As Virginia’s legislative session ended on February 28th, the state saw a slew of new bills passing both chambers, predominantly in the areas of Education, Healthcare and Transportation. These bills affect the second largest Muslim community in America (2.7%), an area that has seen a growing amount of outreach efforts by officials from both political parties and an electoral base that has become increasingly savvy and engaged in the past decade.
Recent efforts by civic engagement groups in Northern Virginia have determined that the most important issues for the Muslim community in Virginia are: “Islamophobia”, Education, Transportation, Immigration, Domestic Violence and Poverty, Economy/ Business (Jobs) and Healthcare. This year, the influence upon lawmakers in Richmond was markedly increased in a demonstrated effort by Muslim leaders and citizens to attend the opening of the legislative session in early January 2015.
Overview of VA Legislative Session 2015
In a record ending to the session, which adjourned early for the first time in 15 years, the predominantly Republican Congress’ legislative decisions were met with overall positivity by Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who has a little over a month from the closing of the session to veto, amend or sign off on all individual legislation. Despite his desire to see the extension of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and proposed legislation for gun control, gay rights and equal pay failing, there were Economic, Education and Healthcare bills that passed with enough unanimity to ensure the state moves forward in upcoming years.
Among the bills that stood out are an ethics bill (HB2070) prompted by the Bob McDonnell scandal, designed to put caps on gifts that lawmakers can accept and ensure public disclosure of personal finances. This was accompanied by some concerns among Democrats in the Assembly who argue that comprehensive ethics reforms need also to address current campaign finance rules.
HB1930 and SB712 focused on the issue of sexual violence on college campuses in the wake of a 2012 UVA rape and murder case, providing resources for victims and a reporting system that enforces the accountability
Bills allowing the use of hemp for industrial purposes and medical marijuana for those suffering from epilepsy passed with relative ease. College tuition reductions and higher wages for teachers prevailed along with laws that regulate student restraining methods used in public schools (HB1484 and HB1443 respectively). Also passed was HB1673, a surveillance bill restricting the time that police can hold records on license plates and legislation HB1408 requiring warrants for the use of such things as drones and stingray devices used in cellphone surveillance.
Some legislation died before reaching the Senate floor – most notably, anti abortion bills, gay marriage legislation and yet another dubious Anti Foreign Law bill proposed by Senator Stephen Martin (R- District 11). Other bills that aimed at increasing minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.00 were also defeated. The Governor’s bid to increase taxes by $11.7m was struck down as was his proposed $28m toward new voting machines and measures to close coal company tax loopholes.
Dominion Resources, Virginia’s foremost energy company lobbied on both side of the isle to seek exemption from SCC rate reviews and secure its pricing for up to 7 years, arguing that its legislative success protects consumers from increased rates that could potentially result from energy cost hikes and natural disasters. And perhaps one of the more contentious issues, tied closely to ethics reform, was that of redistricting – three bills were stumped in the House though they passed the Senate, leaving the issue of gerrymandering further open to debate in VA.
|Health and Human Resources||27.5|
|Public Safety & Homeland Security . . . . . .||5.8|
|Commerce and Trade||1.9|
What it Means for the Commonwealth’s Muslim Community
As a population that accounts for 2700 people for every 100,000, there are essential legislative areas that Muslim communities need to consider within their spheres of influence. The success of defeating what was one of ten nationwide bills surreptitiously addressing “creeping Sharia” in 2015 is attributable largely to effective outreach efforts and long term relationships Muslim community leaders have established with their lawmakers. However, the fact that the 12 of the 15 members of the Courts of Justice Committee unanimously supported the striking of the Anti-Foreign Law Bill (SB1318) from the Senate floor on January 21st is also evidence that Virginia’s legislative leaders are keenly aware of the provisions and applicability of both the US and Commonwealth of Virginia’s Constitutions when it comes to Anti-Foreign Law bills.
HB1437 was defeated on February 23rd by the Senate General Laws Committee, lessening current restrictions on prayers at public gatherings in a bid for religious freedom. The bill intended to strengthen laws that require public prayers to be ecumenical in nature, but its defeat allows Muslim community and all houses of worship to hold prayers referring specifically to their deity.
Even as Muslim households will have to contend with lax regulatory control of entities such as Dominion Resources, which will reflect in their energy bills for years to come, businesses and the economy benefit overall from the prevention of higher taxes and a robust increase in the state budget. Along with higher than expected revenues, a boost came with the sale of unclaimed real estate worth $250m, some $4m of which was allocated to Jefferson Lab to become a contender for a US Energy Department’s building of a electron ion collider costing more than $600m. Raised revenues have resulted in the restoration of $30m to local governments that had previously seen budget cuts, 1.5% salary raises for teachers, 2% raises for state police, 3% for state employees, 2% for college faculty, increased benefits for recipients of welfare and money for overall economic development – all of which is accompanied by a balanced budget.
While the session resulted in bills with positive outcomes on issues like “Islamophobia”, freedom of religion in the Commonwealth and economic growth, other legislations still require scrutiny and greater involvement of Muslim communities across VA. One such area is emerging minority representation under redistricting laws and its effect on legislative change in the Commonwealth. Bills SJ284, SB824, SB840 which were proposed by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, passed the Senate only to be denied a hearing by House Privileges and Elections Committee. Redistricting issues have pushed gerrymandering concerns to the forefront of the fight for lawmakers such as Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-11), himself a community member, and author of a joint op-ed in the Richmond Times – Dispatch. According to Rasoul and his cohorts, gerrymandering means continued lessening of competition in VA district elections; geographically incongruent districts; divisiveness among districts; political deadlocks; waste of votes and an overall system in which politicians elect their voters rather than vice versa. All of these could and arguably do effect Muslim representation in the electoral and legislative arenas.
