Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

July 1st is the usual enactment date for legislation that has passed the General Assembly. 2020 will go down in history as one of the most productive legislative sessions. From no-excuse absentee voting to gun violence prevention, a woman’s right to choose, ERA, increasing the minimum wage, and social justice reform – the General Assembly passed over a thousand bills that Governor Northam signed into law.

The Commonwealth is entering into Phase 3 of its Forward Virginia recovery. Please remember we are not out of the woods yet. I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping up with safety precautions such as wearing a mask in public, washing your hands, and keeping a safe distance from others. As of this writing, more than 128,000 American lives have been lost to Covid-19. But hundreds of thousands have also been saved by doing our part and abiding by CDC guidelines. Thank you!

The “money committees” for the Senate and House of Delegates have been briefed on the most current data available regarding Virginia’s economic picture. Secretary Layne reports there is likely to be a $500 million revenue shortfall from what we anticipated when we built the biennial budget that passed both Chambers. In this report, small businesses realized the most significant impact of Coronavirus. Most larger companies with employees able to work remotely did not experience the same financial consequences. Not surprisingly, online sales increased some 48% during the past several months.

The Virginia Employment Commission has processed more than $4 billion as part of 820,000+ unemployment claims that have been filed. It has been no small feat to get the VEC up to the task with such rising unemployment rates during March, April, May, and into June. As we enter into the next phases, we see the number of people filing for unemployment benefits is declining.

With the lion’s share coming from the CARES Act, several billion dollars to combat Corornavirus has come to Virginia from the federal government. $200 million went directly to Fairfax County to mitigate the substantial revenue displacement it has experienced. Hundreds of million dollars have been used to increase testing, secure PPE, labs, and direct aid toward combatting the virus. Funds are available to ease housing insecurity and other issues individuals are facing. State agencies have submitted their adjusted needs for consideration as we prepare for the Special Session in August.

Another major concern on everyone’s mind is what the plan looks like for the next academic year. Kudos to the students, parents, and educators that adapted to homeschooling. Yes, as we entered uncharted waters, there were some initial problems and some still linger. It was truly a learning experience for all of us. Thrown into the uncharted waters, the challenge was met head-on. Lessons learned are now being applied to what the next academic year may look like. Public health and safety will be the foundation for going forward. Bear in mind, many students come from families that do not have access to Wi-Fi at home, often are on free or reduced meals, and come from living quarters that do not include areas for convalescing in seclusion.

The Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, has been overseeing five work groups addressing these issues, ongoing health concerns, and trying to provide options for students and parents. Students from PreK-12 will be in a new academic year in the fall. It may not resemble a typical setting and will likely have options for in-person and online learning. The mission of the work groups is to level the learning field – closing learning gaps; the digital divide; food insecurity and basic needs; mental and physical health; and cross-system policy alignment.

In the meantime, several localities led by their school boards and school superintendents are presenting their initial plans for how the 2020-2021 school year shapes up. Traditionally, we start the academic year short of staff from classroom teachers to bus drivers. This year will be no exception. Many “high risk” people are looking at other careers or retirement rather than returning to the traditional classroom setting and their work setting.
On the front burner for the August Special Session will be criminal justice reform. During the 2020 General Assembly we made significant strides to address systemic shortcomings. Recent events across this nation point to the need for additional action. The Senate Democratic Caucus has presented a comprehensive reform package that will be taken up during the summer special session. For more details, please visit my website www.dicksaslaw.com.