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February 18, 2020

Virginia Missed an Opportunity to Be at the Forefront of Equity in Policy

This legislative session, proposals have been put forward that would begin to reverse decades of policies that have hurt low-income people of color in Virginia, from ensuring our education system works for more students to strengthening the state’s safety net

Virginia had a chance to build on this momentum and be a force for equity by passing a proposal introduced by Del. Aird (House Bill 1320), which would have allowed certain members in leadership of the state’s legislature to request “demographic statements” for proposed legislation. Unfortunately, it was never given a hearing. 

A critical tool for lawmakers, demographic statements would have outlined a bill’s potential effects on economic, education, and health outcomes, among others, for specific groups of people in Virginia compared to the state population, including whether the bill is likely to increase or decrease disparities. 

Virginia already does similar assessments. The same way a fiscal impact statement or review assesses a proposal’s impact on the state budget and local governments, a demographic statement would provide lawmakers with critical analysis to assist them in enacting legislation that can advance equity. 

This is important because Virginia has a history of passing seemingly-neutral but ultimately harmful policies. For example, by eliminating Virginia’s estate tax, Virginia policymakers have allowed substantial amounts of investment income to escape state taxation entirely since July 2007. Had a demographic impact statement been completed, policymakers might have known that eliminating the tax would contribute to the growing racial wealth divide and worsen Virginia’s already upside-down tax code, hurting residents with low incomes. 

Or take the state’s license suspension law. Until last year, the state could suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees, having an overwhelming impact on people with low incomes due to their inability to pay. Research has shown that in Virginia, Black people disproportionately experienced driver’s license suspension for nonpayment. A review of the law’s potential impacts might have illuminated this inequity and prevented needless involvement with Virginia’s criminal justice system throughout which Black people are overrepresented at every level.

Demographic impact statements make sense simply because it’s easier to modify proposed legislation than it is to reverse a law. Evaluating potential disparities prior to enacting and implementing a bill will create a proactive, intentional opportunity to advance economic and racial equity. 

Another proposal introduced by Del. McQuinn (House Bill 1519) also sought to address inequities and passed the House unanimously, and has been referred to a Senate committee. The bill creates a commission to study the long-term impacts of slavery and subsequent racial and economic discrimination and make recommendations to the General Assembly on how to remedy them. It dedicates a framework for policymakers to examine how intentional past policy choices uphold structures of racism and inequity in the present. Had Aird’s HB 1320 been passed, demographic statements would have been able to strengthen this analysis and in turn better inform future decision-making.

Though we have seen legislation in recent years attempt to reverse the negative impacts of laws already on the books, demographic statements would have meant that lawmakers would ultimately spend less time and resources trying to fix state code in the future. Most importantly, people in Virginia could have been spared from harm.

At least seven states have implemented mechanisms for preparing similar legislative assessments with bipartisan support. And several more states have recently considered these assessments. Most of these states use the assessments to ensure the creation of fair criminal justice policies. This is important because people of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and American Indian people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. And initial evidence from Iowa’s use of impact statements concerning sentencing and parole proposals shows that legislation determined to have neutral effects or reductions in disparate outcomes was more likely to pass than legislation that was predicted to increase disparate outcomes. 

Virginia could have gone further. Colorado’s demographic assessments can apply to introduced legislation in any area. By passing HB 1320, Virginia would have joined Colorado at the forefront of equity in public policy.

Many laws have unintended consequences, and demographic statements would have allowed the state to more fully consider the ramifications of seemingly neutral policy. But it’s also true that overtly harmful legislation has been both considered and enacted. “Colorblind” policies will not reverse the harmful impacts of past choices, nor will they move Virginia toward being a place where everyone can thrive. Virginia missed a clear opportunity this year to be at the forefront of equity in policy. State lawmakers should give this proposal a fair chance in 2021 and move the commonwealth toward being a state where equity is a clear priority.

Economic Opportunity

Kathy Mendes

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