Virginia Black Caucus Faces Uphill Battle on Minimum Wage, Medicare, Police Cameras

lockeBy Matt Leonard
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus plans an “aggressive” push this session to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicare and require police officers to wear body cameras – issues that the group acknowledges will face an uphill fight.

The caucus held a press conference Wednesday to announce its 2015 agenda. It also includes mandatory background checks before buying guns, more money for public education and repeal of a law requiring women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound.

With Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, leaders of the Black Caucus said they realize it will be a struggle to achieve their legislative goals.

“We know that they are going to push back on any number of the issues that are on the agenda,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who chairs the caucus. “But our focus is going to be on what our constituents want.”

Of the General Assembly’s 140 members, 17 are African American; all of them are Democrats. Here are several issues the Black Caucus hopes to address during the General Assembly session that opened Wednesday and runs through Feb. 28.

Criminal justice

In the wake of police shootings across the country, some police departments are requiring officers to wear body cameras that record their interactions with citizens. The Black Caucus wants to make this practice commonplace across Virginia.

Delegate Joe Lindsey, R-Norfolk, has introduced House Bill 1521, which would require police agencies with 100 or more officers to begin wearing body cameras by Jan. 1, 2018.

The caucus also hopes to pass legislation that would require universal background checks for gun buyers. Last year, Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Burke, introduced a bill mandating these checks, but it never got out of committee. No new legislation on the topic has been introduced this session.

Regarding criminal justice, the caucus also supports:

  • A constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent offenders who have completed their sentences
  • Legislation to limit gun purchases to one per month
  • Measures to encourage the recording of police interrogations; caucus members say this would reduce the likelihood of false confessions.
  • Efforts to give indigent defendants more access to court-appointed lawyers

Health care

The caucus wants Virginia to expand Medicaid, the health coverage program for low-income individuals. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has offered to pick up most of the cost of Medicaid expansion. Most Republicans oppose Medicaid expansion because they fear the state eventually will be stuck with the bills.

Locke said it would be “hypocritical” for the Republican Party to pass up the chance to expand Medicaid.

At a prayer breakfast early Wednesday morning, she said, Republicans talked about supporting programs to help the poor and hungry.  “All of that is encapsulated in Medicaid expansion,” Locke said.

Regarding health care, the Black Caucus also supports:

  • More funding for indigent health care and free clinics
  • Reform of Virginia’s mental health system
  • Efforts to keep prescription drugs affordable

Economic development

The minimum wage mandated by the federal government and in effect in Virginia is $7.25 an hour. The Black Caucus advocates raising the minimum wage, as some other states have done.

Several bills before the 2015 General Assembly would do that. House Bill 1654, sponsored by Del. Ken Plum, D-Reston, would raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $8 an hour this July and to $10 an hour by July 2017; an almost identical bill, Senate Bill 681, has been introduced in the Senate by Marsden. Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, has introduced House Bill 1512, which would boost the minimum wage to $15.15.

Also regarding economic development, the caucus supports:

  • Efforts to create jobs, especially environment-friendly “green” jobs
  • Workforce development and training
  • Small business development

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