By Kaytlin Nickens and Maryum Elnasseh
With the federal government shut down over an impasse between Democrats and Republicans, state legislators from both parties emphasized bipartisanship at a town hall meeting last Wednesday evening at Tuckahoe Library.
“This is the year that Virginia needs to come together,” said Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.
More than 100 constituents came to hear Rodman, fellow Democratic Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg and Dawn Adams, and Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant discuss taxes, education and the polarized political climate.
‘Conforming’ to federal tax overhaul
A key issue when the General Assembly convenes next week for its 2019 session is “tax conformity” — whether Virginia should adjust the state tax code to align with the federal tax overhaul approved by Congress in 2017.
VanValkenburg called conformity “a good thing.” He said it would simplify the tax-filing process and help maintain Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state.
Virginia would see an increase in state tax revenues through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. A related issue is what to do with that money. Rodman and VanValkenburg want to increase state spending on education.
“In terms of investing, our schools need funding,” VanValkenburg said.
However, Dunnavant said she favors returning to taxpayers the additional state tax revenues that result from tax conformity. She said she will propose legislation to double the standard deduction when filing state income taxes.
“We still have plenty of money to live within our means and make the investments we need to make, but we really shouldn’t be taking money that isn’t ours,” Dunnavant said. “We should be returning that to the individuals that surrendered it.”
Dunnavant’s comments were the only ones to draw the audience’s applause.
School counselors and other education priorities
VanValkenburg, a teacher at Glen Allen High School, said he supports increasing the number of school counselors as well as school resource and safety officers.
Dunnavant agreed about the need for more school counselors. She also suggested adding behavior analysts — specially licensed individuals who go into classrooms and help manage students.
“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of that has to do with kids being sent out of the classroom because they’re having behavioral problems,” Dunnavant said.
She proposed funding one behavior analyst for every five schools so that the analyst could spend one day a week at each school.
Adams expressed concern about school shootings. After the shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February, Adams said she conducted research on school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Adams said the most common thread is that the average shooter is a white male with no prior mental health diagnosis, and that an age in the ballpark of 17 years old is not uncommon.
“Many of the shootings — more than 50 percent — were as a result of some kind of emotional upset,” Adams said. “It all speaks to the idea that we need to teach our children how to communicate, how to deal with their problems, how to cope better with life.”
Rodman, who serves on the House Education Committee with VanValkenburg, said she is sponsoring a bill to address the teacher shortage in Virginia. It would require the Virginia Department of Education to monitor and address the number of teacher vacancies each year.
“If there’s nothing we can come together on in a bipartisan way, it is for us to come together for our teachers,” Rodman said.
Bipartisanship in an age of increasing polarization
The legislators were asked how they will work together to continue making Henrico a place where constituents want to raise their families.
“I think we all work bipartisan all the time,” Dunnavant said. Last year, for example, she co-sponsored with Democrats a bill expanding access to cannabis-based oils to treat or alleviate the symptoms of diseases and other diagnosed conditions.
Adams agreed, emphasizing the importance of listening to people who have different ideas.
“I think that’s the only thing you can do to be a good delegate or a good senator is to communicate well and try to come up with solutions,” Adams said.
VanValkenburg said he hopes to have Republicans co-sponsor his education bills.
“There’s compromise to be had on all of this stuff,” VanValkenburg said. “And I think there’s a coming together that’ll happen.”