The General Assembly 2018 session in review
A conversation with the College Republicans and University Democrats
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On March 18, Cavalier Daily Opinion Editor Jacob Asch sat down with Mary Alice Kukoski, a second-year College student and president of the University Democrats, and Adam Kimelman, a third-year College student and chair of the College Republicans, to talk Virginia politics.

The discussion covered the 2018 General Assembly session, the legislature special session and several issues prominent in our national discourse and pertinent to the University community.

The following is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Click on a question to watch the corresponding portion interview and transcript.

1. Both of your statewide organizations, like Young Democrats and Young Republicans, have participated in lobbying the Virginia General Assembly for specific legislation. Can you talk a little bit about those policies you cared about most?

Mary Alice Kukoski: The University Democrats participated in lobby day with our larger parent organization, the Virginia Young Democrats, which encompasses young Dems from ages 13 to 36. That was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this winter, and we brought a delegation of Democrats from U.Va. and we lobbied on behalf of three different salient issues. The first one was felony larceny. There were three different bills on the table at the time, and actually we got to see one pass which was great. The felony larceny threshold has been raised to $500. Originally we wanted it a little bit higher, around $1,000 to $1,500, but this was the bipartisan compromise that came out of the General Assembly, which we were really happy about. It was great to see our lobby efforts really pay off in the form of tangible legislation. We also lobbied on behalf of sexual education and format, so it’s not abstinence based, it’s medically accurate in public schools. That bill actually did not pass, but it is something I think we will continue pushing for along with the Virginia Young Democrats in the future. And we also pushed for … It’ll come to me, but do you want to go ahead and talk on yours.

Adam Kimelman: Yeah sure, thank you, thanks for having us. The main legislative lobbying push that we had was in conjunction actually with with the University Democrats and Student Council, for ranked choice voting. For those of you who might not know, ranked choice voting is essentially you would be able to rank candidates instead of just voting for one of the candidates. For example, where this would come into, we think, a lot of help is in districts like, Virginia HD-94 [the Virginia House of Delegates 94th District], where there was actually a tie, but there were about I believe 1,200 people who voted for a Libertarian candidate. So instead of, you know, going to a coin flip or something like that, so essentially those votes of any candidate who did not get a majority outright, essentially the lowest candidate would then be eliminated and their votes would be redistributed to your second choice choice, so we would actually have a more democratic outcome, than flipping a coin for example. And that’s something we were really excited to see get out of subcommittee, and then it went to [the House Finance Committee], unfortunately it did not make it out of Finance, but it did make it unanimously out of the privileges and elections committee which we think is a big step in the right direction and we are looking forward to doing more stuff like that in the future. We also had a lot of our members went and lobby the Virginia21, I didn’t go on that so unfortunately I wouldn’t know. The College Republican Federation of Virginia, had a Young Republican joint lobby day as well, I unfortunately did not attend that, so I’m not sure what exactly they were lobbying for, but I’m sure most generally conservative causes. But I know that Virginia21 and [College Republican Federation of Virginia] were both pretty successful from what I got back from it. [inaudible] … Ranked choice voting didn’t get exactly as far as we would have liked, but we were happy that it definitely is making some progress and got a lot of bipartisan support.

2. Going back to bipartisanship, since Democrats made such large election gains, there was a lot of talk about bipartisanship and things that could get done, considering Republicans still retain a majority in the legislature. One of the things that is occurring is regulatory reform, between Speaker Cox and Governor Northam. They want to reduce regulations by 25 percent in three years. What do you think of that compromise and do you think that is a positive step toward other compromises in the future? Do you think more compromises like this are likely and what do you think of the bipartisanship so far in the House of Delegates?

