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Virginia legislators discuss visions for upcoming General Assembly session at forum

Questions regarding critical race theory, redistricting, the budget surplus, the minimum wage ga, and mental health resources were all discussed at the event

<p>The General Assembly was established in 1619, and consists of a bicameral body with a lower house, the Virginia House of Delegates, and an upper house, the Senate of Virginia.&nbsp;</p>

The General Assembly was established in 1619, and consists of a bicameral body with a lower house, the Virginia House of Delegates, and an upper house, the Senate of Virginia. 

Two delegates and senators from the Virginia General Assembly attended a legislative forum at Alumni Hall Dec. 13 from 12 to 1 p.m. Each presented opening statements followed by a live question-and-answer session. About 70 University and Charlottesville community members attended the event. 

The General Assembly was established in 1619, and consists of a bicameral body with a lower house, the Virginia House of Delegates, and an upper house, the Senate of Virginia. The goal of the legislative session is to make and change the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The budget is also presented by the Governor in January in the form of a bill, which is edited by both the Senate and House and then presented back to the Governor to be signed.  

The forum began with opening remarks from University President Jim Ryan, who introduced and thanked each member for being there.

Senator Creigh Deeds, who represents Virginia’s 25th District and is a member of the Democratic Party, was the first to speak. Deeds said his main priority this session is access to mental health resources for Virginians, specifically towards allocating more resources towards community based mental health services and substance use disorder. 

Students have been calling for administration to improve mental health resources for years, particularly last semester after the University rolled out two new programs, TimelyHealth and HoosConnected. A main concern among students include long wait times and inadequate help, despite a new student health building opening in October. 

Deeds also said the best time to talk to local legislators is as early in the year as possible after the session.

Senator Emmett Hanger, who represents Virginia's 24th District and is a member of the Republican Party, spoke next and said his main focus is on agriculture in Virginia. Hanger has been involved in legislation regarding farmland preservation and agriculture vitality programs. 

Hanger is currently a part of the landing team with governor-elect Glenn Youngkin. This team is responsible for creating a smooth transition between the outgoing and incoming governor. 

Hanger also discussed what both Governor Ralph Northam and Youngkin want to do with the budget surplus. Northam announced in July that Virginia will finish with a record-breaking $2.6 billion surplus. 

Hanger said Youngkin is planning to use part of this surplus towards a proposed $3.2 billion tax cut, which includes a plan to double the standard income tax deduction in Virginia, increase one-time tax rebate checks of $300 too $600, eliminate the state’s 2.5 percent grocery tax, provide a temporary tax holiday to small business owners, suspend a recent gas tax increase and exempt a portion of veterans’ retirement compensation from income tax. 

Hanger’s final remark was about the increasing problem of polarization between the two parties. 

“We are approaching a problem with a lack of civility,” Hanger said.

Delegate Sally Hudson, who represents the 57th House of Delegates district and is a member of the Democratic Party, spoke next. Hudson is a professor in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and is the first woman to represent the 57th district. She said her top priority is working hard for essential workers, which includes raising salaries for teachers and getting frontline health care to provide the supplies they need to combat COVID-19. 

Hudson agreed with Hanger in reference to the surplus, adding that the House and Senate “can’t start counting the extra money without solving previous existing problems.” 

The final person to introduce themself was Delegate Chris Runion, who represents the 25th House of Delegates district and is a member of the Republican Party. Runion said he wants to move away from the “mean-spiritedness of politics” and that his main concern is the financial situation in Virginia, specifically the ongoing revenue stream concerning the budget that will be proposed in January. 

Colette Sheey, senior vice president for operations and state government relations, thanked the members of Congress and the Senate again for coming and opened the floor up for questions from the audience. There were a total of five questions answered in the time span provided and for each question, all four congressmen were given an opportunity to respond. 

The first question was asked by a community member, Heerak Christian Kim,  who is planning on running for U.S. Congress in the 8th District. Kim asked the officials how they plan to address critical race theory, which was a topic of debate during the recent gubernatorial race between Youngkin and McAuliffe. 

Youngkin has vowed to “ban critical race theory on day one” of his term. 

Hanger responded that the seemingly pressing problem with CRT in Virginia education did not deserve the traction it received because it is not something actively being taught across the state in schools. Regardless, Hanger said Youngkin would remove any parts of CRT being taught in Virginia schools’ curriculums if it was found to be taught anywhere. 

Assoc. Computer Science Prof. Worthy Martin then asked what the redistricting process will look like in Virginia.

Prior to this year, redistricting bills were created by the state legislators, then considered and passed by a majority of both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates before being signed by the governor. In 2020, a new plan was voted in by Virginia residents to amend the state’s constitution, establishing the Virginia Redistricting Commission. The Supreme Court of Virginia now has the responsibility of drawing maps for congressional and state legislative districts. The VRC is holding two virtual public hearings on Dec. 15 and 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. to receive public opinions on the proposed redistricting plans. 

According to the officials, this new plan did not go as successful as people had hoped — all four representatives commented on the poor quality of the redistricting plan. The general consensus voiced amongst Hanger, Deeds, Hudson and Runion was that the current redistricting process required both parties in the House of Delegates and Senate to come together and pass the plan, which would be a difficult task to accomplish. Runion said he wants to “move the redistricting process away from the partisan process it is now.” 

The third question was presented by Undergraduate Student Success Librarian Cecelia Parks, who asked about the plan for paying essential workers and state employees better. 

Hanger referenced the increase in minimum wage — which will be at $11 an hour in January — as just one step “on our march to $15 an hour.” At the University, frontline workers are already being paid $15 an hour. 

Hudson responded that as a Democratic delegate who will be in the minority this session, her plan of action is “mostly going to be playing defense” against the majority party. Further, Hudson said this means constantly reminding other delegates what is lost per each dollar tax cut. 

“We are going to have to tell voters which programs we are willing to ignore,” Hudson said.

The final two questions were both asked by fourth-year students at the University who commented on resources available at University for students in terms of new legislation for undocumented students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and how legislators would improve mental health services at the University. 

Ryan announced in June 2020 that all students, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, were eligible for admission and enrollment at the University, including undocumented students without DACA status. 

Deeds and Hanger said they are both heavily involved with reforming mental health resources in Virginia. Similarly, both delegates said that in terms of improving mental health services, it comes down to the budget and where money is allocated. 

The General Assembly will commence on the second Wednesday of January.