By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
During the 2019 session of the Virginia General Assembly, Black lawmakers and their allies proposed a number of bills to address the economic, social and educational disparities facing Virginia’s African-American community.
The members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus have enlisted a reliable ally to make laws addressing those disparities a reality: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
Seven weeks ago, most of the state’s Black and white political leaders and civil rights advocates were calling for Northam’s resignation after images surfaced on his 1985 EVMS yearbook page of one white student in Blackface and another clad in a KKK costume.
He rejected calls for him to step down. And, unable to run for another term, Northam declared he would use his tenure to address issues of racial and economic disparities in the state’s racial legacy since slavery.
“I am going to do everything to really bring some good from these events which happened six weeks ago,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
To that end, the Governor recently signed a number of bills introduced by members of the Black Caucus which will take effect July 1.
Among them, Northam signed a bill sponsored by Delegate Lamont Bagby, (Democrat-Henrico County) which will create the Virginia African American Advisory Board.
The board will be composed of 21 non-legislative citizen members appointed by the Governor, and at least 15 of the members must be African American.
The Secretaries of the Commonwealth, Commerce, and Trade, Education, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security will also serve on the board as ex-officio members.
Bagby said the board will be up and running after July 1, the beginning of the state’s new budgetary cycle. Members will be appointed by the Governor then.
“I am pleased to sign this bill into law, and I look forward to working closely with the members of this board to advance policies and legislation to promote the economic, social, educational, and cultural wellbeing of the African American community in Virginia,” Northam said.
The Virginia African American Advisory Board is charged with advising the Governor on developing economic, professional, cultural, educational, and governmental links between the state government and the African American community. Two other existing state boards, the Virginia Latino Advisory Board and the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, also serve to advise the Governor on issues affecting their respective communities in Virginia, including education, health equity, public safety, and minority-owned businesses.
During the 2019 legislative session, Bagby said the Black Caucus got a head start by sponsoring a bill which addressed educational spending disparities. He said that the legislature provided additional funds for school divisions with large numbers of poor and at-risk children in rural and urban areas.
“This is one of the legislative victories which is long overdue,” said Bagby. “It will be charged to look at a number of issues including criminal justice, the impact of educational issues related to public schools suspensions, healthcare, minority access to the procurement dollars, our HBCUs, housing equity and creation of small businesses.”
In signing the bill into law, Northam said, “To build a more accessible, inclusive, and equitable Commonwealth, we must ensure the voices of all Virginians are heard, particularly those from underrepresented and historically disenfranchised communities.”
Court Costs Law
Northam also amended the state budget recently passed by the General Assembly to eliminate the suspension of driving privileges for nonpayment of court fines and costs.
This amendment would also reinstate driving privileges for the more than 627,000 Virginians who currently have their licenses suspended.
“The practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for nonpayment of court fines and costs is inequitable – it’s past time we end it,” the governor said.
While signing the measure, Northam said, “A driver’s license is critical to daily life, including a person’s ability to maintain a job. Eliminating a process that envelops hundreds of thousands of Virginians in a counterproductive cycle is not only fair, it’s also the right thing to do.”
Governor Northam also included funding in his budget to address potential lost revenue from reinstatement fees to the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Trauma
Center Fund. While these bills ultimately failed, the funding remained in the budget.
Several states are addressing this issue, which impacts poor African Americans and Hispanic individuals the most, according to civil rights activists, who support such measures.
“Fundamentally, this practice of suspending one’s driver’s license without knowing their ability to pay and undermining the ability to potentially pay court costs in the future is cruel; and, it may even be unconstitutional,” said Delegate Cliff Hayes of Chesapeake. “Virginia knows better than to have such a practice. It’s time that we do better.”
Absentee Ballot Law
With his colleagues in the House, District 5 State Senator Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake and Norfolk, saw his legislation passed to abolish the policy where Virginians must give an excuse to vote using absentee ballot.
To avoid having it killed by a GOP-led committee, Spruill said he and its sponsors made a deal with the GOP lawmakers to have the bill not take effect until 2020, just in time to bolster voter turnout for the presidential elections.
Today, if a voter is to qualify to use an absentee ballot prior to election day, he or she has to give one of 17 reasons ,including doing business out of town.
But the bill passed in the House and Senate would do away with this policy.
Senator Spruill said this legislation is a “good start” until lawmakers can pass a law allowing people to vote at will prior to an election.
Lottery Winnings and Labor Laws
There have been no instances where a Virginian has won $10 million via the state or national lotteries.
But Spruill was among sponsors of a new law which will allow residents who win that much money through the lottery to remaining anonymous.
According to state law, people who shined shoes, were baby sitters, and/or kitchen aides did not qualify to be paid the state minimum wage.
Most of these people who held such jobs during the days of Jim Crow were African Americans who were targeted by the rule. Now according to Spruill, that policy has been abolished.
The few remaining shoe shiners must be paid the $7.25 state minimum wage.
Evictions Reduction Law
Northam signed one of State Senator Mamie Locke ’s signature bills which would create a pilot program aimed at reducing eviction rates in Virginia.
The legislation is designed to reverse findings by a Princeton University research group which found that five cities, including Norfolk and Newport News in Virginia, have some of the highest eviction rates in the country.`
A pilot program will be launched next year in Richmond, Danville, Hampton, and Petersburg to reduce evictions in those cities. The law calls for the collection of data on the program’s effectiveness to help develop methods for preventing evictions around the state.
Managed by the city’s court system, tenants who meet certain criteria will be able to enter into a payment plan with their landlords to avoid a judgment of eviction.
Northam signed a package of bills aimed at reducing evictions by giving tenants more time to pay rent and fees ahead of an eviction notice and limiting the number of legal actions a landlord may file.