With less than two weeks until the 2022 General Assembly session begins, Del. Sally Hudson is finalizing her legislative agenda.
Hudson, who is now entering her second term as a legislator for Charlottesville and part northern Albemarle County, cautioned that much remains in flux for the legislators due to upcoming changes in power in the wake of Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory. Hudson and other Democratic delegates will be entering a different legislature than in the previous two sessions as Republicans become the majority party.
“The House is going to look very different, and so a lot of the projects that I’m prioritizing are the ones that have the best shot at moving in a Republican House and that includes a suite of consumer protection measures on medical debt, online subscriptions and clean energy,” she said. “I think that one of the key themes that came out of the statewide races is that Virginians are rightly concerned about the rising cost of living, and I hope that that’s something where the parties can come together and work on bringing down bills for the people we serve.”
Typically, in even numbered years when the legislative session lasts 60 days, legislators are allowed to introduce as many bills as they want, up from the 15 permitted in shorter, 30-day sessions in odd-numbered years. However, Hudson said House of Delegates Speaker-designee Todd Gilbert has not yet decided how many bills each legislator will be allowed to introduce, a number as likely to be influenced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as changes in executive leadership.
Additionally, Hudson said the incoming Youngkin administration and new Republican House majority are a bit behind schedule and delegates are just now beginning to learn committee chairs for the House a couple weeks behind what we would have known two years ago when Democrats took over.
“Because so much about what will actually move depends on the preferences of who’s going to be heading the agencies for the governor and who’s going to be leading the committees in the House it makes it difficult to know what to introduce,” she said. “It can be challenging to explain to constituents just how much hinges on the personalities and personal preferences of a few key people. You can talk about criminal justice reform in the abstract, but until you know which specific delegates are going to be chairing the subcommittees, it’s harder to know which bills have legs.”
Even with that in mind, Hudson said her legislative agenda will involve several bills that seek to better the Charlottesville community, chief among them a school sales tax measure intended to support school reconfiguration.
Reconfiguration has become the focus of the Charlottesville School Board in recent months and the current plan includes a $73 million expansion and renovation of Buford Middle School. As part of the project, sixth-graders would move to Buford and fifth-graders would go back to the elementary schools. Walker Upper Elementary, where those two grades are currently, would then be turned into an early childhood center.
Improving the learning spaces and moving the grades around would improve student learning and the middle school experience, those involved with the project have said.
In order to support this reconfiguration plan the city will need to raise funds and, with Hudson’s support, they are asking the state for permission to levy 1% sales tax, just as other cities and counties around Virginia have.
“This is one that cuts across party lines in interesting ways. We’re gonna have co-patrons who are Republican delegates who have served in local governments and, though they’re not generally keen on raising taxes, they believe that if communities have public services they want to fund then they should have the authority to do that.”
Hudson also plans to reintroduce a bill to eliminate felony drug possession charges and shift a focus to treatment, not punishment, of substance abuse. She introduced a similar bill last session but, despite bipartisan support, the bill died quietly during crossover.
As always, Hudson said combating climate change will be part of her legislative agenda, though her methods may look different under a Republican majority House.
“I’m still gonna stick to trying to find ways to expand clean energy investments in Virginia because we really don’t have any moment to waste,” she said. “My hope is that that work can dovetail with the efforts to bring down the cost of living because Virginians pay some of the highest energy bills in the country because our utility companies run the show in Richmond.”
Much remains uncertain about how the Youngkin administration and the state’s largest utility provider, Dominion Energy, will work together.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in October it was revealed that Dominion Energy had donated more than $200,000 to Democratic political action committee to run ads targeting Youngkin that made it seem as if they came from a conservative group. Dominion CEO Bob Blue later claimed the PAC had not been properly vetted and requested Dominion’s money back.
As the lone economist in the House of Delegates, Hudson said she is concerned about Youngkin’s tax-cut rhetoric, which she said could adversely affect the state government’s responsibilities to provide critical public services.
“I don’t know a major state service, whether it’s education, or our mental health hospitals, or our foster care system, where the staff are not just underpaid, but also overstretched,” she said. “No matter who you’re talking to, you hear about staffing shortages, schedules that are totally unsustainable and patient loads that are too high — all of the stuff that makes even very sincere, good Samaritans feel disempowered in their job.”
Hudson said she hopes to remind her colleagues that, when it comes to funding public services, Virginia is in many ways behind the times.
“If we’re going to cut state revenue further, it means that a lot of those problems that are on full display will only go further neglected,” she said. “I think it’s really important that before people start talking about a budget surplus, that we make good on the commitments to quality public services that we already own Virginians.”
Virginia’s 2022 General Assembly is scheduled to begin on Jan. 12.