By Benjamin Hoyne, Policy Director, VICPP.   

The chaotic and unsettling 2019 session of the Virginia General Assembly (GA) has come and gone. Marked by scandals enveloping three statewide elected officials in Richmond, the GA concluded its business on Sunday, February 24th. Traditionally, the “shorter” session taking place in odd-numbered years focuses on budget adjustments.

As the GA was required to conform to many federal tax changes, tax reform was the single big-ticket legislative item on this year’s docket. While most of the reforms benefitted upper-income earners, there were a few small victories for lower-income residents, most notably securing funding for Virginia’s At-Risk Add-On program. This program provides supplemental aid to school districts in areas with high concentrations of poverty. The Governor proposed a $35 million increase, but the GA changed that to $25 million. Virginia’s school system spends less per student in high-poverty areas compared to low poverty ones. This funding addresses that gap, albeit, very minimally and at a rate far lower than the national average.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, along with our legislative patrons, helped to pass two pieces of legislation that will help workers in Virginia. Companion bills (HB 2473 and SB 1079) remove discriminatory language from the Jim Crow era from Virginia’s Minimum Wage code. The racist language read, “Newsboys, shoe shine boys, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters” are exempted from earning minimum wage in Virginia. These professions, historically held by African-Americans, deserve to be paid at least minimum wage. This bill removes this government-sanctioned discrimination based on someone’s job title.

Additionally, we passed legislation with bi-partisan sponsors, (HB 2664 and SB 1696), that ensures all employees get an online or paper pay stub. Currently employers only have to provide pay stubs upon request, and consequently, many workers do not receive them. This has led to workers being shortchanged on their pay for hourly work, not receiving wage increases, incurring improper deductions, and more. This legislation will require employers to properly document wages paid, hours worked, and deductions. This is a great victory for workers in our Commonwealth.

We saw another victory in environmental justice in the passage of bills (HB 2786 and SB 1355) that require Dominion Energy to clean up toxic coal ash ponds.  Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a program of VICPP, helped lead this effort with bipartisan support.

VICPP also supported a bill (HB 2494) banning religious data collection by state entities, which passed with near unanimous support. In addition, many reforms were made to the evictions process in a slew of bills from a bipartisan group of lawmakers. These should help make stable housing more attainable for renters.

Finally, due to the efforts of our entire network of members across Virginia, we were able to defeat a bill (SB 1024) that would have allowed anyone to bring a weapon into a house of worship. For the second year in a row, our efforts led to this bill being defeated in the House of Delegates.

Unfortunately, VICPP had many bills that died in committee, including several that would have enhanced worker protections against wage theft. Other disappointments included a bill we supported that would provide all immigrants with a path to accessing driver’s licenses. Another bill led by our partner organization, Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, which would codify the Environmental Justice Council, also died in committee. We worked on additional bills that did not pass, including ones that sought to improve the environment, make Virginia more welcoming to immigrants, and reform the criminal justice system.

It was an uphill battle to pass legislation this year and we’re proud that we were able to pass some bills that will protect workers and their wages. We’re already planning for the 2020 legislative session and we look forward to announcing our 2020 platform and priorities this spring.

The team at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Virginia Interfaith Power & Light is deeply grateful to the hundreds of members, volunteers, faith leaders, and partners, who advocated with legislators, wrote letters, testified in hearings, attended protests, and supported our work to help achieve these legislative victories. This is true grassroots advocacy work and it is changing lives.