Kimelman: I was really happy when I saw that actually, I think that’s actually based off something that is going on at the federal level. Is that the two-for-one compromise, for every new one regulation you get rid of two? I believe that was put in there, but I could also be wrong about that, but I definitely thought it was good. We are in kind of this weird situation for this last legislative session and the upcoming one, because of the fact that the House and the Senate are both Republican controlled, but they are also very very close. So you get one or two Republicans to change their minds on something and it completely changes the dynamic, and then you still have a Democratic governor. So I do think that it is making it hard for legislation to get passed, I think the success rate for a bill in the General Assembly was something like 36 percent, so you know most of them are going to die. But at the same time it does open up room for, a necessity almost to compromise if you want to get something done. I think regulatory reform was one of the ones that we were happy to see a compromise come about for. I know there are some other issues we may get into in a little bit like Medicaid expansion where there’s also some stuff going on, but we were happy with that.

Kukoski: Yeah I would just echo that. I think Democrats were really excited to see all our electoral gains this fall and to see the legislation that would come out of that, and I think with that comes a lot of bipartisanship. I think we were able to see some progress on that this session, but I think looking forward with Medicaid expansion and the next legislative session that there would hopefully be more bipartisan support, especially in the interest of students and other groups that need protection. So I think there was some tangible progress.

3. It’s great you both touched upon Medicaid expansion, because that is actually my next question. Do you think actively pursuing Medicaid expansion is a feasible goal for the Commonwealth and do you think the current disagreement can be overcome considering it is already a pretty serious compromise between Speaker Cox and Governor Northam? Do you think this will actually get passed or stall again?

Kukoski: It is my hope it will get passed, I think it is really hard to tell at this point. There's a lot of bipartisan work on making sure that it's going to be the best deal. There has already been some give and take with the work requirement, so I think that is important. It is not necessarily what Democrats may have wanted, but I think if we want Medicaid expansion passed I think this is a step in the right direction, with bipartisan support and some give and take there. I know us as University Democrats we are planning to make calls to a lot of our delegates, and just ask them to support this ahead of the special session on April 11.

Kimelman: This is something that there have been some Republicans who have come and said we might be interested in this, me personally, again I can't speak for the organization as a whole because we have a lot of different ideologies and maybe some people are in favor of expanding Medicaid. Me personally I don't think it is a great idea. Not because I don't necessarily think that we shouldn't have more people have some sort of health coverage, that's definitely not the case. But it's because that Medicaid itself has become a program that is much different than it was designed to be. It was initially designed to be more of a safety-net-type program for the most vulnerable in society who really really needed it. Now it's been expanded to be the number one way which people are covered. If you look at the gains made by Obamacare, they were not made by private insurance, they were made almost entirely through Medicaid. And when you continue to over-blow a program and increase spending, which would start to be strain our budget, even though the federal government does give a lot of money in the beginning, as the costs shifts over towards states that's going to be a huge strain and create a massive Federal program. So I think there are solutions we can work for. One of the reasons I think a lot of Republicans are looking at this is because they are looking forward to the next election cycle, and we have it be so close in the House and the Senate, Democrats could pick up one more seat in each. Which could happen or it definitely could not happen in the next cycle is way too early to tell, but if that happens they may not be able to have a work requirement or something like that. So that might be the reason it is happening, but I do not think it is a great idea from my standpoint. Whether or not it will happen, I can't exactly tell.

4. Adam just to follow up a little bit on that. I was wondering because Speaker Cox and Governor Northam have worked out this compromise with the work requirements which has kind of mirrored the expansion in other Republican states, does that not shift your opinion really at all? Or do you still think that Medicaid expansion is not the best idea?

Kimelman: The compromise now is better than expanding without work requirements, in my personal opinion, but I just do not think we should be expanding a massive government program that I do not think is that effective for people actually getting people healthcare. One example of that is people could be covered under Medicaid, but less and less doctors are taking Medicaid, so they have health coverage, but they don't have healthcare. That's pretty much one of the major concerns is that if we overblow the program it is going to cost a lot of money that eventually our generation will have to pay off, because they are not really finding a way in order to do it.

