In Virginia, change tends to take time, sometimes too long. For example, when Virginia finally expanded Medicaid in 2018, allowing its kickoff in 2019, more than 300,000 people had already waited five years to receive the health care benefits people in other states had back 2014.
Change came – finally – because enough voters were fed up with waiting for Virginia to allow our residents to access benefits they were already paying for in federal taxes.
In 2020, Virginia finds itself with pent-up demand on a long list of other issues. While there’s truth in the adage “better late than never,” waiting too long to make necessary changes is counterproductive. Here are just a few things we urge our legislators to accomplish sooner rather than later during their remaining 53 days in Richmond.
Raise the minimum wage: Virginia is one of only 21 states stuck at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, an amount that hasn’t changed since 2009 and has 31% less buying power than the $1.60/hour minimum wage paid back in 1968.
A full-time worker making the minimum wage earns just $15,080 a year, not nearly enough to pay for even a one-bedroom apartment in most of Virginia. And while many minimum wage earners are young, not all of them are. Nearly 90% are at least 20, and two-thirds are women.
Myths about raising the minimum wage, including that it kills job growth, have been debunked by studies in other states. Maryland ($11) and even West Virginia ($9.50) have higher minimum wages than Virginia. Bills before lawmakers could raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $10 by July 1 and to $15, incrementally, by 2024.
Ban cellphones while driving: Credit for persistence must be given to state Sen. Scott Surovell, who’s been trying since about 2012 to make it illegal for Virginians to use hand-held cellphones while driving. Surovell’s bill (SB 160) was inspired by the death of an 18-year-old who was struck while standing outside his vehicle by a motorist who was texting up until impact.
The issue was given a fresh sense of urgency this year by a Loudoun family whose 5-month-old son was killed when his stroller was struck by a texting driver. It’s impossible to know how many accidents can be attributed to texting, but fatalities are on the rise for both motorists and pedestrians.
Surovell argues Virginia’s current law is toothless because it forbids people from entering text into a phone while driving but effectively allows scrolling through Facebook or playing a video game while behind the wheel.
Once again, Virginia is behind much of the country on this issue. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already ban cellphones while driving.
Extend in-state tuition to refugee and DACA-eligible students: Back in 2001, before most of today’s high school seniors were even born, Texas (yes, Republican Texas) became the first state in the U.S. to grant in-state tuition to students based solely on graduation from a Texas high school and acceptance into a public university. Fifteen states, including Republican Utah, Kansas and Nebraska, now have similar laws.
This year, Sen. Dave Marsden and Del. Kathy Tran want to add Virginia to the list. Tran’s bill would extend in-state tuition to refugee students, while Marsden’s would offer it to those eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Back in 2014, Attorney General Mark Herring ruled that DACA recipients who live in Virginia should qualify for in-state tuition.
Marsden argues that students brought to the U.S. as children, through no choice of their own, should be able to pursue a higher education just like any other Virginia student. Business groups such as the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce agree because Virginia needs educated young adults for our economy to thrive.
There’s much more on Virginia’s to-do list this year, including votes on high-profile issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and bills aimed at preventing gun violence.
We expect civil debate, wise compromises and a sense of urgency to finally get things done.