Zachary Klosko

“There Is No Context”: General Assembly Votes To Remove Byrd Statue

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has voted to remove the statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square, the area around the Virginia State Capitol.

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until the General Assembly chooses its final location. The bill passed the House in late January on a 63-34 vote, while the Senate approved the measure Tuesday on a 36-3 vote.

Byrd served as state governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. His massive resistance campaign pushed for Southern states to reject the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, cutting off state funding and closing schools that tried to integrate.

Jones called the statue a reminder of the institutional racism in Virginia during the bill’s first committee hearings. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed Jones’ sentiments during the bill’s final reading on the Senate floor.

“When I was an intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was his worst nightmare,” McClellan said. “I feel it every time I walk past it.”

McClellan spoke of the pain African Americans have endured in Virginia due to Byrd’s disenfranchisement of Black voters and the dehumanization that Byrd cast on them.

“There is no context that could be placed on a statue on Capitol Square, the ultimate public park with public art, that could erase the pain that Harry Byrd and his legacy invokes for African American Virginians,” McClellan said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, gave a speech on the Senate floor portraying Byrd as a humble, industrious man who worked in the apple business, saved a local newspaper and improved Virginia’s highway infrastructure. Vogel described Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against school integration in the 1950s as a stain on an otherwise remarkable career.

“That is a great stain on his career and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said. “But he was a man of a certain time in a certain era.”

Vogel asked the senators to “look at the whole man and consider that we are each a sum of all our parts, the good and the bad.”

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, pushed back on Vogel’s request, saying probably 100,000 students if not more were kept out of school for years due to Byrd’s push for segregation.

“I just don’t see how we can overlook the fact that all of these children … were kept out of school for four years,” Saslaw said. “I think that we should not be honoring people to that degree in Capitol Square.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill last year to remove Byrd’s statue. Walker later pushed for his bill to be removed.

Walker voted against HB 2208 during its final reading in the House on Jan. 27.

The push to remove statues of Confederate leaders accelerated after protests began following the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimated the statue’s removal will cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

Byrd’s statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966. The bipartisan vote to remove it comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s massive resistance campaign, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Vogel were the only senators to vote against the bill.

Rita Davis, council to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke of Northam’s support for the bill during committee hearings. Northam is expected to sign the bill.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Mixed Reaction to Senate Passage of Bill for In-Person Education

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill which would require in-person instruction, along with virtual learning, be made available to Virginia public school students upon request passed the Virginia Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1303, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, aims to make sure students have the opportunity to attend in-person instruction. The student’s parent or guardian must make the request, according to the bill. The legislation passed the Senate on a 26-13 vote.

The bill does not lay out specific expectations of local school divisions in regard to in-person learning, according to the bill’s text. The original version of the bill required the measure to go into effect once the legislation passed the Virginia General Assembly, but an amended version of the bill removed that requirement. Without that stipulation, the bill will take effect on July 1, according to Dunnavant.

Many Virginia school systems, including Fairfax County, Hanover County and Alexandria City Public Schools, begin summer break in mid-June, according to their academic calendars.

During the bill’s committee hearing, Dunnavant said that it is more dangerous for children to not be in the classroom. 

“We have amazing evidence to show that being in school is safe for both students and teachers,” Dunnavant said. “We have profoundly disturbing evidence that not having in-person school for a body of our students is possibly, irrevocably damaging.”

“I think it is probably the most important thing that we can do this session,” Dunnavant added.

Dunnavant stressed the need for innovation in educating students in grade school similar to how many colleges were able to provide in-person education for students.

“If you look at the interventions and the innovations that they have created to make it safe, and again, without outbreaks, you would be so proud,” Dunnavant said on the Senate floor before the bill passed.