5. So moving to Charlottesville, there has been a lot of talk about what could be done to mitigate the violence that occurred on August 11 and 12 and a lot of bills were filed to try to stop this sort of thing from happening. A few of them being giving Charlottesville and Albemarle the ability to regulate guns, such as banning high capacity magazines from being carried in public and banning guns from certain rallies/events with big crowds. This legislation failed, though it was recommended by some official reviews. Do you think this sort of legislation could be helpful or do think believe the bills were rightly killed?

Kukoski: I think this type of legislation would absolutely be helpful. Our organization actually wrote letters to some of our representatives that were on the different subcommittees in support of this legislation. This is something touched a lot of student's lives this summer and seeing it and experiencing it first hand and I think it is the type of legislation that is very tangible. It's small steps in gun reform that need to be made. It shows the polarization on the issue of gun reform that nothing was passed. There was really no legislation. There could be some bipartisanship, but it was just not present at the time. I would hope in the future, especially in light of the different movements that are working on behalf of common sense gun reform, we have a walkout there was the March For Our Lives coming up next Saturday [March 24]. So I would just hope that legislatures would move on the issue of gun reform and I think this just shows the polarization on the issue.

Kimelman: Nobody is disagreeing that gun violence is definitely a problem, I think we all realize it is a problem. I think that the main way is in how we are going to go about that problem. With the walkout, I was encouraged, because there were definitely people in Student Council reaching out to both the University Democrats and College Republicans for bipartisan ideas. In terms of letter writing, I wasn't at the letter writing station, but there were ideas from both Republicans and Democrats and all across the political spectrum in terms of what what to actually write to legislators. When the walkout itself actually occurred, if any conservatives were there, I was there, and then almost immediately they just started talking about gun control a very poor idea in itself. But that it is a bit off topic so I guess I will get back to it. It is very frustrating when people immediately assume that Republicans aren't worried about gun violence, because they have different way of approaching it. So with these bills, and I am not sure what the exact bills were, but I think for events like that something like a gun ban would be necessary, so I would have to look into exactly what that bill was about. But bans on things like high-capacity magazines or assault rifles I think I would be against, because there are technical problems with what an assault rifle is for example or where exactly a high capacity magazine should end. I have not seen any studies that show that lower-capacity guns, which you know could be re-loaded pretty quickly, would make any difference. Though, again, I'm open to talk about that. I think that just because Republicans have a different way of dealing with gun control, in terms of making schools safer and putting more security in schools trying to make sure that they are more secure and things like that. It is very frustrating when all of a sudden it is just kind of assumed that we don't like children and are in favor of killing people, it is not the case we just have a different approach to this.

6. It is interesting you bring that up, because my next question is about the restrictions that were recently passed in Florida, which has a Republican governor. That was a compromise bill that had things like raising assault weapon buying age to 21 and also installing some periods, but it also allowed for the arming and training of some teachers to try to help school security. Do you think in the wake of gun violence, that this sort of bipartisan compromise is what is necessary, or do you think these sort legislative goals that aren’t really being pursued in Virginia, shouldn’t really be pursued?

Kimelman: I was actually pretty happy to see that come about, I think there is a lot of common ground in this area, just sometimes sometimes, in politics it is not really talked about a whole lot. In terms of raising the age to 21 for rifles, I haven't seen any evidence to show that. I do not think that this individual and what happened in Florida would have been prevented if he were 22, I think he was a mentally unstable individual who should never have been able to have a gun in the first place. That comes with reform in our background check system and there are currently bipartisan goals about that in Congress. 38 out of 50 states report less than 80 percent of all pertinent information to the background check system, so the system is only as good as the information that is in it. As for some of the other things in that, I would be for banning bump stocks, I know a lot of Republicans are for it as well, so I think that is a step in the right direction. Wait periods, I guess I would also be for that, but I think fixing the background check system, which I'm not sure was addressed in the Florida legislation, I think that would be a lot more effective as well as things like mental health screenings. And as for arming teachers, I personally have problems with arming teachers, and these views are probably different than views some other people have. But, I think my main problem with it is that in an active shooter situation, police are going to shoot whoever has a gun first and ask questions later. So that is just a practical problem with arming teachers. I would rather see trained armed security guards who do this as their job and who are ex-veterans, who know how to handle the situations, and who are either very clearly marked or somehow alerted to police who would be responding to an active shooter situation, I don't think armed teachers. I definitely understand the logic behind it, I just think the practical problem is, I don't think it would be good in an active shooter situation.

