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COLUMN — Vaccines should not be about who you know

The 2021 General Assembly session has reached its halfway point, known as crossover. This is the point where the House and Senate complete work on bills originating from the respective chambers, and the successful bills “cross over” to the other chamber.

On Thursday, House Democrats began their push to eliminate the death penalty in Virginia. The power of the state to take a human life isn’t something that we consider lightly. It is the ultimate punishment, and it can’t be taken back. That being said, there is a place for this sanction in cases where a killer has committed a truly heinous act or will be a danger to society or even his fellow inmates going forward. My fellow Republicans spent a great deal of time on the floor arguing that we cannot and must not forget victims and their families in this debate.

Democrats insist that life in prison is enough to keep offenders locked up and protect our society. But given the number of convicted killers who received that very sentence but are now out on the streets thanks to our parole board, I have strong doubts that this is the case.

Virginia Democrats also began their final push to eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences for crimes in Virginia. As of now, someone who sells drugs to children, someone who commits a second offense involving child pornography, someone who uses a gun in the commission of a felony and other crimes face a mandatory minimum sentence — a floor that a judge or jury can’t go below — if they’re found guilty.

Mandatory minimum laws are in place to prevent a runaway jury or judge from letting someone get away with a slap on the wrist. For example, in a famous case from California, a young man convicted of rape served only a few months in jail. Virginia has one of the lowest violent crime rates and rates of recidivism in the nation. Repealing our mandatory minimum laws will likely reverse that and lead to a less safe Virginia.

One bright spot from this week was a spirited defense of Virginia’s Right to Work laws from an unexpected source — the Democratic majority. One House Democrat, a self-described socialist, attempted to force a vote on his bill which would have repealed Virginia’s Right to Work law. Had he been successful, Virginians would no longer have the freedom to work without the possibility of being forced to join a union.

But Democrats, realizing the serious blow to Virginia’s economy this repeal would mean, joined Republicans to defeat the measure. For now, at least, Virginians can continue to work and choose to join a union, or not join a union, as they see fit.

Finally, after weeks of pleading, cajoling and shaming, Gov. Ralph Northam’s team is getting vaccines out of freezers and into arms. What hasn’t changed is the absolute desperation we hear in calls from our constituents, especially those over 65, begging for information on how to get the vaccine.

Now it seems you have to know someone or be a patient at the right clinic to get a vaccine. That is wrong. Information about clinics should be public, with a place for people to get on a waiting list and see where they stand. Other states managed to do this, yet Gov. Northam’s team wasn’t ready.

Whether it is unemployment, COVID testing or vaccine delivery and scheduling, the governor has made a mess of virtually everything he has touched.

On Sunday, Feb. 7, we were supposed to hear how our amendments to the governor’s budget had fared in the House Appropriations Committee. However, we discovered that no action has been taken due to the governor’s announcement of extending the 30-day session through his ordered special session. The last time the governor called for a special session it lasted 89 days. We have no idea what to expect this time.

I did submit several budget amendments I feel are very important to the 61st District. One would add $250,000 to complete a 2.5-mile segment of the Tobacco Heritage Trail from Boydton to Rudds Creek. Enhancing access to the outdoors by expanding this walking and biking trail is a key part of the Bluegrass to Beaches Greenway Trail.

Other budget amendments I proposed would provide important funding at Piedmont Regional Jail. When two buildings were switched from housing ICE detainees to housing state inmates, the funding was never provided to staff the change. These budget amendments would fix a decade-old staffing problem at the Piedmont Regional Jail by providing almost $1.5 million for an additional 47 positions.

DEL. TOMMY WRIGHT can be reached via email at DelTWright@house.virginia.gov or (804) 698-1061.