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Virginia Budget Proposal Would Redirect Diversity Office Funds To Marijuana Business Loan Program Amid Dispute Over ‘Equity’



“It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse.”

By Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

After top Democrats and community leaders called for the firing of the state’s diversity chief last spring over his “DEI is dead” comments, the General Assembly included language in its budget to redirect funding from the Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion to a loan program to help licensed cannabis sellers unless “equity” is put back into the state’s diversity office title by this summer.

In January 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) renamed the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion through an executive order by replacing “equity” with “opportunity,” contrary to the state code. The move was met with swift pushback from Democratic leaders.

“The law is diversity, equity and inclusion,” Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said in an interview at the end of this year’s session. The governor’s press office did not respond to the Mercury’s request for comment earlier this week.

The governor introduced his budget proposal in December, which appropriated an estimated $2.6 million in funding over the next two years for the Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion, consolidated into the general fund for the governor’s office. If the governor instead accepts the General Assembly’s proposal, a budget amendment carried by Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) by July 1, $3.6 million over the next two years will be appropriated to the office and its title would be restored to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

If the governor fails to do so, the budget approved by the General Assembly would redirect the funds to the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund.

According to state law, the fund will provide no- and low-interest loans to qualified, licensed  cannabis business owners to help promote business ownership and economic growth in communities that were disproportionately impacted by cannabis when it was prohibited in the state. Lawmakers have signaled that such a fund is needed and will be put to good use.

“We will use the money. There’s no question about that,” Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who serves as the chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and a top budget negotiator, said.

Janice Underwood, who served as director of diversity initiatives at Old Dominion University, was appointed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in September 2019 as the state’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. It was the first position of its kind in the country at the time.

In 2020, lawmakers passed legislation to codify into law the diversity, equity and inclusion director position in the governor’s cabinet. According to that state law, the DEI director is responsible for developing a plan to promote inclusive practices across state government and to address systemic inequities in state government practices. The director must also implement feedback from state employees and other groups into equity policy.

The position was part of the governor’s responses to racial inequity in Virginia, thrown into stark relief by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. It was also related to the state’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans coming to Virginia. The new position came months after a controversy prompted by a photo that surfaced from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook depicting someone in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Since the position’s establishment, three people have been appointed as the chief diversity officer.

Following Underwood, Gov. Youngkin in January 2022 appointed Angela Sailor to the role and changed the office title to Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion during the first month of his tenure. Sailor previously served as an executive at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Martin Brown, who served as commissioner of the Department of Social Services, succeeded Sailor in November 2022, appointed by Youngkin.

Some of Brown’s notable actions include supporting legislation to permit the placement of historic signs identified in the Green Book, and championing controversial changes to the state’s history standards adopted by the Board of Education.

Perhaps most notably, Brown faced widespread criticism for his remarks during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in April.

“Let’s take a moment right now to kill that cow. DEI is dead,” Brown said. “We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore. It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility … living the golden rule, right?”

Last year, Democrats questioned whether the governor was following the law when he changed the name of the position.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Jason Miayres, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) and Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) wrote, “The official state website for this office likewise uses an incorrect name and refers to Mr. Brown as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Chief Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion Officer,” noting that the DEI title mandated by the state didn’t appear on the official state website.

Miyares responded that, if the governor makes sure the state’s laws relating to the DEI office are “‘faithfully executed,’ he may include within his cabinet a Chief Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion Officer who is charged with performing duties supplemental to those of the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

The attorney general also pointed out in his response that “equity” is not defined in the statute.

“With no statutory or judicially imposed definition, the governor, in fulfilling his duty to ‘faithfully execute’ the statute, is afforded some degree of discretion in affording its terms a workable meaning,” Miyares wrote.

The governor, who is meeting with budget leaders, has the power to sign, amend or veto the DEI measures in the budget before lawmakers return to Richmond on April 17.

This story was first published by Virginia Mercury.

Virginia Lawmakers Don’t Expect Governor To Sign Marijuana Sales Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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