Virginia Democrats on Tuesday stood united behind an 11-point agenda they hope to hash out and roll out during their first legislative session in power.
Flanked by the Democrats who will lead the House of Delegates and state Senate starting Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said the plan is the result of a “clear signal” from voters in November.
“They want us to continue to build on our progress,” Northam said.
The broad-strokes agenda includes many of the issues Democrats have long campaigned on — like reproductive freedom, worker protections and gun control — but as lawmakers kick off their work Wednesday, the devil is in the details.
Much of their agenda for the session relies on legislation that is still in the drafting process or is still being negotiated. Lawmakers will have 60 days to debate the policy details and pass a balanced, two-year budget to fund it all.
Incoming House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, proclaimed her caucus would be “working as a team” heading into the legislative session, an aspirational statement when it comes to issues that may split Democrats, like how to raise the minimum wage and how to go about an assault weapons ban.
Gun control was among Democrats’ top issues during the campaign season, and it’s highly likely that multiple measures imposing gun restrictions will become law this summer.
Northam on Tuesday again pointed to the eight proposals he advocated during the July 9 special session on gun violence, which include universal background checks, a “red flag” law to remove firearms from people in crisis and restoring a former state law that limited handgun purchases to one a month.
In trying to quell anger and misinformation about gun control, like erroneous claims that the National Guard would be brought in to confiscate guns, Northam said the legislation he is backing is “common sense” and constitutional.
“There are a number of other pieces of legislation that will vet their way through the General Assembly,” Northam told reporters following his remarks. “We’ve been talking about these eight pieces of common-sense gun legislation since back in July.”
Even as Northam’s broad gun proposals are clear, the exact legislation is still in the works. Asked to point to the governor’s legislative package, administration spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said some bills had not yet been filed.
Spokesmen for the House and Senate Republican caucuses did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats will also work through the details of a minimum wage increase. More than a half-dozen bills have been filed on the topic, each prescribing a different approach.
A bill from incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, would raise the minimum hourly wage from the federal $7.25 to $10 by the summer, and add annual $1 increases up to $15 an hour by 2025. After that, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation and updated annually.
Meanwhile, a similar bill filed by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, incoming leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, would compress the increases and call for $15 an hour by the summer of 2022. Locke’s bill doesn’t tie the minimum wage to inflation.
In the House, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, is proposing to kick off a minimum wage increase in 2021 with $9 an hour. Her bill would lead to $15 an hour by January 2024 and ties the minimum wage to inflation starting in 2025.
Democrats’ 2020 agenda also includes legislation to increase education funding, ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment, expand access to contraceptives and abortion, implement criminal justice reforms, expand affordable housing, promote carbon-free energy and improve the state’s transportation system.
Also in the plan is a promise to expand in-state tuition to undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Among the issues that will elicit little debate among Democrats is the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort blocked by Republicans during the last regular session.
Democrats also appear to widely support no-excuse absentee voting, and doing away with the Lee-Jackson holiday commemorating Confederate leaders in exchange for a state holiday on Election Day.
Touting his history of advocating for gun control, Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg visited Richmond the day before the legislature goes into session and urged Virginia lawmakers to take action on the issue.
Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York City, held a news conference Tuesday inside Richmond’s Main Street Station with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe after meeting with Mayor Levar Stoney, making the city his third stop in Virginia since joining the crowded primary field in late November.
Gun-rights activists concerned about the state legislature’s new Democratic majority have portrayed Bloomberg as the face of what they term a looming “gun grab.” An NRA billboard in Richmond says the “Northam/Bloomberg gun confiscation plan starts Jan. 8.”
During the news conference, Bloomberg said he didn’t know about the billboard but called it “the best news I’ve gotten today.”
“I think it says we’re getting through,” he said.
Bloomberg, whose campaign has called for a national gun licensing system and stricter background checks, encouraged the new-look General Assembly to pass “sensible gun regulations.”
“Nobody is trying to take away anybody’s handguns or rifles or shotguns,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is to have sensible gun regulations.”
Bloomberg added: “We should not sell guns to minors. We should not sell guns to people with psychiatric problems, and we should not sell guns to people that have criminal records.”
Gov. Ralph Northam has said he will push for gun measures that he believes have broad support, such as universal background checks and reinstatement of a former Virginia law that restricted handgun purchases to one a month.
Bloomberg founded Everytown for Gun Safety, which has donated $6.27 million to Democratic campaigns in Virginia since 2013, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The gun safety group spent $1.6 million in 2018-19, according to VPAP, making it one of the largest donors as Democrats took control of both chambers of the General Assembly.
“What is happening tomorrow would not have happened without the support of Mayor Bloomberg,” McAuliffe said. “Virginia will be a beacon for this country.”
The Bloomberg campaign on Tuesday also released a new campaign advertisement that features Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, who says Bloomberg “will take the movement for gun safety to a whole new level.”
Goddard is a member of the Everytown Survivor Network, a branch of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Everytown spent more than $2.4 million in 2015 to boost then-Governor McAuliffe and Democratic candidates as he unsuccessfully sought to win control of the state Senate.
