In the General Assembly

by Quinton Sheppard and Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Feb 13, 2019 - 03:07 PM

Photo: The General Assembly was in full swing Monday as legislators tried to legislate while dealing with fallout from scandals at the top levels of government. Here, on the floor of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides, at left, as Sen. Tommy Norment, center, has a discussion with Senate Clerk Susan Clark Schaar. Seated in the back, second from right, is Sen. Lynwood Lewis. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

The General Assembly was in full swing Monday as legislators tried to legislate while dealing with fallout from scandals at the top levels of government. Here, on the floor of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides, at left, as Sen. Tommy Norment, center, has a discussion with Senate Clerk Susan Clark Schaar. Seated in the back, second from right, is Sen. Lynwood Lewis. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Photo: Sen. Tommy Norment stands in his office in the Pocahontas Building overlooking the State Capitol. He said amidst the turmoil surrounding state government, the building helps to keep him grounded. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Sen. Tommy Norment stands in his office in the Pocahontas Building overlooking the State Capitol. He said amidst the turmoil surrounding state government, the building helps to keep him grounded. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Photo: Sen. Lynwood Lewis reflected on the situation at the top levels of government in Richmond on Monday. “It’s quite an upsetting time,” he said.

Sen. Lynwood Lewis reflected on the situation at the top levels of government in Richmond on Monday. “It’s quite an upsetting time,” he said.

Although the executive branch of government in the commonwealth was still reeling on Monday from a number of controversies that came to light a week earlier, members of the General Assembly vow they are working hard, with both the House of Delegates and the Senate passing bills to be sent to the Governor over the next few weeks for approval.

Though the media frenzy that descended on the State Capitol last week had quieted, the elephants in the room such as blackface appearing in Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax facing two sexual assault allegations and Attorney General Mark Herring admitting to wearing blackface while a college undergraduate, were still front and center in discussions with local lawmakers.

Sen. Norment

Photo: The General Assembly was in full swing Monday as legislators tried to legislate while dealing with fallout from scandals at the top levels of government. Here, on the floor of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides, at left, as Sen. Tommy Norment, center, has a discussion with Senate Clerk Susan Clark Schaar. Seated in the back, second from right, is Sen. Lynwood Lewis. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

The General Assembly was in full swing Monday as legislators tried to legislate while dealing with fallout from scandals at the top levels of government. Here, on the floor of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides, at left, as Sen. Tommy Norment, center, has a discussion with Senate Clerk Susan Clark Schaar. Seated in the back, second from right, is Sen. Lynwood Lewis. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Tommy Norment (R-James City), who represents Gloucester in the Virginia Senate, was engulfed in the controversy when it came to light that he oversaw a Virginia Military Institute 1968 yearbook that included some racist photos. “I was disappointed in it because of how I got lumped in with the statewide guys,” Norment said. 

A lawyer by trade, Norment said there is a saying in law called “acts of commission,” or the decision to do something. Norment said what the three state executives are accused of doing would be acts of commission. However, he was one of seven members working on the yearbook and that he had no control over editorial, art or photography put into the yearbook. His role, he said, was to ensure that everyone on staff was working on the tasks they were assigned.

Norment said he thinks the use of blackface is “abhorrent” and added that he was one of the supporters of integration at VMI when he was attending there in the ’60s. 

Of the controversies impacting business in the commonwealth, Norment said new laws and initiatives are still in the process of the legislative branch. “The legislative branch is not characterized by chaos,” he said. “We’re moving forward very deliberately doing what we were elected to do.”

Norment said one of his bills that passed both the Senate previously and then the House on Monday advances conformity of the state’s tax code with federal tax code to Dec. 31, 2018. This provides for a refund, in addition to any refund for the overpayment of taxes, of up to $110 for individuals, and $220 for married people filing a joint return. The refunds will be issued in October.

“Regardless of your income, you’ll get a tax break,” Norment said, “and we hope that will make people happy.” However, while viewing the House of Delegates in session on Monday, it was clear some House Democrats were concerned that language included in the bill would favor wealthy Virginians and disproportionally hurt lower-income taxpayers.

The bill also raises the standard deduction by 50 percent beginning in tax year 2019, the first such change for individual filers since 1989.  It also maintains the current rules for state and local taxes, and includes key provisions for job-creating businesses.

A second major piece of legislation Norment touted is a bill that would create a revenue-sharing program if gaming is authorized in Virginia. It would require the owner or operator of any gaming establishment to share a percentage of its adjusted gross receipts with the state, ranging from 13 to 15 percent.

Though Norment called the authorization of gaming a “very significant policy decision” for Virginia, he said if it is authorized, portions of the tax proceeds would be divided among transportation initiatives, education, tourism and marketing promotions and to help provide treatment for those dealing with gambling addictions.

Sen. Lewis

Photo: Sen. Tommy Norment stands in his office in the Pocahontas Building overlooking the State Capitol. He said amidst the turmoil surrounding state government, the building helps to keep him grounded. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Sen. Tommy Norment stands in his office in the Pocahontas Building overlooking the State Capitol. He said amidst the turmoil surrounding state government, the building helps to keep him grounded. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-Accomac), whose district includes Mathews County, said that he, other members of the General Assembly, and Governor Ralph Northam himself were all wrestling with what the future might hold.

