Guns became the major issue of debate at Saturday’s state legislative town hall meeting at the Falls Church Community Center, despite the fact that State Sen. Dick Saslaw and State Del. Marcus Simon, both Democrats, agreed that such toxic issues in the Richmond legislature will get nowhere, as usual, and they’ve chosen to focus on bills that might actually win bipartisan support and pass. The annual Richmond legislative session kicked off last week.
Single representatives of both pro-gun and anti-gun groups showed up to speak, neither of whom were from Falls Church. As much as both Saslaw and Simon prefaced their remarks with “we don’t want to take away your guns,” but spoke to the need for universal background checks, their comments nonetheless came under fire, so to speak, from the pro-gun spokesman on grounds of a variety of “what-if” hypotheticals. This is despite the fact that 82 percent of members of the National Rifle Association favor universal background checks.
Sen. Saslaw noted that in the case of Florida, with whom Virginia has a “reciprocity agreement” on guns, 1,400 licenses were issued in the recent period to persons with criminal records, including 218 with outstanding warrants for their arrest, 14 of those for murder.
Although plenty have been submitted by almost all Democrats in Richmond this session, no measure to put any restrictions on gun use will make it out of a committee, Falls Church’s two local representatives agreed. On the other hand, efforts to extend the use of guns that will pass in one or both of the GOP-controlled Senate and House of Delegates will be vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, and will not have the votes to override such vetoes, they said.
But Saslaw, the veteran lawmaker who is the Senate minority leader, was taken to task over more than just guns. In fact, leading members of the Falls Church League of Women Voters – Ellen Salsbury and Sarah Fitzgerald – criticized him for not completing the LWV questionnaire last November prior to the election, which was distributed to every home in Falls Church, limiting some of his answers to “no comment.”
Saslaw was ready with a forceful response, however, saying that questions which require a “yes or no” answer are not adequate to explain a complex issue, yet if a lawmaker commits to answer in a poll, he or she is then held accountable to that.
“I have sent out four newsletters to everyone in my district that explain my voting record and the issues in detail,” he said. “So you can’t say I am dodging the issues. Everyone knows my views.” On the other hand, he said, he knows that many of his colleagues in the legislature boast about “telling people what they want to hear” on such surveys and questionnaires.
In a number of cases, also, he said, Republican legislators in the Senate will vote to appease an element of their constituency because they know that over in the overwhelmingly-Republican House (the margin is 66-34) it will get killed, anyway.
As to the issue of gerrymandering that is getting more and more attention, Saslaw had his own unique position on the issue, saying that if those drawing the lines would consider a district with a 43 to 45 percent African-American makeup to qualify under federal anti-discrimination law, then that would be sufficient for most of those districts to still enjoy minority representation.
However, he said, such districts get drawn with 65 percent minority make up, and that limits the number of districts that can be represented by the choice of a minority.
Saslaw spoke out very strongly against charter schools, citing cases of being very poorly operated, even in wealthy sections of Virginia, and said they represent “nothing but draining away money from public education.”
Del. Simon said some of his bills aimed at gaining bipartisan support include ones to extend sexual orientation and gender identity as protected against discrimination in housing. He noted that groups of realtors and office building and apartment owners have dropped their opposition to this.
Simon also hopes to get some traction for his bill to restructure student loan debt (House Bill 400). In the U.S., student loan debt has ballooned to $1.3 trillion, the largest classification of debt next to mortgages.
This problem is now strangling economic development, he said, because too many people can now no longer qualify for the debt-to-income ratios required to buy a house or car. He’s proposing a mechanism to refinance the debts at lower interest.
He said there is a bill to ban use of “crumb rubber” on athletic fields because of some studies showing increased rates of illnesses among youths playing on them. He cited the case of the Westgate Elementary School near here where such artificial turf was slated to be installed, but parental outrage has stalled the move, and piles of the stuff are now sitting as a testament to the concern.
Saslaw spoke to the terrible irony of opposition to the extension of the Affordable Care Act to Medicaid in Virginia, something the Republicans in rural parts of the state, in particular, have been responsible for. In the poorest parts of the state, where these Republicans hold sway, the life expectancy is 65 compared to 81 in Northern Virginia, Saslaw said, adding that 20 percent of babies in the rural areas are born with opiate addictions, a third of the population smokes in Grundy and Buchanan counties and 40 to 50 percent of adults are “morbidly obese.”
If ever a people needed expanded health care, it would be where they and their representatives are the most adamantly opposed to it, he noted.
Julio Idrobo of the Falls Church Housing Commission asked about the efforts to raise the minimum wage, and Saslaw said there is “no way to keep anyone in a job with the current $7.25 minimum wage because no one can afford to live on it.” It is a pro-business issue to raise it, he said, and some like freshman Del. Paul Krizek have introduced legislation to allow a local option on it.
Still, Republicans are now allowing measures to raise it out of committees.