The Avoli Report
DELEGATE G. JOHN AVOLI
DELEGATE G. JOHN AVOLI
2021 SESSION OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Dear friends and constituents of the 20th District,
In my second year as your representative in the House of Delegates, I would be remiss not to mention how thankful I am for the opportunity to serve you. It is an honor that I take great pride in.
Thank you for your trust in me.
This Session of the General Assembly is unlike any other. Like many of you, our daily commute is virtual this year. We are scattered across the Commonwealth rather than meeting together to conduct business as usual due to the health concerns of the COVID pandemic. One benefit is that I am home in the 20th District working closer to you from my office at Ingleside Golf Resort. With that said, I will travel to Richmond for any business when needed. If you would like to schedule an appointment for a meeting or voice your position on proposed legislation, please contact my office at DelJAvoli@house.virginia.gov or (540) 200-8112 to speak to my Legislative Aide, Travis Smiley.
Overview of the First Half of Session
The first half of the 2021 session has concluded, and the House and Senate will now hear bills that passed their chambers of origin in what we call “Crossover.” My fellow House Republicans and I spent a great deal of time and energy working to expand access to the vaccines, getting our kids and teachers back in classrooms, and ensuring that small businesses would not be taxed by the Commonwealth for receiving crucial funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program that kept workers employed amidst lockdowns and revenue shortfalls.
COVID Vaccine Access
Vaccine distribution is improving and will continue to expand once Governor Northam signs the bipartisan bill offered by Senator Dunnavant and Delegates Byron and Bagby. This vital piece of legislation will make vaccines more readily available to rural Virginians and the highest risk populations.
To recap what SB 1445 will do, bill will expand the process to include any qualified and available health care provider in the Commonwealth to volunteer to administer the COVID vaccine to Virginians. The bill also requires the Department of Health to establish a process on its website whereby medical care facilities, hospitals, hospital systems, corporations, businesses, pharmacies, public and private institutions of higher education, and any other professional or community entities operating in the Commonwealth may register such entity’s facilities as sites that the Commissioner of Health and the Department may jointly approve as sites where administration of the COVID-19 vaccine may occur. The bill permits a public institution of higher education or a private institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to volunteer to provide assistance to the Department and local health departments for data processing, analytics, and program development related to the COVID-19 vaccine through the use of its employees, students, technology, and facilities.
Since schools closed last March, learning loss amongst Virginia students has tragically reached extraordinary levels. Many parents are understandably demanding either a return to school or a fundamental restructuring of academic options. As a former K-12 educator myself and a member of the House Education Committee, I have dedicated more than half of my life to the education of our youth. I am deeply saddened by every report and study showing how our public school students have fallen behind in their studies. In some school systems, failing grades have nearly tripled. Our students report feelings of depression at alarming rates due to the inability to socialize and interact with their peers. Virtual schooling has taken a mighty toll on our youth. Enrollment in our public schools has dropped significantly. Our public school students, especially the most disadvantaged, are on the wrong side of a now-severely-widened education gap. Kids in private schools and from families who can afford to homeschool or provide supplemental education are thriving because they receive daily, in-person education in some form or fashion. We must return our students and teachers to the classroom before the damage is too great to overcome.
I am encouraged by Governor Northam’s suggestion that all schools return to classroom instruction by March 15 and I hope that every school will adhere to his guidance. The science is clear and consistent: schools are safe for students, teachers, and staff. In fact, the CDC has said not only that “it’s safe to open,” they reported it is actually safer for kids to be in schools than it is to be out in the community. Our kids need to be educated five days a week by an instructor who is physically present to have the greatest impact. I call on Governor Northam to hold schools accountable by enforcing his guidance in a month’s time.
The consequences of virtual learning extend beyond our K-12 students. The impact on college students is a negative one as well. House Republicans remain consistently focused on holding down the cost of higher education and bringing more transparency to Virginia’s institutions. Given that Virginia’s college students are largely enrolled in online classes this year, House Republicans sought legislation to limit the cost of attendance. We can all agree the price of attending a four-year college or university is already too high. I believe that if you pay full price, you should expect the full experience. If state universities do not offer the full experience of campus life or the necessary classroom education, the cost of tuition should fairly reflect the good or service provided. My colleague Jason Miyares introduced legislation that would have ensured that students whose institutions do not offer in-person education, pay no more than $2,500 per semester. The bill received no bipartisan support, so students will continue to pay the full price of tuition for the privilege of attending Zoom calls.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is failing its students. We must reopen our educational institutions for in-person instruction in order to provide our students the best education possible.
Notable Legislation for Students and Families
HB 2090: School boards; establishment of the READ Fund and READ programs.
Set aside $100 million in CARES Act funding to reimburse parents for tutoring, curriculum, and other things needed to help stop learning loss during periods of virtual education. Despite my vote in support, this bill to direct federal aid to students and families was killed in my subcommittee.
HB2003: Banning “Non-Official” School Ratings from Advertisement.
