The 2015 Session of the General Assembly is history. While we passed over 1500 bills and resolutions, the Session will be remembered for a handful of things including reforming the transportation funding formula, adopting a new ethics bill that changes very little, and adjourning a day early. The Session will also be remembered for what it did not do. We failed, once again, to expand Medicaid and provide health insurance that we are already paying for through federal taxes to as many as 400,000 Virginians. [Read more…]
The 2015 Session of the General Assembly is hurtling toward adjournment. The word around here is that we may complete our work earlier than the scheduled February 28 adjournment.
Election year jitters, and a clear partisan majority in both houses, makes it less likely we will find ourselves at a stalemate this year. Medicaid expansion, the issue that held the General Assembly up last year, has been shoved aside. Many Republicans acknowledge that the policy reasons for Virginia expanding Medicaid are compelling. Virginia’s economy could use the $2.5 billion bump that would be fully funded by the federal government through 2016 and that health insurance for 400,000 people who are currently uninsured would be a boost to Virginia’s economy and health. The problem is political. Virginia’s working poor took a backseat to election year politics.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the budget that appear to be close on most issues, thus the optimism about an early adjournment. The last two weeks of the General Assembly will be spent working out the differences in a conference committee. I will only touch on a few areas of the budget.
Pay increases for public employees
Because revenue projections have improved since last December, both the House and Senate included money in the budget for pay increases for public employees. The Senate bumps up the salaries of state and state-supported local employees by three percent, two percent for college faculty, and 1.5 percent for the state share for public school teachers. The Senate budget includes $5.8 million generated by Senator Carrico’s bill I discussed last week to address salary compression issues at the Virginia State Police.
K-12 education funding
The Senate and the House proposals incorporated the Governor’s priorities with respect to K-12 education. The budgets adopted by the House and Senate yesterday do not cut funding to our public schools. The increased revenue, which has allowed some flexibility with this year’s budget, should not be viewed too optimistically. The economy is changing in dramatic ways, and we must diversify. As a result, many of the increases enjoyed in this revenue spurt are being spent on one-time expenses rather than being built into the base budget. The Senate in particular agreed with the Governor’s recommendation of $50 million for school construction and to subsidize interest rates for school divisions with an additional $25 million.
The Governor also proposed using $537,000 for new school breakfast program designed to encourage all school divisions to serve breakfast. The Senate budget targets this program only at elementary schools where free and reduced lunch eligibility exceeds 45 percent.
Mental health services
Last year I feared the legislature would lose focus on the importance of revamping mental health services in Virginia. We took some steps last year but much work remains. The budget proposals adopted this week allay my fears. Both the House and Senate infused significant funding into an array of services. The Senate provided new money for permanent supportive housing, two new PACT teams, and for child psychiatry and crisis response. The House included some of those priorities but also provided funding for four new therapeutic drop-off centers. While the differences need to be worked out, I am heartened to see the continued commitment of my colleagues to improve services in Virginia.
An area of interest to many of my constituents is transportation funding. For the first time in many years, the administration actually has some transportation money to spend. The transportation funding formula, which historically has benefited rural areas, has not been working since 2009. The money which fueled those formulas has slowed to trickle. With the passage of House Bill 2313 in 2013, additional dollars are flowing to transportation. While the slowdown in the economy diminished those anticipated funds, there are at last dollars flowing to much needed transportation projects.
A couple of bills, HB 1886 and HB 1887, have been introduced Delegate Chris Jones with the support of the McAuliffe administration. The legislation does not change many of the basic principles of the formula, but divides the money up into different pots. The end result is that each district should be getting roughly the same or more money than in prior years, but the money will be targeted in different ways.
Under these proposals, forty percent of the money will go into what will be known as “state and good repair” purposes, which includes major bridge and overpass reconstruction and other significant maintenance projects. That money will flow into each of the transportation districts.
Thirty percent will go to a statewide fund for “high priority” projects, which are defined as “projects of regional or statewide significance” that address such things as congestion, safety, economic development or environmental quality. Projects that might fit into this project include the Route 220 project in Botetourt and Alleghany Counties. The road project not only cuts across county lines but cuts across transportation districts and is clearly a project with regional and even statewide significance.
The remaining thirty percent of funds go to “highway construction districts” grant programs. These are projects that are high priorities within each district.
We are still working through all of the details of the bills, and I am honored to serve on the subcommittee responsible for reviewing the legislation. I am hopeful that the end result will provide real opportunities to move forward on critical transportation projects throughout Virginia.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please let me know if you if I can be of service to you in any way. You can reach my office during the legislative session at PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.
