Ostensibly, the Senate convened on 22 May, 2018 to finish the work we could not accomplish during the regular session – to pass a budget. Senator Emmett Hanger, the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee has been working diligently for weeks, most recently with Delegate Chris Jones, the chair of House Appropriations Committee, and the Governor’s office, to craft a budget compromise. Sen. Hanger aimed to develop a bipartisan plan that could generate the support of a majority in the House and Senate and be signed by the Governor. [Read more…]
The General Assembly convened a special session on April 11 to resolve the budget impasse. In the meantime, on April 18, we held the annual reconvened, or veto, session to consider the Governor’s amendments to and vetoes of bills. More on that later.
As you know, we are in the situation with respect to the budget because we’ve not been able to agree on Medicaid expansion. The situation is frustrating. We should have acted on this matter a long time ago.
In 2013, when the partisan makeup of the Senate was 20-20, Republicans organized and had the vote of then Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling to give them the majority. However they needed support from Democrats to adopt a budget and to move forward on former Governor McDonnell’s transportation package. Part of the budget agreement contained language that should have led to Medicaid expansion by now. The budget created the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission to recommend reforms so that we were not blindly expanding a program without ensuring it was streamlined and efficient. The commission met and made those reforms. However, Republicans dug in their heels.
Fast forward to 2018, we witnessed significant changes in the makeup of the House of Delegates. One of the prominent issues on the campaign trail last year was healthcare, and specifically Medicaid expansion. Wanting to put that issue in the rearview mirror, the Republican leadership in the House decided to adopt Medicaid expansion albeit with a work requirement.
We don’t have time to quibble. The world is not perfect, and we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Medicaid expansion, even with a work requirement, makes sense. In the years that we failed to pass to expand Medicaid, we have left hundreds of millions of dollars on the table and denied healthcare to hundreds of thousands of working Virginians. The expansion population is primarily the working poor. Due to their low income levels, they also do not qualify for subsidies to buy insurance on the exchange. I hope that in the special session we can keep in mind our obligation to try to bring opportunity to all Virginians. A healthy workforce makes for a healthy economy and can drive growth throughout our Commonwealth.
The veto session concluded after about four hours of discussion and produced no real surprises. None of the Governor’s ten vetoes were overridden and most of his amendments were adopted. A few of the highlights are below:
- Senate Bill 106 and House Bill 1598 as passed out of the General Assembly were weak attempts at redistricting reform. The legislation merely incorporated some of the criteria from prior bills but excluded the criteria that could be most beneficial to reforming our process. Essentially they locked in place the existing process. The Governor offered amendments to make this truly a reform bill. Predictably, the Republican majority in the House and Senate defeated those amendments.
- SB 378 and HB 665 sought to revive the coal tax credit. The Governor amended the bills to include reenactment clauses, thus requiring the 2019 General Assembly to pass the legislation again in order for the provisions to become law. The legislature rejected the Governor’s amendments, so the bills will go back to him for reconsideration. I expect he may veto the bills, as Governor McAuliffe did in the past.
- The Governor amended a number of bills relating to wireless infrastructure. SB 405 and HB 1258 established parameters for zoning approvals of wireless towers in order to provide consistency across jurisdictions. SB 823 and HB 1427 set a cap on public right-of-way use fees for wireless companies. The governor made amendments to improve the bills and grant more flexibility to local governments. Those amendments passed.
- SB 669, the legislation I introduced to ensure a minor who has been subject to a temporary detention order cannot possess a firearm, was amended to take effect immediately. The amendment was approved both houses.
- While we are having a major discussion about healthcare, the Governor amended a number of bills (SB 844, SB 934, SB 935, and SB 964) that sought to expand options available to Virginias in terms of short-term, catastrophic, and association plans. It was unclear if Virginia could get waivers for them to take effect this year and some were not allowable under federal law. Therefore the Governor wanted to study the ideas and figure out how to implement them effective if actively. The amendments were all rejected.
- SB 856 and HB 1539 were designed to come up with the state’s share of improvements for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. You may recall that I discussed this in a newsletter last month pointing out that Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia had to come up with money totaling a $500 million investment in the Metro. During the session the bill was amended in the House of Delegates to take the money from other Northern Virginia transportation projects. The Governor’s amendments basically raise the grantors tax and the transient occupancy tax in Northern Virginia to provide new funding for the Metro. Those amendments were rejected, so the bill goes back to the governor. The legislation is important to the entire Commonwealth. If money raised locally for Northern Virginia transportation projects is diverted to the Metro, those projects will then compete with projects throughout Virginia for state funding. Because of the significant congestion issues in Northern Virginia, those projects will likely rate higher in terms of necessity and move to the front of the line potentially causing delays in improvements in other areas of the Commonwealth. These amendments were necessary to protect transportation funding for all of Virginia.
