The 2016 Session of the General Assembly has now been through its first full week. Days full of work make the time pass quickly. A 60-day session suffers under the misnomer of the “long” session and the odd numbered year 46-day sessions are the “short” sessions. We handle about the same amount of work in each session, with the exception of the consideration of the two year budget during the 60-day session. The Virginia Constitution does not provide for holiday or weekend breaks. So even when the General Assembly does not hold floor sessions, for example on weekends, the time period rolls on.
Likewise, the Session continues during federal holidays, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This past Monday, we celebrated that holiday and welcomed many people who had the day off to the General Assembly. Standing committees met and both houses held a floor session. There were an inordinate number of people trying to navigate the hallways, stairwells and elevators of the General Assembly Building to talk to their legislators. It was a busy day.
This year, as in other years, groups from all over the 25th District and throughout Virginia trekked to Richmond to share ideas with their elected representatives. This past week, during a radio interview I was asked whether anyone coordinated the rallies that occur during the legislative session. Historically, the pro-gun control and the pro-Second Amendment groups come to Richmond on Martin Luther King Day. Another day, the pro-choice and anti-choice people attend; another day the pro-Medicaid expansion and anti-Medicaid expansion attend. I’m not sure that anyone puts these groups together, but I am sure it is no coincidence that both sides of the issue are represented in Richmond at the same time.
It is still early in the session. The primary focus continues to be the budget. This week the Senate Finance Committee held important hearings regarding revenue projections and other fiscal matters. Of particular concern was the discussion on the relative weak growth of Virginia’s economy. As stated before in this space, we face a number of very serious challenges, many of which are brought on by sequestration at the federal level. We all know that the economy will change and that government contracting and direct military spending, which has driven economic growth in Virginia since the end of World War II, will not continue unabated. We have to diversify, and without question there will be growing pains in our economy and in Virginia’s government during that process.
Of note as well this session is the continued discussion revolving around Justice Roush of the Virginia Supreme Court. Many will recall that she was a Fairfax trial judge whom Governor McAuliffe appointed on an interim basis to the Virginia Supreme Court. She was appointed upon the recommendation of Delegate Dave Albo, the Republican Chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Unfortunately, her appointment ruffled the feathers of some of the Republican hierarchy. They have objected and are trying to remove her from the bench. Late last week, the Republican leadership was surprised to find that one of their freshman senators, Glen Sturtevant, a Senator from Richmond, was supporting Justice Roush. The discovery delayed for the time being their efforts to unseat her. This story will have to be continued because there does not appear to be any compromise.
Ultimately, part of the problem with putting people on the bench is that partisan politics becomes an issue. Thomas Jefferson, while the Minister to France, wrote an important letter to James Madison. At the time, Madison was developing the Constitution of the United States and had sent a draft to Jefferson. One of the important things in the draft, Jefferson concluded, was the absolute independence of the judiciary. He applauded the lifetime terms which he felt would ensure independence. We don’t have lifetime terms for state court judges in Virginia. Frankly, there needs to be some mechanism to assure the public that those people appointed to the bench are doing their jobs. However, we have to be vigilant that members of the bench are independent; judges should not consider that their position is owed to any segment of the political class. Without that, we cannot ensure there is equal justice for all in our court system.
I have once again sponsored a bill to create a merit based selection process for judges. The bill has not yet been heard.
This is being written as a major storm bears down on Virginia leading the Governor to declare a State of Emergency. I urge all Virginians to be careful, to not travel unless they have to, to stay warm and hydrated, to be mindful of their neighbors, and to care for their pets and animals. Even though the snow may come, I will need to make sure the ice gets broken and the chicken and equine are cared for. I urge caution.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Virginia General Assembly. If I may be of service, do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at
[email protected] or (804) 698-7525. I look forward to hearing from you.
The 2016 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is off and running. The long sessions are held in even years and are significant because we will be adopting a new two-year budget. Due to our budget cycle, this is the first year Governor McAuliffe has an opportunity to put forward his vision for the Commonwealth. This biennial budget will be the Governor’s opportunity to leave a legacy.
On the first night of the session, the Senate and House of Delegates convened a Joint Assembly to welcome the Governor and hear his State of the Commonwealth speech. Typically such affairs are light, and the mood is hopeful and congenial. Certainly this year was not much of an exception.
