Running Out the Clock-Social Agenda, the Budget, and the End of Session
Toscano Update from the General Assembly-March 10, 2010
We are rapidly approaching the final day of the 2010 General Assembly Session, scheduled for March 13, 2010. It now appears likely that we will not have a budget by the adjournment date. Education funding continues to be a major issue of contention and one which has significant implications for Charlottesville and Albemarle. I voted against the House budget because it will cut Charlottesville's funding by 35.5% and Albemarle's funding by 14.7%. The Senate budget is far better for each jurisdiction. You can read more at the Community Voice Blog, here.
While my attention has focused primarily on the budget, I continue to be concerned about efforts by Attorney General Cuccinelli to promote a conservative political agenda using taxpayer funds. First, he took issue with the scientific consensus that climate change is enhanced by human activity, and indicated that he will sue to stop the federal government from protecting our environment. I participated in a press conference with the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental advocates to condemn his intended lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, challenging its authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that are the principle cause of global climate change. (You can see a video of that press conference here).
This week, Cuccinelli sent a letter to Virginia's public institutions of higher learning, instructing them to rescind their policies which ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Attorney General's letter states that Virginia public colleges and universities do not have "proper authority" to enact nondiscrimination policies without express approval from the state legislature. Cuccinelli claims that inserting "sexual orientation" into universities' policies creates a new protected class of people, not permitted under state law. Some, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page, note that because "sexual orientation" refers to both homosexuals and heterosexuals, the policies do not in fact create a favored class. Others argue that it is both unusual and inappropriate for the Attorney General to issue legal opinions without first being asked for them.
There are many good reasons to be concerned about the Attorney General's letter. First, Virginia has worked hard to become known as the Best State for Business. To recruit the best companies in an environment that supports discrimination is problematic. Northrop Grumman is considering locating its headquarters in Virginia; it presently has a nondiscrimination policy. The top ten employers in Virginia have similar policies. How will these companies react to the Attorney General's approach?
Second, the success of our universities relies on our ability to recruit and retain students and faculty to a welcoming environment that is open and safe. Beyond that, university accreditation agencies require non-discrimination policies to be in place. Even Liberty University has such a policy. The Cuccinelli letter will likely discourage students from applying to our universities and may compromise accreditation.
Third, the Attorney General's position is legally problematic. The state and its universities are still bound by federal constitutional law not to discriminate based on sexual orientation under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. The Supreme Court, in Quinn v. Nassau County Police Department (1999), Weaver v. Nebo School District (2002), and Glover v. Williamsburg Local School District Board of Education (1998), has repeatedly held that public employees may not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. The court has also held that students in public schools are protected against such discrimination.
Fourth, the Attorney General's position is simply unfair and wrong. In a society which seeks to reward merit and performance, people should be judged on the content of their character.
Thankfully, last night Governor McDonnell issued an Executive Directive which effectively overrules the Attorney General's letter. He cited the protections under the 14th amendment and ordered that discrimination in public employment would not be tolerated. He did not rescind or change his earlier nondiscrimination Executive Order, which did not include sexual orientation. And, if the only way to do that is through legislation, as the Governor and Attorney General contend, I hope the Governor will send down legislation to do so, with his support. Nonetheless, the Governor's action should be applauded as a step in the right direction.
I was a co-patron of HB 1116, the House counterpart to SB 66, which would bar discrimination in public employment based on sexual orientation. We have made many attempts to get a debate on this issue before the House. In each instance, the House majority has prevented the debate by parliamentary maneuvers. We should have this debate in an open and honest fashion, so our constituents will know where we stand.
Of the 26 bills I introduced this Session, 13 have now passed both the House and the Senate and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be signed into law by the Governor. As I have detailed in the previous posts, these bills included measures to protect entrepreneurs who are investing in renewable energy, bring greater opportunities for adoption, improve our abilities to vote absentee in the Commonwealth, and enhance options for persons who seek to remediate problems with their dams.
Many of these bills were generated in response to inquiries from citizens like you, and I appreciated all of the support you have given me in getting them drafted and passed.
When I return to Charlottesville in the next week, I hope to engage the community in City/County collaboration and am more than willing to speak with any local group who seeks to be informed about the General Assembly and the critical issues facing our regions and the Commonwealth. As always, it is an honor to represent the 57th District.