Education saw its share of budgetary and administrative benefits from this session spanning public schools, charter schools (now subject of a statewide referendum allowing state and not just local district approval), homeschooling, colleges and universities. Delegate David Ramadan (R-87) was successful in passing an initiative which reflects and rewards the talents of an increasingly diverse student demographic as chief patron of HB1351, a bill directing the State Board of Education to award a seal of bi-literacy for students who have demonstrated proficiency in a second language. Such successes are, however, accompanied by Muslim community concerns about issues such as bullying and drug use in schools – areas in which school districts might need to continually raise awareness through their individual budgets for local and county programatic efforts. Take also the issue of class size in public schools – Atif Qarni (D), running for the 2015 Senate seat in District 29 is a proponent of preventing overcrowding, which has long been an issue in Northern Virginia counties of Arlington and Fairfax. Several schools in these areas have resorted for years to the use of mobile classrooms due to an increase in area populations. How higher state revenues will be used to alleviate individual school district overcrowding problems and high student teacher ratios in classrooms is yet to be delineated.
The 2015 session resulted in reallocating funds toward less wasteful transportation projects throughout the Commonwealth (such as US460) and readjustments to compensate for lower than expected revenues from rail systems like the Downtown/Midtown Tunnel connecting Norfolk and Portsmouth. But with the growing population and economy of Northern Virginia, daily commutes affect Muslim families who have expressed concerns about quality of life owing to traffic congestion, rising toll road prices and inaccessibility of public transport – including commuter parking deficiencies at metro rail stations and difficult bus access for local transportation. Perhaps the most direct legislation affecting Muslim concerns around congestion and road quality is HB1887 which deals with VDOT’s “membership, funding, updates to annual reporting, and allocations”. It is aimed at streamlining spending and making road construction more efficient, with an improved component to public-private joint transportation ventures. Uber and Lyft, two previously prohibited ride share systems, had their ban lifted despite Muslim taxi cab driver opposition, allowing the ride shares to operate under certain safety and regulatory guidelines.
Blocking the extension of Medicaid as part of the Federal government’s Affordable Care Act was perhaps the most prominent healthcare concern, affecting immigrant, low income and unemployed Muslim families. The Senate did pass various other legislation that bolsters the privacy of health records through the Freedom of Information Act, expands the building of Veterans’ centers statewide, allows marijuana oils for treating epilepsy seizures, gives access to experimental drugs for dying patients and extends insurance coverage for children with autism from age 6 to 10. To address an alarming epidemic of heroin and prescription drug overdose throughout Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) led a bipartisan move to introduce various bills surrounding substance abuse. The bills intend to curb Heroin overdoses that saw a 164% increase in Northern Virginia, 94% increase in Hampton Roads, and a 50% increase in the Richmond metro area as well as a doubling in statewide prescription drug fatalities between 2011 and 2013. HB1500 is a “good samaritan provision” that extends immunity to those who report drug overdoses in order to incentivize reporting.
Domestic Violence is a growing concern for Muslim communities across Virginia as awareness of cultural and gender issues has increased over recent years. The VA Assembly passed a bill by patron Senator Janet Howell (D) that establishes a Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Program Professional Standards Committee and sets up an Advisory committee for reducing and eradicating sexual and domestic violence.
Attorney General Mark Herring, a long time friend of the Muslim community in Northern Virginia, also succeeded in adding strangulation to the list of no-bond domestic violence felonies, where earlier there were loopholes. Human Trafficking is a rampant problem in Northern Virginia for which HB1964 and SB1188 both passed to protect minors from recruitment into prostitution. The Assembly also voted to ensure that sexual predators are subject to greater scrutiny after release from law enforcement, unlicensed home care providers are strictly prohibited from advertising their services, and child support arrearages and payment bills also passed.
The extent to which Muslim social services organizations can benefit from Virginia’s increased budgetary resources remains to be seen in the availability of grants and programs that meet local county and district needs on a constant basis. Certainly the recruitment of bi-lingual, multicultural expertise to assist in meeting the needs of immigrant and welfare families of all religious and ethnic backgrounds in Virginia is one area that non-discriminate social service providers such as FAITH in Herndon, VA have expressed a need.
From the floor of the 2015 Assembly, an overall bipartisan atmosphere has helped to move legislation along with relative speed and cooperation this year. As Emerge USA establishes offices in Virginia with its focus on quantifying data, training communities and pushing civic engagement, there is immense new opportunity for legislative and electoral growth in the Commonwealth. With an overall affluent, professional, cohesive population in the state, it is important for Muslim communities to engage at every level of government – local, state and federal. Emerge USA provides the education, information and knowledge that is vital to the advancement of emerging Muslim communities throughout Virginia.
 Norment (R), Obenshain (R), McDougle (R), Stuart (R), Vogel (R), Reeves (R), Chafin (R), Garrett (R), Howell (D), Lucas (D), Edwards (D), McEachin (D).