Budget Priorities: Education and Economic Development
Governor McAuliffe laid out his outline for the $109 billion two-year spending plan. His budget priorities include education and economic development, which generally receive widespread support. The Governor boosts spending for both K-12 and higher education. Those in K-12 know that spending has been very tight for at least the past seven years. The Governor’s re-benchmarking of that area of the budget was needed just to catch up.
In higher education, Virginia’s historically frugal way has left us behind many surrounding states in terms of our overall investment in higher education. This year’s plan achieves a number of important goals. First, it adds planning money and capital outlay for a number of important projects throughout the system. Of particular interest to those who reside in the 25th Senate District, money is allocated for the development of a student center at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Second, and important for our economy, there is additional investment in workforce training at our community colleges in clear recognition that a bachelor’s or associate’s degree is not necessary for every segment of the workforce. Sometimes a certification can increase earning power and productivity.
In an effort to build a budget to include something for everyone, the Governor also proposes corporate tax cuts to promote business growth in Virginia and remain competitive with other states. He also provides funding for GO Virginia, which is supported by business and local governments, to encourage regional partnerships and planning for economic development. This funding will allow jurisdictions to work together on common goals, rather than compete for business.
While his efforts in these areas may receive widespread support, the Governor has not avoided controversy in the budget. For the third time, the Governor put forward budget language to expand Medicaid in Virginia. The proposal and related money is woven into the budget. I have consistently argued that expanding Medicaid makes good economic and political sense for Virginia. Ninety percent of the dollars to expand Medicaid will come from the federal government. Of course, those dollars don’t just “come from the federal government”; the funding is generated by money higher earning Virginians already pay due to increased taxes in the Affordable Care Act. If we have an opportunity to bring our tax dollars back to Virginia to work for us, we have a responsibility to act. In doing so, we can provide insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of Virginians, a significant number of whom suffer serious mental illness, who are falling through the cracks. Providing health care to these individuals is the right thing to do.
Predictably, there is a good deal of partisanship being displayed, particularly about the Medicaid issue. But I am hopeful we can put aside some of our past differences and genuinely work together for the benefit of the people of the Commonwealth.
In addition, there are a number of judicial issues before the Virginia General Assembly. Specifically, I will introduce legislation that calls for an additional fourth general district court judgeship in the 25th Circuit, the area that stretches north from Craig and Botetourt Counties to Highland and Augusta Counties. I will also carry a budget amendment to fund an additional circuit court position in the 16th Circuit, in the Charlottesville-Albemarle region.
The Virginia General Assembly must also confirm or elect a new justice to the Supreme Court. A great deal of partisanship continues to surround this issue, even though the Governor’s appointment was nominated by the Republican Chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Many Republican leaders oppose Justice Jane Roush’s election. How that plays out remains to be seen.
Procedural Measures in the Virginia General Assembly
On the first day, the Senate voted on a number of procedural measures necessary for conducting the work of the people. We narrowly adopted new rules, including the controversial removal of media access to the chamber during session, and finalized committee assignments. I resumed my seat on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, on which I last served in 2011. Longtime friends know that I spent many years on the Courts Committee while in the House of Delegates. In order to obtain that assignment, I gave up positions on the General Laws and Technology Committee and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. I maintained my seats on the Transportation and Privileges and Elections Committees.
Although the Virginia General Assembly Session just began on Wednesday, lots of bills have been introduced and standing committees have begun working through the over 2,000 bills already before us. I urge you to please let me hear from you if you have any information or ideas about the legislation currently before us.
It remains a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of assistance, or if you wish to share your thoughts with me, please contact me at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525. I look forward to hearing from you.
After much thought, I want to announce that I will run for re-election to the State Senate this fall. I am proud of the many things we have been able to accomplish, working together, to protect the most vulnerable, Virginia’s children, to conserve Virginia’s open space, to rebuild Virginia’s economy, and recently to reform our system of mental health care. I will be humbled to ask the voters in the 25th Senatorial District for their votes on November 3rd so that I may continue my work. [Read more…]
The 2015 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is underway. This is a short session, scheduled to adjourn on February 28, 2015, so the work will be fast and furious. We will deal with some hefty matters this session, but as usual, budgetary issues will control much attention. Virginia’s economy is changing in fundamental ways, which affects Virginia’s revenue stream. If we fail at this time to meet the changing economy, diversify and do the best we can to insure that Virginians for generations will have the opportunity to succeed, our legacy, regardless of the issues we address this session, will fall short.