Dunnavant’s comments come after 20 active cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers led Hurt Elementary School in Pittsylvania County to abruptly stop in-person classes last week, according to the Danville Register & Bee

Chesterfield County Public Schools is trying a mixed approach, sending some elementary students to in-person classes while keeping middle and high school students fully online, according to NBC 12. Chesterfield returned to virtual learning after Thanksgiving when COVID-19 cases spiked. Chesterfield County School Board will discuss a broader return to in-person learning on Feb. 9.

The reactions to the bill from senators were mixed. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, called the bill “a slap in the face” to school board members despite expressing her support for the goal the bill was trying to achieve. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, said it is critical that students returned to in-person schooling soon but criticized the bill’s terms for being too vague.

During the committee hearing for the measure, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that the people in communities are the ones that should make decisions concerning school operations. 

“It should not, in my opinion, be those of us from all over the state deciding what should happen in someone else’s jurisdiction,” Howell said.

Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman said in an email he strongly opposed the bill. He called the legislation an “unnecessary and ill-advised state mandate.”

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Delegate Tries Again to Advance Paid Sick Leave Bill

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee advanced a measure into appropriations that would provide some essential workers with paid sick leave.

House Bill 2137, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, reported out of the House Labor and Commerce committee Thursday in a 13-8 vote along party lines. 

This is Guzman’s latest effort to pass a paid sick leave bill. Guzman’s previous legislation died in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session held last year.

Employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, according to the bill. Businesses would be required to allow employees to start earning paid sick hours immediately upon hiring. Paid sick leave can be carried over to the following year.

Employees eligible for paid sick leave include first responders, educators and retail workers. 

Supporters and opponents continue to share similar praises and concerns they had with Guzman’s previous paid sick leave bill. The delegate said she made the bill broader this session based on feedback she received from legislators.

Representatives from the Virginia Poultry and Virginia Retail federations cited concerns of additional business regulation and costs. Concerns were also raised about the broad terms of the bill’s hardship waiver, which would allow businesses to opt-out of offering paid sick leave to employees if they can prove doing so would jeopardize business.

“It's difficult to say at this time if the hardship waiver would be beneficial for an employer since it leaves broad direction to the department and the standing offices,” Jodi Roth, a lobbyist with the Virginia Retail Federation, said during the bill’s hearing.

Guzman said she intends for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, or DOLI, to provide more specific guidelines for opting-out once the bill is passed. The bill requires businesses to provide “evidence demonstrating that providing paid sick leave threatens the financial viability of the employer” in order to opt-out.

Last year the General Assembly voted to incrementally increase Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. The first minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour will occur on May 1.

The bill would cost DOLI roughly $420,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, and then roughly $320,000 per year onward, according to the bill’s impact statement.

Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center of Public Policy, said during the subcommittee hearing that the organization remains in favor of the bill.

“It will allow us over time to demonstrate that a paid sick day standard is not a hardship for business, but rather an essential benefit that should be available to all workers,” Bobo said.

The organization is a non-partisan coalition of all faiths that is focused on justice reform, according to its website. The organization strongly supported Guzman’s previous paid sick day bill during the 2020 special session.

“Certainly, we in Virginia want to say, ‘paid sick day is a standard,’” Bobo said.

This is the fourth paid leave bill Guzman has brought before the House since 2018, according to legislative records.

“This is a priority for the House Democratic Caucus,” Guzman said. “We definitely have 55 or 54 votes.”

Guzman’s bill was referred to a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Bill Advances to Remove Statue of Segregationist

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee voted Friday to advance a bill to remove the statue of former state Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square. 

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until its final location is chosen by the General Assembly.

“This statue serves only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our commonwealth,” Jones said.

The bill’s supporters included Rita Davis, counsel to Gov. Ralph Northam, who described Byrd’s work as preventing African Americans from voting, being seen or being heard.

“Had Mr. Byrd had his way, I would never have the opportunity to be before you, because I'm Black,” Davis said during the committee hearing. “The question is not whether we should remove Mr. Byrd’s statue from Capitol Square, but rather 'Why on earth would we keep it at Capitol Square?'”

