With race front-and-center during the General Assembly session that concluded Sunday, lawmakers approved a budget that fulfilled requests from black lawmakers to begin addressing inequities.
“Poverty is a commonwealth-wide conversation and it shouldn’t be up to just the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to discuss, it should be our collective responsibility,” Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, said on the House floor earlier this month when the body considered the now-passed tax plan. “Equality might feel good, might make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, but the real work of justice is equity.”
“Systematic racism is real. Equity is not codifying policy that will keep people stuck.”
Price said black lawmakers would make their demands in any year. But this year, budget negotiations came after a photo of people in blackface and in a Ku Klux Klan robe were found on the medical school yearbook page of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. He apologized for it, but later said he was sure he wasn’t in the photo.
“I think it was a perfect storm for the silver lining of this Dumpster fire,” Price said. “We did have this important conversation whether people wanted to or not.”
In exchange for the votes to pass the bipartisan tax policy change, black lawmakers wanted to see some of the things they said would help black Virginians funded in the budget.
And although difficult racial discussions have hung over the legislature, it wasn’t explicitly mentioned during the conference committee, said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, the only black budget conferee.
“Gov. Northam’s situation was not a factor for us in putting together the budget,” Torian said.
Among the budget amendments approved by the General Assembly and prioritized by black lawmakers was an additional $25 million over two years for the at-risk add on fund, money available for general use by school districts with high concentrations of students on free and reduced lunch; $12 million for additional school counselors; $1.5 million more for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund; $104,050 to study the need of an eviction diversion program and $52 million to freeze tuition at public colleges.
The budget cut $1.5 million for census outreach efforts, which Democrats argued was needed to get a complete count in the upcoming 2020 census.
Price voted in favor of the budget compromise on Sunday, praising House leaders for their work.
“I think the experience and the priorities of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus were able to push the conversation about the budget in ways that it may not have been pushed before.”
There is no “short road to redemption,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, but the budget is one place to start facing racism in the state head-on, some lawmakers said.
“I don’t know that the budget can force the conversation but what it can do is it can demonstrate a commitment to addressing the systemic issues and shortcomings that Virginia has and continues to face,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. “The stakes are too high and we can’t continue to lose generation after generation to these inequities.”
‘At least we’re starting’
When the House of Delegates considered its tax plan earlier this month, black lawmakers took time to talk about the racial implications of fiscal policy.
The tax plan, which ultimately passed with bipartisan support, was inequitable, some said, a plan that left behind black Virginians and the same principles carried over to budget proposals, which were determined in part this year by new tax policy.
After initially blocking passage of the tax plan, enough Democrats changed their votes to get the required supermajority to pass the plan.
Northam, still trying to recover from the national controversy following the yearbook photo and his admission to a separate appearance in blackface, reiterated some of the points black lawmakers made in a letter to budget conferees.
“In order for every Virginian to thrive, we must invest in their success – and that requires a greater focus on issues of equity,” Northam wrote in a letter to the lawmakers who oversee budget discussions: Sens. Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta as well as Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
“First and foremost, we have to ensure that our education system — from early childhood to K-12 to higher education — is equitable for every student, no matter his or her ZIP code. To that end, I ask you to consider restoring funding to the level I proposed for the at-risk add-on program, which benefits schools with the greatest needs.”
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, said he believes Northam was genuine in pushing those priorities, since they were included in the governor’s original budget proposal.
“You want to make sure you’re changing hearts and minds and people aren’t just going to pay lip service to these issues of race and equity,” he said. “You want to see meaningful and impactful change from policymakers.”
The budget is one way to prove that commitment, said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
“That will hopefully start that process — basically showing that they’re becoming wise to the institutional, economic disparity we have,” she said.
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the appropriations committee said budgets are visions and mission statements for the state. Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, a budget conferee, agreed.
“This does reflect the priorities, I think, we’ve heard from many of you and that’s what this House should be about,” Landes said on the floor Sunday before the budget passed. “This also reflects the legislative priorities this House has passed.”
The black lawmaker’s biggest budget priorities don’t just affect minorities, Herring pointed out. At-risk add-on money will also help schools in Southwest Virginia.
“When we are fighting for low-income, working families, no matter their color, we are fighting for the entire commonwealth,” Price said. “Even though we’re talking about race I don’t want the point to be missed that the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is fighting for … all working Virginians, and I think that does get lost sometimes because it is African Americans who carry the burden of disparities in a lot of these areas.”
A budget won’t undo what’s transpired in the last month, Jones said. It will still take a lot of uncomfortable conversations about things people tend to avoid talking about, he said.
“We must understand that our way toward the healing and reconciliation we have spoken about starts with us … That our words cannot ring empty in the ears of black Virginia. That our deeds and aims in this body, as policy makers, must be reflected in our actions and our ideals,” Jones said in a floor speech detailing his family’s history for Black History Month last week.
“It’s a start,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said of the approved budget. “To really address racially inequities is going to be a process that takes more than one year, more than three years, but at least we’re starting.”
Torian said Northam will also have to do much of the work to address racism in the state.
“I don’t think it’s so much what Virginians can do as much as what the governor needs to do himself,” Torian said. “Remember, we did not create the situation, so he has to take responsibility for that. If he is open to listening, being transparent, continues to work on behalf on the commonwealth, improve some relationships, I think we’ll be fine.”