The Governor is rightfully focused on the economy and job creation, as reflected in his State of the Commonwealth address. While Virginia faces many challenges, there are certainly successes that have occurred in his first year in office. In the past year, he has closed over 200 economic opportunities bringing thousands of jobs to Virginia and $5.58 billion in capital investments to the Commonwealth. That is more than twice as much as any past administration during the Governor’s first year in office. That is certainly good news.
However, the reality is that in the face of sequestration at the federal level, the loss of defense contracts in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, we have no choice but to remain dedicated to bringing new investment to the Commonwealth. An important tool the Governor has used to bring jobs to Virginia is the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. I am proud to have written that Fund into the Code of Virginia in 1996. We have to strengthen the Fund and make certain it is available for opportunities throughout Virginia. The Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund is another key tool that supports a critical part of Virginia’s economy. The Governor announced in his speech that agricultural exports are at an all-time high.
Despite the fiscal climate, the Governor made a point of not cutting K-12 spending or making further cuts in higher education this year. I have always likened cuts to education to eating your seed corn. The cuts simply do not make sense if one wants to have a promising future. We must continue to invest in education so that the next generation of Virginians has the tools they need to succeed in the workforce or at the next level of education. Likewise, we need to make sure that the Standards of Learning are realistic and a tool to help our children and schools succeed. We began a reform movement last year and will take that another step this year.
Although we are in a new year, the issue of Medicaid expansion continues to play a role in our economy. By refusing to expand Medicaid or adopt the alternative approach offered last year, Marketplace Virginia, we gave up about $2.1 billion in federal funding for 2014. Under the Affordable Care Act, 100 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion will be borne by the federal government in 2015 and 2016 should we expand. Up to 400,000 Virginians who currently are without insurance and ineligible for existing Medicaid – primarily the working poor – could benefit. Unlike a lot of federal programs, Medicaid expansion is already paid for through new taxes or fees embedded in the ACA, including a tax increase on those who earn more than $200,000 annually.
Virginia has offered a number of reforms, which have ensured accountability and individual responsibility, lessening the likelihood of fraud and requiring co-payments. We have even written into the law that if the federal share of Medicaid expansion drops below 90 percent after 2016, Virginia will drop out. Nevertheless, the Virginia General Assembly continues to refuse to expand Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid this year would reduce our budget deficit by over $100 million, provide much needed insurance to hundreds of thousands of people, and improve the long-term health of our workforce. As I have said before, it is just the right thing to do in my view.
In spite of the intransigency of the House of Delegates with respect to Medicaid expansion, the Governor has administratively found a way to provide a level of healthcare to about 20,000 people who struggle with severe mental illness. While this program is important, it’s a drop in the bucket. There are estimates that as many as 77,000 Virginians who struggle with serious mental illness would be eligible if the legislature expanded Medicaid. The inability to fully access services or treatment leaves this population vulnerable and puts them and the community at risk. It is simply irresponsible for us not to find a way to provide more coverage to people with significant health care needs.
Session will be busy for me. I will continue my work on mental health issues this year with a bill that originates from the University of Virginia Law School and deals with advanced directives for people who have a mental illness and with a couple of bills from the Governor’s Mental Health Task Force. My legislative package also includes initiatives to follow up on SB 261, which passed last year. The primary work on mental health reform will generate from the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century, created last year by Senate Joint Resolution 47. The Subcommittee is scheduled to report to the General Assembly in December 2015 and 2017. The process of reform will be deliberate because we want to get it right. And it is my hope that in spite of the measured nature of this work, we do not lose our sense of urgency, because people’s lives are literally at stake.
I am carrying a number of bills this session and will report on those in the coming weeks. It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the General Assembly. If we can of service or assistance during the legislative session, or if you would like to visit Richmond to see the legislature in action, please feel free to contact us at: PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected] , or (804) 698-7525.