Bans using “non-official” school ratings to advertise homes listed for sale. One of the most important factors homebuyers consider when deciding where to live is the quality of schools their children will attend according to their home address. I voted against this bill because it seeks to hide relevant information about schools from homebuyers and parents who want their children to receive the best education their locality has to offer.
HB 2145 Higher educational institutions, public; virtual instruction, tuition cap.
This was Jason Miyares’ bill I noted earlier in this section that would have limited the price of tuition to $2,500 per semester at Virginia public colleges and universities that only offered virtual classes to students. While the bill got killed before it reached the full Education Committee, I supported and would have voted in favor the bill had I been presented the opportunity.
Protecting Agriculture and Small Business
In 2019, Virginia ranked #1 on CNBC’s list of Best States for Business. We achieved this through competitive tax rates, limited regulations, promoting a strong workforce, and protecting Virginia’s business climate from job-killing policies. We now see these policies being enacted while our businesses suffer from mandated restrictions in response to the COVID pandemic. Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program with the intention of helping small business by offering loans to be forgiven if funds were used to keep workers employed.
2021’s version of the annual House bill on income tax conformity exempts up to $25,000 in PPP loans, the Senate version offers an exemption on up to $100,000 for these loans. Our businesses applied for and received this federal aid with the understanding that if they used the funds to pay their employees, the loans would be forgiven and exempt from income taxes. Our workers rely on paychecks to feed, shelter, and care for themselves and their families. PPP loans afforded our businesses the ability to keep workers employed despite the loss of operating revenues, and we should commend employers for this, not penalize them by taxing money that was not profit or income. If this is not the will of the General Assembly, I urge my colleagues to pass the Senate version to exempt the higher amount of PPP money from Virginia taxation.
Agriculture is the largest industry in Virginia. Our farmers provide the food we put on our table and drive our economy. In 2020, when the General Assembly passed the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, my colleagues and I fought hard on behalf of our farmers and the agriculture industry to let the market determine wages and benefits for farm workers. The vast majority of farms properly value their employees and choose to pay workers competitive wages that exceed the federal minimum wage. This year, the House removed the exemption for farm workers and laborers. If the bill should pass the Senate and become law, our agriculture industry will immediately take a large hit. In response to lower profits for farmers, the cost of our groceries will naturally rise. For the same reason I voted against the Minimum Wage Act in 2020 – that increasing the minimum wage is proven to kill jobs, raise costs of living, and increase the poverty level – I voted to oppose this bill that hurts the farmers who drive Virginia’s agriculture industry.
Notable Legislation that Hurts Agriculture and Businesses
HB 1935: Income Tax Conformity.
At issue here is whether or not Virginia will tax PPP loans. As written, the bill will tax federal aid to struggling businesses who received more than $25,000 to pay employees. For this reason, I voted against the bill.
HB 2016: Mandatory Paid Sick Leave.
This bill mandates that employers provide 40 hours of paid sick time per year for employees who work an average of 30 hours per week. Virginia defines full time employees as working an average of 40 hours per week, so this bill applies to all full time and many part time employees. While the intentions are admirable, the reality is that most of Virginia’s employers – small businesses – cannot afford to pay people not to work. I voted against this bill because it will kill many of Virginia’s small businesses.
HB 2312: Marijuana Legalization
I am not necessarily opposed to ending the crime of simple possession of marijuana. My reasons for voting against this bill are, as we have seen in other states where marijuana is now legal, marijuana use will increase among minors, traffic deaths will become more frequent, and hospitalizations for mental health crises will increase.
Since Colorado legalized marijuana, Poison Control Calls more than doubled from 110 in 2012 to 223 in 2014, with the largest increase coming in the category of children ages 8 and younger: an increase of 400%. Marijuana use in the past 30 days among minors is 12% higher in Colorado than the national average. A 2019 study conducted by New York University’s Langone Health Medical Center and the NYU School of Medicine found that problematic marijuana use among 12-17 year-olds was 25% higher in states with legalized marijuana compared to states that have not.
Arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana doubled in Denver and Aurora. Traffic fatalities from drugged driving grew every year from 47 in 2013 to 133 in 2017, going from a rate of 1 every 6.5 days to 1 every 2.5 days. Hospitalizations linked to marijuana exposure per 100,000 people increased from an average of 803 per year from 2001-2009 to 2,696 in 2014-2015.
A 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report concluded that marijuana use is strongly associated with the development of psychosis and schizophrenia, and that there is strong evidence linking marijuana consumption to worsening symptoms of bipolar disorder and a heightened risk of suicide, depression, and social anxiety disorders.
HB 2331: Repealing Mandatory Minimum Sentences
This bill repeals virtually all mandatory minimum sentences in the Code of Virginia, significantly reducing penalties for felonies, including child pornography offenses, gun violence, and selling drugs to children. Mandatory minimums are an effective tool to disincentivize the most serious criminal activity, reduce recidivism rates, and ensure that heinous crimes are punished accordingly to keep perpetrators of such crimes away from law-abiding citizens. Eliminating mandatory minimums means violent criminals and sex offenders will face lower punishment and return to our streets sooner than ever. I voted against this bill because it makes life easier for offenders of serious crimes at the expense of safety for law-abiding Virginians.