 Speaker of the House Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, indicated during the hearing that the League of Women Voters also supported the bill.

The five Republicans serving on the committee voted against the measure.

Byrd, a Democrat, served as Virginia’s governor from 1926 to 1930 and as a U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. He strongly opposed desegregation of public schools and led a “massive resistance” campaign in the South against the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, according to documents from Old Dominion University’s Desegregation of Virginia Education collection. His statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966.

Debate around the statue’s removal began last session, when Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill to remove it, though the bill was ultimately stricken from the docket. The General Assembly passed legislation last year allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments. The removal of statues in Richmond was accelerated following protests after George Floyd died in the custody of a Minneappolis police officer who has since been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimates the removal to cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

The Rules Committee passed the measure on a 13-5 vote. The bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.

Delegate Plans To Reintroduce Quarantine Pay Bill Next Session

 

By Zachary Klosko, By Capital New Source

RICHMOND, Va. -- Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, said she is no stranger to the struggles of low-paying jobs. Guzmán said she immigrated to the United States from Peru as a single mother and worked multiple minimum wage jobs just to be able to pay rent and care for her daughter.

Guzmán has a mission to secure better financial benefits for minimum wage workers, but she said it’s not going as planned.

Guzmán’s House Bill 5116 was killed in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session after being passed by the House. The General Assembly is currently meeting to tackle the state budget and other issues that have come up due to COVID-19.

The bill would have mandated quarantine pay for employees of businesses with more than 25 workers. It would require public and private employers to provide paid quarantine leave that could be immediately used by the employee, regardless of how long they had been employed. The paid quarantine leave could be used for the employee’s health care needs or for care of a family member with an illness or health condition related to COVID-19.

Guzmán said she’s frustrated, but she plans to introduce the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“Most of the arguments that I heard was because businesses are hurting and it was not the right time,” Guzmán said. “I think it's like we hear a lot about businesses but we don't hear about the working class and who's going to be, you know, fighting for them.”

Guzmán introduced a bill in the spring session before the coronavirus to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. After the Committee on Appropriations killed that bill, Guzmán introduced her current bill as an effort to keep advocating for worker's rights.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said her organization is in favor of Guzmán’s bill. Bobo said paid sick days and getting paid a minimum wage are basic standards employers should be able to provide for their employees without government assistance.

“We really don't believe that public funds should be used to subsidize employers providing such a basic core standard as paid sick days,” Bobo said. “We will not include anything like that in a bill going forward.”

Being able to take paid time off can have a larger impact on the community because workers don’t have to choose between their families’ well-being and a paycheck, Bobo said.

“They will stay home when their children are sick and they won't send their kids to school sick, which is what happens right now,” she said.

Bobo isn’t the only supporter of Guzmán’s bill. Eighty-three percent of Virginians support paid time off mandates, according to a recent YouGov poll commissioned in part by the Interfaith Center. 

Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, voiced his concerns during the bill’s third reading on Sept. 10. Head said Guzmán’s bill largely mirrors federal legislation. 

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said. “It's going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it's going to end up hurting many of the very people that you're trying to help with this legislation.”

The Department of Labor and Industry estimated the bill would cost the department over $46,000 in 2021 and an additional $92,000 in 2022, according to the bill’s impact statement. The Department of Medical Assisted Services estimated the costs at $28.8 million for fiscal year 2021 and $29.8 million for fiscal year 2022. The bill would last until July 1, 2021, or until Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic expires.

Guzmán said she isn’t deterred. After Northam and first lady Pamela Northam announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 25, Guzmán said she needed to quarantine at home. She had visited a school with the first lady just a few days prior.

“Listen, there are 1.2 million Virginians out there that, if they were in the same situation that we are today, they would continue to go to work, because they don't have a dime,” Guzmán said firmly. “Please pass the message to the governor and the first lady.”

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