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 saw the passage of a state budget and also the potential demise of Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Two dramatic events of the previous few days drove the results of the Special Session.
Resignation of Senator Phillip Puckett
First, word leaked out gradually on June 6th and June 7th of the sudden resignation of Senator Phillip Puckett. His resignation restored the Republican majority in the Senate of Virginia, ensuring that Republicans controlled both houses of the General Assembly.
When I first heard about Senator Puckett’s resignation, I called him. Phillip Puckett has been a good friend of mine for a long time. I have eaten at his table, been a guest in his home, prayed in his church. He told me he was resigning to do what was best for his family and would not give me more detail. I trust Phillip and am certain that his decision to leave the Senate of Virginia was what he thought was right for his family. However, members of the General Assembly also have an obligation to the people they represent and to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Red flags appeared immediately. First, Republican legislators seemed more informed about what was going on than did Democrats. Republican senators were quoted in the papers about Senator Puckett continuing his service and a prominent Republican delegate from southwest Virginia, the Chairman of the Tobacco Commission, indicated that Senator Puckett was going to be considered for the position of Deputy Director of the Tobacco Commission. In fact, the Tobacco Commission had a meeting scheduled for last Wednesday and the only thing on the docket was the consideration of the hiring of a Deputy Director.
Second, in recent years Senator Puckett has maintained a focus on helping appoint his daughter to the bench. Republicans denied him the 21st vote necessary to have her elected as a judge based on a supposed tradition of the Senate not appointing family members to the bench. While I think such a policy makes sense, history suggests there is no such tradition. In the 1990s, former Delegate Ward Armstrong’s brother was appointed to the district court bench. Later, former Delegate Joe Johnson’s son went on the district court bench and was elevated a few years later to the circuit bench. I have never known of another senator to have a family member considered for a judgeship, but it is clear that there is no such tradition with respect to members of the General Assembly.
After Senator Puckett resigned and the public exploded, he withdrew his name from consideration for employment with the Tobacco Commission. The meeting scheduled for last Wednesday was cancelled.
Senator Puckett’s sudden resignation came at a crucial time in this budget standoff – when the pressure was on both sides to find a way to close the coverage gap and get a budget passed before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The resignation means that Republicans have the majority in both houses of the legislature. They were able to pass a budget, and they now have the unfettered ability to elect judges.
The Defeat of US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
The second event which turned the political world on its head in Virginia was the defeat of Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives in the Republican Primary in the 7th Congressional District. Eric Cantor was elected to the House of Delegates with me in 1991. I have known Eric for a long time and while we have disagreements on matters of policy, we have always been friendly to one another. His loss in the primary sent a shockwave through the Republican apparatus in Virginia and allowed the House Republican Caucus and the 17 members of the Senate Republican Caucus that opposed Marketplace Virginia, to put pressure on the three senators who have worked with the Governor and with the Democratic Caucus to arrive at a compromise on Medicaid expansion in Virginia.
Much speculation has centered on the strength of the Tea Party and its effect on the primary. The Tea Party is an important subset, a populist subset, of the Republican Party. However, my take on things is much simpler. I think Representative Cantor took his eyes off the ball and paid more attention to his job as majority leader than to the residents of the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia. While he had plenty of money in the bank, he did not have the field organization necessary to turn people out to vote in the primary After all, elections are pretty simple – you just need to get more people to vote for you than the other guy.
Governor McAuliffe’s Options
The end result of this tumultuous political week in Virginia was that the three Republican senators, described as moderate in the media, caved. Not only did a budget pass without Medicaid expansion, but interwoven into the budget is language aimed at preventing the Governor from trying to expand administratively.
The legality of the Governor expanding Medicaid without prior legislative approval has generated significant discussion and debate. The Constitution requires all monies spent by the Commonwealth, even flow through dollars from the federal government, be appropriated by the General Assembly. Last year, the House and the Senate, working together, agreed to put language in the budget to create the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) to reform Medicaid and set up a mechanism to expand Medicaid. The amendments adopted last week by the House and the Senate removed that compromise language from the budget. Medicaid expansion will now need approval from the majority of the General Assembly.
The Governor’s options at this point are at least threefold. First, he could sign the budget. The budget agreement that passed is balanced. The Medicaid language can be changed (at least theoretically) when we reconvene in January. Signing the budget will end this protracted budget debate and allow local governments to move forward.
The Governor could veto the budget. A veto would leave everything up in the air for the remainder of the month, and the General Assembly would likely be in session for many days trying to craft a compromise before the end of the fiscal year.
