By Geremia di Maro
Amid a surging number of COVID-19 cases in the state, and political turmoil at the national level, the Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly will convene Wednesday (remotely in the House) for the 2021 legislative session. Charlottesville’s local lawmakers have an ambitious agenda planned for the marathon 46-day session. Delegate Sally Hudson and state Senator Creigh Deeds will both prioritize criminal justice reform, expanded unemployment benefits amid the pandemic, and increased school funding, among other things.
Hudson plans to serve as the chief patron for seven bills in the House of Delegates, and said at a virtual town hall Sunday that each one represents one of her central lawmaking priorities. At a time when new COVID-19 cases continue to break daily records in Virginia—more than 5,700 new cases were reported January 9 alone—three of Hudson’s proposed bills aim to lower utility bill costs, prevent illegal evictions, and streamline unemployment benefits for Virginians beleaguered by the still-worsening pandemic.
“Unemployment payments are a crucial part of our social safety net and our economic recovery,” said Hudson on Sunday. “They ensure that—while there are a lot of people out of work and a lot of businesses that aren’t safe to operate—we can still continue to help all of our residents pay for rent and groceries and keep the wheels of our economy churning.”
More specifically, Hudson says her proposed bill would address some of the administrative hang-ups within the Virginia Employment Commission that have delayed the disbursement of benefits for as many as 70,000 Virginia residents this year. According to Hudson, 1.4 million people—or one in six Virginians—have applied for unemployment benefits during the past year.
On the Senate side, Deeds has related bills. He will propose that the state allocate $100 million to the Virginia Employment Commission for the purpose of providing long-term benefits for unemployed low-income and part-time workers. Deeds says these funds would come from a $650 million allocation to Virginia’s reserve fund proposed in Governor Ralph Northam’s budget.
“The reserve fund is somewhat supplementary to the constitutionally required rainy day fund, but in this pandemic, it’s raining on a whole lot of families,” says Deeds. “There have been people that have been thrown out of work because of the pandemic. [This proposal] is a one-time deal, for one year of funding, to provide long-term unemployment benefits for some of those people who have lost their job because of the pandemic.”
Hudson has also proposed a sweeping bill that would decriminalize the simple possession of any drug or controlled substance, meaning that the maximum penalty an individual could face for possessing a given substance would be a misdemeanor charge rather than a felony. The simple possession of marijuana was decriminalized by the General Assembly during the 2020 legislative session. Hudson says her long-term goal is for drugs to be completely decriminalized in Virginia, citing the state of Oregon as a model for how to go about the process.
“People who are struggling with substance abuse need economic support, they need jobs, they need connections to their community—they don’t need to be in cages,” says Hudson.
Also on her agenda: ending the abortion ban for those who receive health care from Virginia’s version of the ACA; retiring coal tax credits in an effort to incentivize green energy; repealing right to work laws; and prioritizing school funding when crafting the budget.
Hudson says she feels empowered and obligated to press forward on issues such as criminal justice reform in the General Assembly due to her district’s desire to see such changes.
“Charlottesville is continuing to push the leading edge of the conversation in Richmond, because I think what our constituents want is often a little further ahead than where Richmond is ready to go,” says Hudson.
Deeds, meanwhile, says one of his central legislative priorities is for the General Assembly to provide significant long-term funding for the modernization and construction of schools across the commonwealth. Deeds hopes to fund the infrastructure upgrade through tax increases on wealthy Virginians. The plan is to raise taxes from 5.75 percent to 5.9 percent on income greater than $150,000 a year. The increase would generate about $134 million and $144 million in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
The plan wouldn’t just fund schools, though. According to Deeds’ proposal, 45 percent of the new revenue would be devoted to schools, and 55 percent would be used to provide raises for deputy sheriffs officers throughout Virginia. Deeds says deputy sheriffs are tasked with law enforcement and many other duties in rural localities, but are often underpaid. After the General Assembly passed laws to raise training and conduct standards for officers during last year’s special session, Deeds says the pay increase for these officers is appropriate.
“I’m interested in coming up with a sustainable source of funding because I think it’ll take pressure off where we’ve got a well-documented need,” says Deeds about the schools portion of his bill. “If we’re serious about providing opportunity through our public school system, we ought to be serious about making sure we provide that opportunity.”