“Politics writes its own rules,” said Lewis, “and it’s often not the rules we would apply in our everyday lives.” Asked if he had called on the governor to resign, Lewis said, “We all have.”

There has been extensive discussion in the Democratic caucus about the governor’s having appeared in blackface years ago and at first admitting, and then denying, that he was in a yearbook photo in blackface along with a person in a KKK costume, he said, but things are constantly changing from one day to the next. It’s only been one week since the upheaval began, he said, “but it seems like an eternity.”

“It’s quite an upsetting time,” he added.

Lewis said that the issue at this point isn’t as much what happened 30 years ago as whether the governor will be able to maintain the public trust and effectively lead the government.

While Northam has been very quiet since the whole debacle began, Lewis said that the governor had reached out to a couple of legislators over the weekend. Northam’s keeping a close circle of advisors, said Lewis, and has “brought in some folks who are specialists in this kind of crisis.” The governor returned to his regular schedule on Monday, said Lewis, and that could help everyone understand whether he can continue to do his job effectively.

Lewis said that there has been some talk of impeaching Lt. Gov. Fairfax for sexual accusations against him, but “the delegate rethought the wisdom of that.” In accusations of sexual abuse, said Lewis, “you have to listen to the victim, but at the same time, the lieutenant governor is entitled to a full investigation.” The problem, he said, is that there’s no mechanism in the General Assembly to launch such an investigation. He said that Fairfax himself is calling for an investigation and that he deserves one. The party that controls the General Assembly would control the process, he said, so it would have to be a bipartisan effort. He said he thinks there should be no trouble doing that.

Regarding Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted to having worn blackface many years ago, Lewis said that Herring had done “a much better job of handling his particular incident in the statement he made and reaching out to folks.” There appears to be no photographic evidence of the incident itself, he said, and there haven’t been as many calls for him to resign.

“But he still has some work to do with building trust,” said Lewis.

Shifting his focus to the work before the General Assembly, Lewis said that enabling legislation he sponsored on flooding and sea level rise to enact a constitutional amendment that passed by 71 percent in the last election had passed the Senate and was headed to the House. That legislation will allow tax relief for property owners that choose to make their waterfront property more resilient, he said.

A second piece of legislation, C-PACE, has also done well, he said, passing the Senate, 40-0. If signed into law, he said, it would establish a loan program for localities to promote green energy and help property owners make their property more resilient.

Lewis was co-patron of a gerrymandering compromise that he said might not be stringent enough to bring out all partisan activity, but is still a step forward. The legislation would establish a panel of five retired circuit court judges who would select a certain number of Democrats, Republicans and independents to serve on a redistricting commission. The problem, he said, is that voters don’t register by party in Virginia, so the process of choosing commission members will be complicated. The commission would contract with someone to draw the redistricting maps, he said, with the instruction that the maps could not favor one political party over another. Lewis said he favors the Iowa model, in which redistricting is turned over to the state legislature’s Division of Legislative Services.

Looking to school funding, under the General Assembly’s proposed budget, teachers stand to receive a 5-percent raise statewide, said Lewis. Two percent of that was approved last year and will go into effect this year, while 3 percent was incorporated in this year’s budget deal. He said there will also be funding to reduce the student/counselor ratio, hopefully to one counselor for every 250 students.

The legislature is wrestling with school construction issues, said Lewis, trying to figure out how to meet infrastructure needs for students in grades K-12. While more money has been placed in the literary fund, he said, it’s not going to make an appreciable difference because of the size of the problem.

Bringing the state tax code into conformance with the federal code is a big issue this year, said Lewis, because of the major changes that were enacted in Congress. The federal changes will result in a huge increase in revenue at the state level, he said, because of the itemization issue.

The federal government increased the standard deduction but eliminated many deductions for people who itemize. If you can’t itemize on your federal form, you can’t itemize on your state form, said Lewis’s legislative aide Jessie Williams, so your taxes will go up, increasing revenues for the state.

He said that the General Assembly had been at loggerheads about whether to conform and make policy choices at the same time or make policy choices later. The Senate went with the first option, he said. It decided to increase the state standard deduction and also to issue a check to every Virginia taxpayer. Williams said that the bill, if passed, will be favorable to the middle class.

Del. Hodges

On the House side, Del. Keith Hodges (R-Middlesex) said his primary goal over the last four to five years has been to promote economic development of rural coastal Virginia and to devise ways to make it more resilient to flooding.

“This year, I have been trying to educate other legislators on how unique we are,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Hodges has been working with VDOT trying to get them to put on their economic development hat. “Sometimes they can be a barrier to economic development,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to think differently.”

Hodges said one of his bills, which would have added Mathews to the list of counties that may impose a transient occupancy tax above 2 percent, was defeated in the House. “That one got caught up in some political weeds,” he said. The money from the tax would have been used solely for tourism and travel purposes.

However, he vowed that he would continue to work on rewriting that bill, along with several others that didn’t make through this session, and present them in different ways.

Finally, as far as the controversies surrounding the executive branch of Virginia’s government, Hodges said he is staying out of it and remaining focused on the job he was elected to do. “Folks from all around the country are looking at us to make sure the General Assembly is doing the work they set out to do,” he said. “So, I’m going to do that, especially during session.”