Kukoski: Touching on that point first, I do not really understand the logic behind arming teachers, I don't think guns should have any place in schools, this is where children go to learn, it should be a safe place and guns should have no part in that. I think that it's ignoring the larger issue, I think we should be attacking it at its root with a background check system, mental health screenings and just having better training for gun owners, like possibly a licensing system. To get your driver's license you have to go through how many hours of behind the wheel and driving on your own. I recently got my boaters license and had to attend an all day class for that. There is no mandatory training for gun ownership and that is something that could easily be enacted and I would hope that there would be bipartisan support on that. As with the legislation coming out of Florida, I think it is good to have some bipartisan support, but I think there are some larger issues and there needs to be more action taken. But it is a small step in the right direction.

7. In Virginia, Speaker Cox has decided to do a panel on school safety and not really talk about the issue of guns. While school safety is definitely important, do you think that is the direction we should be going in or should we address the problem with guns and accessibility of guns more directly?

Kukoski: I think it is kind of naive to have a panel on school safety and not address the issue of guns, because that is the central thing surrounding school safety. As we have seen with all the mass shootings guns were the issue and I think it is again like I was saying, you are not really hitting the issue right at its root, you are kind of dodging it by school safety measures. So I think in order to more effectively implement legislation and identify the issue, we need to include guns in the dialogue. I would hope Speaker Cox kind of changes the focus of that ad-hoc committee, because I don't think it's going to be productive unless guns are included in the discussion.

Kimelman: I think in that terms of school safety every community is going to be different and every school is going to be different, so I don't know if we can approach this in one way. If guns should be part of the dialogue in some of these certain cases, I think that is definitely something that should be incorporated, but I don't think guns are necessarily part of the problem or a part of the solution, for example I don't believe armed security guards would work in every school district because there are certain considerations and things that need to be accounted for, but there definitely needs to be a conversation about school safety itself. There are definitely actions we can take without using guns in some of these cases to make our children safer. So I definitely think it kind of depends on the situation, in that, you know, if even though there is a panel on school safety and guns aren't part of it, I think they will be brought into the conversation kind of naturally. We don't need to almost link the issues of school safety and guns as if every resolution to school safety is going to have something to do with guns, because I don't think that is the case.

8. This term the House of Delegates passed Delegate Wilt’s (R-Harrisonburg) bill to require Virginia K-12 schools, colleges and universities to obtain written permission from a student or parent to release a student’s address, phone number or email to a third-party group. This was passed after NextGen the progressive grassroots organization took a lot of students’ information and sent them unsolicited messages encouraging them to go vote. That bill was passed instead of Delegate Hurst’s (D-Blacksburg) bill which would remove cell phone numbers and email addresses from public directories. Do you think Wilt’s bill, where you have to obtain permission, is a good step or do you think we should be removing more personal information from these directories?

Kimelman: First of all, I am very happy with both pieces of legislation from Delegate Wilt and Delegate Hurst. The primary difference is that home addresses would not be dealt with in Delegate Hursts' (D) bill, and they are dealt with in Delegate Wilt's (R) bill. So they are pretty similar pieces of legislation, I think if you have written consent your parent or, if you're over 18 yourself it is enough. The primary goal here is to make sure that organizations, political or not political, conservative, liberal, whatever can't mass-FOIAing these things ... [Inaudible]. It was a Democratic organization this time, it could very easily be Republican organization next time, so I am happy this is a win for student privacy.

