The Virginia General Assembly is one week away from starting its 2022 legislative session, but Del. Mark Keam (D-35th District) still has a lot of questions.
To start with, it’s unclear exactly how the session will proceed as COVID-19 surges across the Commonwealth, which is now averaging more than 14,000 cases a day.
“It’s a huge question mark,” Keam, who represents Tysons and Vienna, said in a phone interview on Dec. 31. “I don’t think anybody knows how it’s going to be, because we don’t know what [the omicron variant is] going to look like or if there’s another variant coming up again, and after the holidays, if there’s a superspreader…We don’t know.”
Last year’s regular session saw the House of Delegates and state Senate take differing approaches, as the former met remotely and the latter gathered in person with social-distancing rules in place. It took until August for the full legislature to meet in person.
However, no expectations for masks, social distancing, vaccinations, testing, and other health protocols have been announced yet. Keam says many Republicans refused to wear masks at previous in-person meetings, raising concerns about the number of people that will be mingling in the state Capitol building next week.
“Bottom line is we need to be very, very careful,” Keam said. “I would hope — and I certainly would think the Republicans would agree — that public safety is of the utmost importance.”
General Assembly Prepares for Leadership Transition
The uncertainty of the pandemic further complicates a session that will see significant changes in leadership, with the Republican Party taking over both the executive branch and the House for the first time since 2013.
Now in his sixth term after winning reelection on Nov. 2, Keam is returning to familiar territory with Democrats as the minority party in the House, but he says incoming Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s lack of prior political experience and the slow pace of staff and cabinet appointments make it difficult to know what to expect this year.
Knowing the makeup of the governor’s administration is important to help lawmakers understand his legislative agenda, since they often work with his staff and agency heads, rather than with the governor directly, according to Keam.
“It does make me a little nervous about how much time we’re going to be able to devote to getting issues done,” he said.
Preparations were also stalled by a ransomware attack on the General Assembly’s information technology division in December, preventing legislators from requesting and modifying bills. As of this morning, just 81 bills had been filed in the House and 65 in the Senate.
Issues to Expect on the Agenda
Despite these challenges, Keam is eager to advocate for priorities from environmental and energy issues to ensuring the new budget includes pandemic-related funding, such as testing and vaccination subsidies and resources to keep schools open.
“I feel honored to represent the people of Tysons again,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going down, and I hope that folks can reach out to me and let me know what’s on their minds.”
One of Keam’s top focuses for this year will be workforce development, which has become a pressing issue as record numbers of people quit their jobs, particularly in low-paying sectors.
Though it hasn’t been formally filed yet, he plans to submit a bill to create more training, apprenticeship, and credentialing options as alternatives to a four-year college degree. He also hopes to look at college affordability and ways to prepare students for a future that might look very different from today.
“Once they’re in the workforce, what kind of work environment are they going to be in?” Keam said. “Are they going to be working full-time as W2 employees, or are they going to be working as independent contractors on 1099? Because that has huge implications on taxes and other social safety net issues like pensions and paid leave.”
Even with the party holding a slim majority in the Senate, though, House Democrats will face an uphill battle on many priorities, with Republicans poised to reverse recent efforts related to climate change, voting rights, reproductive health care, guns, and criminal justice reform, among other topics.
So far, lawmakers are targeting localities’ authority to ban firearms, a requirement that local school boards adopt policies supporting transgender students, and a prohibition on marijuana-related traffic stops.
Several bills aim to restore voting restrictions that had been eliminated during the pandemic, including reintroducing a voter photo identification requirement and repealing allowances for ballot drop boxes and no-excuse absentee voting.
“In an election where they won the majority and the governorship, now they’re saying they want to make it harder for people to vote,” Keam said. “…I don’t get it.”
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