The group reacted bitterly in 2016 when McAuliffe signed off on a bipartisan deal backed by gun-rights activists.
Under the deal, Virginia expanded recognition of out-of-state concealed weapons permits. McAuliffe also signed bills that required domestic abusers under permanent protective orders to give up guns in their possession within 24 hours and posted members of the Virginia State Police at gun shows to perform voluntary background checks.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said at the time: “Governor McAuliffe cut a backroom deal with the NRA that betrays gun violence survivors and endangers the safety of all Virginians. We expected more from him.”
McAuliffe said Tuesday that he wasn’t endorsing Bloomberg in the primary, where the billionaire is counting on success in the March 3 Super Tuesday bonanza, when Virginia is one of 14 states going to the polls.
Neither is Stoney, whom Bloomberg met at Ironclad Coffee Roasters in the city’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood before the Main Street Station event.
“The mayor enjoyed talking with Mayor Bloomberg about the issues affecting Richmonders and hearing his vision for the future of our country and is confident that he would be a vast improvement over the current occupant of the White House,” said Kevin Zeithaml, the executive director of Stoney’s fundraising arm.
Zeithaml said Stoney “remains neutral” in the primary.
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A federal appeals court dealt another blow to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on Tuesday with a ruling that vacates a state air pollution control permit for a natural gas compressor station in Buckingham County for failing to consider the disproportionate health effects on the surrounding, predominantly African American community of Union Hill.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the State Air Pollution Control Board had “failed to grapple with the likelihood that those living closest to the compression station ... will be affected more than those living in other parts of the county.”
The 47-page ruling, written by Judge Stephanie Thacker of West Virginia, concluded that the board improperly relied on federal and state air quality standards without deciding whether the compressor station represented an environmental injustice to Union Hill residents, some of whom are descendants of slaves who founded the community after the Civil War.
“But environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked, and the board’s failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis,” Thacker wrote.
Friends of Buckingham and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the organizations that filed the suit through the Southern Environmental Law Center, hailed the decision as vindication for concerns that they said were ignored by the state and pipeline company, led by Richmond-based Dominion Energy.
“Five years ago, Dominion told us that there was going to be a compressor station in Union Hill and there was nothing we could do about it. That’s not fair and it’s not American,” said Chad Oba, president of Friends of Buckingham and a resident of Union Hill. “This is a win for a group of citizens who were committed to protecting their community and never gave up.”
Jon Mueller, an attorney for the bay foundation who argued the case before the panel in October, called the ruling “a major step forward for meaningful environmental justice.”
The panel decision vacated the permit and returned it to the air board, which it also directed to explain why it had failed to consider requiring electric-powered turbines to eliminate most of the pollution emitted by four natural gas-fired turbines for the 58,162-horsepower compressor station.
“Having considered the entire record, we are not satisfied that the board provided a sufficient and rational explanation of its failure to consider electric turbines in place of gas turbines, and [the Department of Environmental Quality’s] responses to the public are likewise insufficient,” Thacker wrote.
Dominion Energy, lead partner in the $7.75 billion project, said it would seek to address the issues raised by the panel in a revised permit for the compressor station.
“In its opinion today, the court recognized the stringency of the permit, while requiring the state to provide more analysis and explanation to support its approval,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said. “We will immediately begin working with the state to resolve the procedural issues identified by the court.
“We are confident the additional analysis required by the court can be completed in a timely manner,” Ruby said. “We expect the project will still deliver significant volumes [of natural gas] to customers under our existing timeline, even as we work to resolve this permit.”
The 600-mile project is already two years behind its original schedule and about $3 billion over its original budget. The same three-judge panel, including Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of Richmond, already has thrown out a series of federal environment permits issued for the project, but this is the first state permit the 4th Circuit has rejected.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by the pipeline company and U.S. solicitor general of the 4th Circuit’s ruling that the U.S. Forest Service could not permit the project to cross beneath the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains between Augusta and Nelson counties.
The permit battle drew national attention because of environmental justice concerns raised by the project’s location on the former site of an antebellum plantation next to Union Hill, populated primarily by African Americans.
“For the first time since Dominion showed up in Union Hill, I feel like we’ve been heard,” said John Laury, who operates a small farm on land inherited from freed slave ancestors who had “made a way from no way.”
“The court’s decision shows that Dominion can’t ignore our community and pollute our air,” Laury said.
The appeals panel concluded that the air board had “failed in its statutory duty to determine the character and degree of injury to the health of the Union Hill residents, and the suitability of the activity to the area.”
However, the panel also acknowledged the apparent stringency of permit requirements for a project considered a minor source of pollution under federal and state air quality standards.
“To be clear, if true, it is admirable that the compressor station ‘has more stringent requirements than any similar compressor station anywhere in the United States,’ and that residents of Union Hill ‘will be breathing cleaner air than the vast majority of Virginia residents even after the compressor station goes into operation,’” Thacker wrote. “But these mantras do not carry the day.”
“What matters is whether the board has performed its statutory duty to determine whether this facility is suitable for this site, in light of [environmental justice] and potential health risks for the people of Union Hill,” it added. “It has not.”