Kukoski: Yeah I would just echo that, I think it is a win for student privacy and I think regardless of the partisan nature of the organization, it's always important to protect students. While I am happy they were sending messages to say go out and vote, if they were used for a different purpose I would probably feel differently, so I think this bill is a step in the right direction in protecting students.

9. This year U.Va. has again decided to increase tuition, as two tuition control bills were not passed this session. One offered by Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) which would have required each public four-year college in the state to have the same tuition rate for all four years a student is attending, and one from Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun) which would have capped tuition at the rate the student paid for the first academic term of this year. Do you think these bills are what the General Assembly should be focused on in terms of trying to control college costs, or do you think we should be taking a different approach to make colleges in the Commonwealth more affordable?

Kukoski: This is definitely something I think Adam and I both were attuned to, we are part of the legislative advisory board for Student Council where where we work on higher education policies and this is definitely one of them. Making college more affordable and kind of capping tuition, because right now the board of visitors can raise it kind of at their will without any input from students. I think another bill that was on our radar was one that ultimately died I think in appropriations, or one of the committees, about how there should be a public comment period before the board of visitors raises it, I think that is a really tangible step. There should be student, there should be parent and there should be faculty input before the Board of Visitors decides to raise tuition. This year they decided to raise tuition right in the middle of exam season and it was just not a great situation. Anyone who was really passionate about the issue, especially like low-income students and people who have planned out their four years, having this one tuition in mind, I think really could put them at a disadvantage. I also think that potentially something like a cap for when you enter a four year university, that would be the tuition rate you pay for the next four years, so it won't just be raised at the Board of Visitors' decision. When my parents were paying for college they planned to pay the in-state rate for all four years, but it is being raised, and it can also be raised depending on if you are admitted to the Comm school or into Batten, there's different tuition rates for each school in the University. So I think that is important that we do have some sort of bipartisan support on reforming tuition.

Kimelman: I definitely agree, this was something the Legislative Advisory Board was looking at, Delegate Yancey (R-Newport News), is another one just to throw out another name, in terms of there were a lot of Delegates sponsoring these types of bills and unfortunately they died in a subcommittee [inaudible]. In terms of what should be done, a public comment period I think would be good, I don't think it solves the whole problem, but it prevents them from throwing it on students in the middle of midterms, like, 'Hey you're paying 10 percent more for your tuition.' In terms of keeping the rate for all four years, that is something that JMU does as well, so we have students who actually know what they are going to be paying when they go in. And again I think these are all good ideas, I would take any of them if they were passed, but that is definitely something I think we could be working on in the future.

10. One bill that has been talked about a lot this term, talked about a lot on grounds and has been a source of student activism, has been giving Dreamers in-state tuition. That bill did not gain a lot of traction in the General Assembly. Do you believe that this bill should have passed or was it correctly defeated?

Kimelman: My personal opinion on this, again, not representing the entire [unintelligible] organization, is, while I am very sympathetic to Dreamers on Grounds, I think there should be some sort of pathway to citizenship for them or pathway to legal status, whatever you want to call it, but I think that needs to be dealt with first. At the federal level there has definitely been a lot of gridlock on both sides in terms of coming to some sort of compromise on immigration, despite the fact that both sides have kind of almost conceded parts that the other side wants, which is very frustrating. But I think it is very difficult for me to say we are going to give in-state tuition if you came here illegally, although it wasn't their choice it was their parents choice and they should not be punished for that, there are people who have come legally to the United States who are paying out-of-state tuition, they are not getting those same type of benefits. So for me that is where I would kind of be worried about it, the fact that we are disincentivizing people to come here legally and who might be coming from out-of-state. Although I do think that people who are Dreamers and have that situation, I think the federal government should resolve that. I think there should be a pathway to citizenship, they should be legalized in some way or another, and if that comes with border security that would also be great from my perspective, or some sort of deal like that. Right now, we can't be giving benefits out to people who did come here illegally, even though it wasn't their choice, though people who come here legally would essentially be getting punished for it. I am very sympathetic to their situation, I do think there should be some sort of resolution to it and the fact the Federal government has not dealt with that is very disappointing to me.