HB 2263: Abolishing the Death Penalty
Much like legalizing simple possession marijuana, I am not opposed to repealing the death penalty by itself. And much like the marijuana legalization bill, I am opposed to this bill because of the context in which the General Assembly has moved to enact it. Over the course of the past year, we have seen efforts to defund police and make life better for criminals. We have seen Virginia’s Parole Board release violent criminals who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The most egregious example of this is the case of Gregory Joyner. Joyner was found guilty of first-degree murder and attempted rape of 15 year old Sarah Jamison in 1989. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years. Yet Joyner, now 48, was granted parole without explanation in November. I cannot in good conscience vote to abolish the death penalty for heinous acts of violence when criminals like Gregory Joyner can be released from prison before serving the full extent of their sentence. Couple this with the repeal of mandatory minimums and we now have absolutely no guarantee to violent criminals will see even a single day behind bars. Virginia has the lowest recidivism rate of any state in the country because we have been, up to this point, tough on crime. I fear the General Assembly is now making decisions that are soft on severe crimes, guaranteeing that violent criminals will not face appropriate consequences. For these reasons, I voted against this bill.
As you all know, I have pledged to vote against any bill that attacks our 2nd Amendment freedoms. I believe the right to own and bear arms is inalienable, God-given, and protected by the Constitution of the United States of America. I take my pledge to you very seriously, and I will continue to honor it for as long as it is my privilege to serve the people of the 20th District.
HB 2276: Manufacture, import, sale, transfer, or possession of plastic firearms and unfinished frames or receivers and unserialized firearms; penalties.
This bill makes the purchase of unfinished lowers and other homemade firearms illegal, despite the fact that ZERO of these firearms have been found to be used in crimes in Virginia. It is a difficult, yet rewarding, hobby for enthusiasts to buy parts and build a finished product. This bill criminalizes a hobby in the name of blocking “ghost guns.”
HB 2319: Access to firearms; cohabitants; civil penalty.
Levies a $500 civil penalty on someone who lives with a person prohibited by law from owning or possessing firearms if they do not secure firearms from that prohibited person. This essentially extends the consequences of a felony sentence to law-abiding gunowners. Under the worst circumstance, it could require victims of domestic abuse to remove a gun from their abuser’s hands during a violent and dangerous encounter, or else be found liable for a $500 fine.
HB 2128: Sale or transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check delay.
Extends the waiting period for a delayed instant check from 3 days to 5 days. This will make law-abiding citizens wait longer for a legal gun purchase because of bureaucratic inefficiency.
HB 1909 School board property, certain; establishment of gun-free zone permitted.
Effectively gives school boards the ability to ban firearms anywhere they happen to be using, including leased facilities. If a school board were to rent a room at any private establishment for the purpose of a meeting, the entire property will become a gun-free zone for the duration of the meeting.
HB 1957 Passed the House of Delegates by a unanimous vote and sent to the Senate.
HB 1957: removes the requirement that a judge must order an investigation and report to be conducted when a petition is filed for the adoption of a person 18 years of age or older. This bill simplifies the procedure and provides judges the ability to exercise their discretion to allow two consenting adult parties to formally become a family. The bill reported unanimously from committee, where we heard a powerful and heartfelt testimony about the personal experience of one of my constituents during the adoption of her daughter, and the hoops she had to jump through to satisfy current requirements.
HB 1958 Passed the House of Delegates by a vote of 83-17 and sent to the Senate.
HB 1958: designates a 6.5 mile segment of the South River in Waynesboro as a component of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System. This designation benefits local tourism and business development and enhances civic pride. The bill comes by request of the City of Waynesboro and is supported by Scenic Virginia, the Virginia Conservation Network, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Middle River Regional Jail Authority Expansion Budget Amendment:
Superintendent Jeffery Newton of the Middle River Regional Jail lobbied my office to propose an amendment to the Governor’s Budget which adds the Middle River Regional Jail expansion project to the current list of local and regional jail capital projects. This expansion will allow Middle River Regional Jail to address overcrowding and to enhance medical and behavioral health services for its inmates. The plan focuses on five key elements: renovation, community corrections, mental health, increased minimum custody beds and warehouse/maintenance.
The Middle River Regional Jail Authority is comprised of founding members Staunton, Augusta County, and Waynesboro as well as Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, both joining in 2015. In 2020, the average daily population of the jail was 843. The Virginia Department of Corrections rates the facility’s capacity as suitable for a population of 396. Superintendent Newton warns that the jail will soon be operating at 250% of its capacity. MRRJ needs this funding to expand the facility to meet its usage needs.
The language for this much needed expansion project is included in the final Budget Bill which Passed the House of Delegates.
In order for the expansion to move forward, four of the five member localities will need to vote to approve. My budget amendment added the MRRJA to the list of capital projects for which the Commonwealth is required to cover 25% of construction costs, assuring the Authority that this portion of the funding will be allocated.
I urge you to read this article to learn more about the current conditions at Middle River Regional Jail and why the Authority proposed this expansion.