amendments to increase funding for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund and the Agriculture Best Management Practices Program, which are conservation practices that reduce erosion and polluted runoff from farms. I am happy to report that the final version of the budget included increased funding for both the Agriculture Best Management Practices Program and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. Both programs are cost-effective uses of limited state resources to clean our rivers, streams, and the Bay.
Election Accountability – This year I introduced legislation requiring local electoral boards to collect information that could be used to improve our electoral process and evaluate how elections are administered in Virginia. Such information is important to collect so that appropriate measures can be taken in order to ensure that Virginia’s elections are run smoothly and without unnecessary burdens to voters. The bill was passed by for the year so that I could work with the State Board of Elections to find an administrative fix. As taxpayers and voters, Virginians deserve insight into how their government conducts elections. Furthermore, voters should have the utmost trust in the integrity of Virginia’s elections and feel confident that their vote can and will be counted.
Restoration of Voting Rights – This session I once again introduced a Constitutional Amendment to allow the General Assembly to set up an automatic process for the restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons in Virginia. Virginia is one of only four states that does not allow for the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons that have served their time and paid their debt to society. While Governor McAuliffe has taken the lead in improving this process, the right to vote should be a fair and transparent process that is not left to the whim of whoever serves as Governor of Virginia. The restoration of voting rights should be automatic.
Child Labor in Virginia Tobacco Fields – Last year Human Rights Watch released a report highlighting the use of child labor on tobacco farms in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Young children should not be working in direct contact with tobacco. They are especially vulnerable to nicotine poisoning due to their size and stage of development. Indeed, a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General suggests that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have lasting negative consequences. In order to protect Virginia’s children from these dangers, I introduced legislation prohibiting minors under the age of 18 from working on tobacco farms. Unfortunately, the House of Delegates refused to take action on my bill. I will continue to raise awareness on this issue and bring the legislation back in 2016.
Women’s Health and Reproductive Freedom – I believe strongly in a woman’s right to choose. Once again, legislation to overturn Virginia’s intrusive, medically unnecessary ultrasound requirement before undergoing an abortion was unfortunately defeated. However, legislation to impose a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks was defeated. As your delegate, I will continue working to make sure that a woman’s reproductive health decisions remain between her, her family, and her doctor.
LGBT Rights – I co-sponsored legislation this session to prohibit employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I also supported legislation prohibiting sexual orientation “change efforts” in Virginia. These are commonsense protections that Virginia needs to adopt. Unfortunately, these bills were defeated by the General Assembly. I will continue to support these bills until they become the law of the Commonwealth.
Closing the Coverage Gap – Despite the significant benefits to the Commonwealth’s economy, the money it would save in the State Budget that could be spent on other priorities, and the health care needs of 400,000 uninsured Virginians, the General Assembly still refuses to expand Medicaid and close the coverage gap in Virginia. By saying no to Medicaid expansion, we are refusing to take back from the federal government $5 million per day of our own Virginia tax dollars. Instead, our money is going to other states that have accepted Medicaid expansion while our hospitals struggle to make up the difference. This is simply bad policy. We need to close the coverage gap now, which is why I have opposed and will continue to oppose every budget without Medicaid expansion.
Improving In-home Nursing Requirements – Last spring I was approached by constituents who shared with me the horrific story of their struggle to provide their son with quality, in-home nursing care. After meeting with the constituents, I reached out to the Board of Nursing and the Office of Licensure and Certification, which oversees home health care organizations in Virginia. Through extensive conversations, we identified an opportunity to improve Virginia Code. The legislative fix would add home health organizations to the list of health care institutions, hospitals and assisted living facilities currently required to report misconduct or substance abuse rendering a health care professional unsafe or unfit to care for patients or residents. I am happy to report that Senator Favola's version of the bill was passed by the General Assembly. While this is an important step forward, we need to be doing more in Virginia to attract top nursing talent to work in the home care industry by providing competitive wages, benefits, and continued training opportunities.
Government Transparency and Efficiency
Tax Refund Options – I am proud to report that legislation was passed this session to allow an individual to elect to have his or her tax refund paid by a check mailed to the individual’s address. Virginians should not have to worry about losing a part of their tax refund due to hidden fees and penalties associated with having their refund placed on a debit card.
Ethics Reform – A large number of bills were introduced this session to plug loopholes in Virginia’s porous ethics laws. These bills were all rolled together into an omnibus ethics bill that was passed by the General Assembly. While we’ve taken important steps forward to limit gifts, dinners, travel, and other freebies, this legislation does not go nearly far enough. We need an Ethics Council that has real power with citizen members that can help oversee the process. Another glaring loophole in this legislation that needs to be addressed next year is the use of campaign funds for personal expenses. As elected representatives, we should hold ourselves to the highest possible ethical standards. The citizens of the Commonwealth deserve nothing less.
Bicycling Safety – After many years of fighting for this legislation in the General Assembly, legislation was passed this year so that bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles are now afforded the same protection from being followed too closely that motorized vehicles enjoy.
Legalizing Uber in Virginia – The General Assembly passed legislation this session to establish a process for transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft to operate legally in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Drivers for these companies will still need to undergo background checks, maintain a minimal level of insurance, and register with the DMV as a member of the transportation network company. These licensure requirements will help ensure the safety of all of Virginia’s transportation customers.
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 atwww.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 orDelALopez@house.virginia.gov.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Alfonso H. Lopez
Member, 49th District
Virginia House of Delegates