Kukoski: I think given the federal government hasn't dealt with it is disappointing, but I think this was one way on the state level we could have dealt with that, and it was really disappointing to me to see that this bill ultimately failed. It is something a lot of our members joined Dreamers On Grounds on calling on behalf of, so I would have liked to see this bill pass, but hopefully in the future, there is always next year, so I am optimistic, but I think we have to continue to fight for it.

11. There has been a lot of talk about marijuana reform in the past few years, with a lot of states legalizing it for recreational use, and mostly because mass incarceration has become such a huge problem in the United States. There have been some moves to decriminalize marijuana possession, but that was thought to be not feasible and some people thought of the idea to maybe get marijuana charges expunged. Do you think we should be trying to reform the criminal justice system in terms of this drug in the commonwealth, or do you think, because there’s been so little action on the issue that it is not really feasible?

Kukoski: I think it is definitely an important step and reforming the criminal justice system, I think there is a lot of space for reform. I would like to see more movement on the issue towards legalization or a small step would be decriminalization, because I think there are a lot of people that are put in jail for this and taking resources from the state for people who are in there, and I think that money could be better used somewhere else, that would be more beneficial. I think this is a small step in kind of changing the allocation of resources, it's something I would like to see more of.

Kimelman: I definitely agree on this issue for sure. I think that one thing Mary Alice mentioned earlier was raising the felony larceny rate. I think that was a very good move. I would have again liked to see it raised even higher, $500 seems kind of low for that type of thing. I also think that decriminalizing or trying to expunge certain charges would be good on the state level. On the federal level, Congressman Tom Garrett (R-Va.) is actually co-sponsoring a bill that would federally. I do not know if this is really viable on the federal level, but on the statewide level I definitely think that this is a good criminal justice reform action that we can take.

12. I just have one more question for you guys. What initiatives do you want the General Assembly to tackle in its next session and what impact do you feel student groups such as yours can make on the legislative process and just getting the voices of student, whether it be liberal or conservative, out there?

Kimelman: As we talked about earlier, education reform, some of the bills we talked about earlier would be great. I would like to see more progress be made on regulatory reform or something like that. I think that one of the best things the general assembly did last session was actually increase transparency a lot. And the fact that all the votes are now recorded, they were all put on video so you can actually see what is happening, so I'm very very excited about that. And I hope that that continues in future as well. One of these things, especially if they do go down the Medicaid expansion route, looking at things like cutting spending and tax reform, ways to make our government more efficient would be good as well. If they do adopt Medicaid expansion, which again I would disagree with, they would definitely need to start reforming some of these other programs to see how to pay for it, but in general even if they don't do it they should still be looking at that.

Kukoski: I think the transparency, I was reading up on that, is really interesting, and is a step in the right direction holding our representatives accountable. I think something else I am really excited about is the amount of women and different minorities represented now in the House of Delegates and state Senate, I think that will hopefully in the future allow more legislation to come forth that is representative and advocates on behalf of all members of the Commonwealth all residents, because I think in the past it was something that was often overlooked. I think the amount of female representation is really really important. I'm hoping that maybe the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] will be brought back, that hopefully we will be able to pass Medicaid expansion and some of these efforts, and that we can have bipartisan support for some of them I think that would be very important. The transparency bill there was some bipartisan support on Medicaid expansion, if we have some more bipartisanship I think that would also be key. Also, as Adam said, with higher education reform and tuition rates, I think that is really important that students could be advocating on behalf of. I would love to see more students going down to the General Assembly to lobby. I think Student Council does a great job with the Legislative Affairs Committee and the Legislative Advisory Board that we are a part of, I think does some great work. I think students, we are residents here, we encourage students to register to vote in Virginia and register to vote in Charlottesville, and so by doing that I think the next step is making sure they are informed and active in the electoral and legislative process.