The third option is to use the line item veto to eliminate the new budget language that strips authority from the MIRC. Although the language is interwoven in the budget, in my view, this is the best option. Sign the remainder of the budget. Austerity cannot be prevented in a time of declining revenue. If the amended language is stricken, and the General Assembly fails to muster the two-thirds vote to override the veto, the Governor can continue to explore ways to expand Medicaid and close the coverage gap. At this point, there is not much for him to lose if he can find a way to line item veto the amendment out of the budget.
In the meantime, candidates are being chosen to fill Senator Puckett’s seat in southwest Virginia. Elections in that region are driven by the politics of coal. The coal field counties are areas that have seen significant population loss over the past 30 years and face severe economic challenges. I am convinced that we can find a Democratic candidate who can hold on to the seat. If we can accomplish that goal, we can restore balance to the General Assembly.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Should you have concerns, questions or views you wish to share, please contact me at (434) 296-5491 or [email protected].
After the Special Session began on the 24th of March, I started to write a column that never got published. The column began as follows:
I have always thought that it is important to maintain a sense of wonder, a sense of amazement at life’s twists and turns. That sense of wonder keeps you from taking for granted the people and places in your life that are important. So it is with some pride that I can report that on the 25th of March, the first daffodil bloomed in my yard. However, I can also report that bloom was soon covered with snow as winter is playing the part of Gilda Radner in that old Saturday Night Live skit about the guest who would not leave… speaking of guests that will not leave, the General Assembly is still in session.
The Governor called the Virginia General Assembly into Special Session for the purpose of passing the budget. The Constitution requires that we adopt a balanced budget every two years. For the most part, finalizing a budget compromise is not a significant problem. This year, the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, are hung up on the notion of Medicaid expansion.
The real debate does not revolve around healthcare. After all, most people recognize that it makes sense for us to close the coverage gap and provide insurance for up to 400,000 people. After all, a healthier workforce makes for a smoother, more effective economy. Insurance coverage means more illnesses are prevented, and it is simply the right thing to do to help people stay well. The hang up is on the details of this particular plan. The column that I started a few weeks ago was shelved, at least in part, because it reflected my pessimism about the Special Session. I like to remain optimistic.
The real debate this year is about the way healthcare is provided. Those who argue against Medicaid expansion are concerned the federal government will not be able to meet its fiscal obligations and the burden will fall on Virginia’s taxpayers. It seems to me that this is an argument that can be made about any federal program. But unlike some federal programs, like Medicare Part D prescription coverage, Medicaid expansion has a funding source set out in the Affordable Care Act. In 2002-2003, Medicare was expanded to provide a prescription drug benefit. There is no question that this program was needed, but in passing it, Congress and the President failed to fund it. Every cent of Medicare Part D that has been spent over the last 12 years has been borrowed money. The Affordable Care Act on the other hand, is paid for through tax and fee increases at the federal level. In fact, Virginians are paying about $2.9 billion a year for Medicaid expansion. What sense does it make to pay for a program that Virginians cannot access?
For some, opposition to expansion is just a continuation of frustration over the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The appropriate place to have a debate over federal programs, how they are funded, and over the size and scope of the federal government is not in the state legislatures, but in Congress and in federal elections. That is precisely why Republican senators have joined Democratic senators to pass Marketplace Virginia. While we have rejected outright Medicaid expansion, we have adopted a Virginia approach that will allow us to provide insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of people, and bring the federal dollars that Virginians pay in taxes for the Affordable Care Act back to Virginia. Who can argue that over $5 million a day in federal funds will not have a positive impact on Virginia’s economy?
In fact, expanding access to our healthcare system will require the addition of jobs to take care of those people. And, access to preventative health care, rather than relying on expensive treatment in emergency rooms for unmanaged illnesses, will save money. In part, the Affordable Care Act cuts some Medicare reimbursements. Those cuts will cost Virginia hospitals in excess of $300 million. Why should we not accept federal money to expand coverage, to make those hospitals whole, and to increase the healthcare workforce?
From where I sit, the hang up now is not over what is the right thing to do for Virginia. The hang up between the Senate and the House of Delegates is purely political. The House says no to Medicaid expansion, so the Senate offers Marketplace Virginia, a private insurance based program. The House continues to say no. Anything linked to the Affordable Care Act is anathema to some, whether or not it is beneficial to Virginians, to our hospitals, and to our overall healthcare system.
Anyone watching the recent episode of 60 Minutes that contained a story about healthcare in rural southwest Virginia recognizes that we have a huge gap in the number of people that are covered in Virginia. We need to address it now. The way to close the gap between the House and the Senate and get a budget passed in Virginia is to adopt Marketplace Virginia and do it now.