The 2016 Session of the General Assembly is now in warp speed. We are merely two weeks from adjournment, and it seems everybody is in two or three places at the same time. Whether you are presenting a bill before a committee, hearing other presentations in other committees, meeting with constituents or other individuals who have an idea they wish to discuss, or taking part in long floor sessions, this is a wearisome time of the session – and a dangerous time. Bills are amended, deals are cut and things happen quickly. One simply has to pay attention. [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.
Last Week of the Virginia General Assembly Session
Every year as the General Assembly session winds down, it’s important to take some time to reflect on the things that have been accomplished, the things yet to accomplish, and perhaps the missed opportunities. With less than a week left before the scheduled adjournment of the 2014 session, a couple of things are clear.
The biggest opportunity this session has been to try to find a way to provide health insurance to perhaps as many as 400,000 additional Virginians and also recapture some of the federal taxes we are paying to fund the Affordable Care Act. Some people deem this the expansion of Medicaid. We in Virginia have come up with a different response, Marketplace Virginia, that basically turns this over to the private insurance market. Perhaps the next week, and more likely the next few months, will determine whether we are able to take advantage of this opportunity.
I have been on a journey to bring reform to the area of delivery of mental health services. The road to reform has been somewhat bumpy. My proposals, many of which were roughed out in my mind as I tried to process what happened in November, are moving forward. The details will be finalized in conference this week. These proposals are just the first steps of a concerted effort to improve our mental health system.
A number of other issues, some a regurgitation of past efforts and others brought on by the exigency of circumstances, have been considered this session. A few of those are as follows:
- Legislative ethics reform has been put forward in bills sponsored by Delegate Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County and Senator Tommy Norment of James City County. Both of these bills represent a very modest step forward, and many who call for reform in the area of ethics, including me, are going to be left unsatisfied with the results. Those bills will be in conference this last week.
- Sunday hunting has been championed through bills from Senator Phillip Puckett of Russell County and Delegate Todd Gilbert. Those bills limit Sunday hunting to private property with written permission from the landowner and are headed to the Governor’s desk. He has indicated he will sign them.
- Delegate Tim Hugo and Senator Dave Marsden, both of Fairfax County, sponsored legislation to require social studies textbooks used in Virginia to identify the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan as both “Sea of Japan” and the “East Sea.” This legislation appears to be enjoying the majority of support in both bodies but is tied up procedurally right now. The Governor has indicated he will sign this legislation if it reaches his desk. The legislation has many proponents in the Korean American population.
- My effort to increase the court fee paid by those convicted of crime to fund the Internet Crimes Against Children units in Bedford and Fairfax, grants to localities throughout the Commonwealth, and maintenance of the Child Pornography Images Registry appears to be stalled in the House of Delegates. The bill enjoyed unanimous support in the Senate. The legislation would raise the fee $5 and generate an additional $900,000 a year for this important work.
- The legislature has tackled SOL reform through bills championed by Senators John Miller of Newport News, George Barker of Fairfax, and Delegate Tag Greason of Loudoun County. I also sponsored two bills on the matter. The number of tests, especially for elementary age students, will be reduced as a result of this effort. High standards are the right thing for our schools and students, but the emphasis on testing has diminished the role of teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Many of the concerns some of us had about the SOLs when they were adopted back in 1994 are being heeded 20 years later.
- The additional hybrid fee added last year as part of the comprehensive transportation package was repealed. As many recall, Governor McDonnell included the fee in his transportation proposal in 2013. Both the Senate and the House removed the provisions from their versions of the legislation. When the bills went into conference, the conferees reinserted the language into the bill. At that point in the process, the bill could not be amended. While many opposed this particular provision, a majority of legislators voted for the proposal in its entirety. Governor McAuliffe has signed the legislation, which will become law July 1.
- For the second consecutive year, the General Assembly has passed a resolution to place on the ballot this fall a proposed constitutional amendment to allow localities to grant real estate tax relief to the surviving spouses of service members who were killed in action. The companion bill that stipulates the details of how this exemption would work is still moving through the process. Voters should expect to vote on this measure in November.
- A number of bills were introduced to delay the July 1, 2014 start date for local governments to have in place new stormwater management programs that reduce runoff. Many localities were concerned about the implementation costs and whether they had sufficient time to put in place the necessary regulations and staff by the deadline. During the deliberations, a compromise measure came forward that makes the adoption of this program optional for localities that do not operate a municipal separate storm sewer system. The Department of Environmental Quality will manage a stormwater management program in those localities that opt out.
Over 2,700 bills and resolutions were introduced this year, ranging from resolutions recognizing great Virginians we lost this year to legislation effecting major policy changes. Today is the final day for committees to meet. In this final week, we will finish up work on bills in conference and take action on the bills coming out of committees today. I look forward to your continued input during this last week.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. This session is rapidly winding down and while it is true that some issues may not be resolved by the scheduled adjournment period, I expect to be able to be back home practicing law soon. If you have concerns or questions please contact us at [email protected]. We can be reached by phone in Richmond at (804) 698-7525. Beginning March 10, please contact the district office at (434) 296-5491 or P.O. Box 5462, Charlottesville, VA 22905.
The 2014 Session is well underway. This year, like every year, we have challenges to conquer to meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s 8.3 million residents. Before we get to those challenges, we have to go through the ceremony that is required every four years.
Last week, Governor McDonnell gave his farewell address highlighting his achievements over the past four years: over 170,000 new jobs in Virginia, brought on largely by the national economic recovery, success in increasing the number of children adopted out of foster care, and last year’s monumental transportation plan. He also apologized for his role in the gift scandal that plagued his last year in office. The matter is currently under continuing federal investigation. There are many who will suggest that all politicians receive such largesse, so Governor McDonnell’s culpability is insignificant; however, I take exception to that. Sure, there are a fair amount of free dinners and even vacations that people involved in politics accept. But the magnitude of the gifts accepted by the McDonnell family, and the fact that they weren’t reported, is unprecedented and leaves a stain on the McDonnell administration.
On Saturday, amidst a steady rain, Governor Terry McAuliffe, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, and Attorney General Mark Herring were inaugurated. Whether it was a sign from above or not, the rain lifted and the sun came out at about the same time Governor McAuliffe began his address. The following Monday, the Governor outlined his priorities in an address before the Joint Assembly of the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia. Primary among his priorities is Medicaid expansion.
Medicaid is insurance provided by the federal government since the 1960s. The program is regulated and funded to a large degree by state governments, which historically have been able to determine to whom it is provided. Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, the role of Medicaid would be expanded by increasing eligibility. The federal government has committed to funding 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years and 90 percent of expansion cost the following three years. Virginia has already adopted regulations requiring us to pull out of expansion if at any time federal funding of the cost of expansion falls below the 90 percent threshold. Expansion in Virginia makes good sense. We will provide coverage to an additional two to four hundred thousand Virginians. The health care of those Virginians is presently being subsidized by those who pay private insurance. Because they can’t afford preventative care, their health care needs are met primarily in emergency rooms. When hospitals aren’t paid for emergency room care, the costs are written off and insurance rates must go up to cover those costs. As many as 30 thousand veterans are among the Virginians who can benefit from expansion. It is inexcusable that these people who have given so much to this country return home to poverty.
It also makes good business sense for us to expand Medicaid. As noted above, the uninsured currently drive up the cost of insurance and thus health care. We simply have to find a way to control the cost of health care. In addition, Virginia will receive about $2.1 billion in federal funding per year for the next three years if we support expansion. The investment of federal dollars will continue and injects over $5 million a day into Virginia’s economy. As a result, Medicaid expansion is expected to create about 30,000 jobs, primarily in the health care field, over the next six years.
We lost a rural hospital in southwest Virginia this past year. These critical federal dollars, which all Virginians will pay in the form of taxes whether we expand Medicaid or not, could, save rural hospitals all over Virginia. Medicaid expansion is the right thing to do.
Much attention has been paid to my focus this session on mental health. In fact, that issue is important to me and will take a significant amount of time. However, I am working on other legislation, including:
- A bill to extend the statute of limitations to one year past the 18th birthday of a victim of a misdemeanor involving sexual misconduct.
- A bill to consolidate the law enforcement divisions of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
- Several bills to revise the Standards of Learning tests for elementary age children.
- A bill that would include conservation officers who work in our State Parks as members of the Virginia Law Officers Retirement System.
- An effort to create a state park in either Highland County or Rockingham County.
- A bill to reform the Board of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
On a personal note, thanks to all for your prayers and support during a tough time. Your kind expressions have been overwhelming.
This will be a busy session for me. I look forward to hearing from you as we move through the session. I appreciate the opportunity to continue to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at: PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.