In general, I supported the Governor’s amendments as did a majority of my colleagues on both sides of the aisles.
During one of the recesses on Wednesday, the House and Senate Privileges and Elections Committees met to discuss the explanations for the two constitutional amendment questions on the ballot this fall. Often these questions are confusing and we tried to make the language of the explanation as understandable as possible. One amendment (SJ 21) will allow localities to grant partial tax exemptions to citizens for flood-prone properties that have been improved in order to abate or mitigate flooding. The second amendment (SJ 76) will permit the surviving spouse of a 100% disabled veterans to retain the real estate tax exemption on his or her primary residence even if the spouse moves.
The special session continues until we finalize a budget. I will be bouncing back-and-forth between Bath County, Charlottesville and Richmond for the foreseeable future. If I can be of service to you or answer any questions, please feel free to contact my office in Charlottesville at 434-296-5491, in Bath at 540-839-2473 or by email at [email protected]. It remains my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia.
The 10th of November saw a reconvening of the Virginia General Assembly during what seems to be a never ending session. Not since 2001 has the General Assembly been in session this long. While these extended sessions do not often occur, I fear the Jeffersonian ideal of a part-time citizen legislature is in jeopardy.
A part-time citizen legislature requires that people gather for short periods of time every year to consider changes to the law. Those people have to earn their principal living outside of government service and have to live among the people they represent. The idea is that citizen legislators remain closer to the people, and thus their work is more likely to reflect the needs of the community they represent.
Legislators are drawn to Richmond for a few months every winter, away from their families and jobs, to engage in lawmaking. It is always a challenge to find the right balance between all of one’s responsibilities. The system works because the Constitution of Virginia defines the legislative session as being no longer than 60 days in even-numbered years and 30 days in odd-numbered years unless there is an extension agreed to by a super majority or unless the Governor or a super majority of the legislature calls a special session.
Special sessions are called periodically to deal with very specific issues. In 1994, parole was abolished. In 1998, we adopted the plan to repeal the car tax. In 2004, we took up taxes. This year the special session was called because we failed to adopt a budget during our regular session, in large part because of disagreement over Medicaid expansion. In addition, certain judicial vacancies needed to be filled. Historically, special sessions are not protracted.
After gaining the majority in 1999 for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican majority cut the Democratic minority to smithereens in the redistricting process in 2001. Litigation ensued and the Republicans kept the General Assembly in special session all year in order to avoid subpoena or deposition in the litigation.
This year, former Senator Phil Puckett’s abrupt resignation from the Senate in June gave the Republicans absolute control of both houses of the General Assembly and hastened the death of Medicaid expansion. It also helped resolve the judicial vacancy issue because appointments to the bench are a prerogative of the majority party. Since the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, appointments would not be bogged down by partisan disputes and should have made for a quick judicial selection process. But it has not been that easy.
A number of judicial vacancies were filled this past summer and a few more this past week. However, the majority party has not found consensus on the appellate court vacancies. There will be a vacancy on the Virginia Supreme Court at the end of the year, and there will be at least two vacancies on the Court of Appeals.
The General Assembly could just call it quits, end the Special Session and reach agreement when we convene in 2015. Legislators would have some normalcy for the remainder of the year and not have to worry about being called to Richmond again before January 14th. However that would also give the Governor certain prerogatives with respect to filling judicial vacancies. Continuing the Special Session not only serves to allow the majority party to resolve its disagreements about filling the vacancies, it serves as a check on gubernatorial power. In that respect, keeping the legislature in a Special Session this year – all year – is unprecedented and undermines the natural checks and balances built into our system of government by the Constitution.
Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the notion of filling judicial vacancies on the basis of merit, a suggestion that has been made over the years by both Democrats and Republicans. I remember such ideas coming from Andy Guest, a Republican delegate from Warren County, and Whitt Clement, a Democratic delegate from Danville. I have sponsored legislation in the past as well because the administration of justice is one of the most important functions of government, and too important to be left to the partisan politics of the day.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact my legislative office: P.O. Box 5462, Charlottesville, Virginia 22905, (434) 296-5491, or via email at [email protected] . The General Assembly will convene for the 2015 Session on January 14. Legislation is already being introduced and can be tracked here. If you have ideas or concerns that you think need to be addressed during this session, please let me know as soon as possible.
On the evening of the 23rd of June 2014, the General Assembly went back into session to consider Governor McAuliffe’s vetoes to the budget. You will recall from my last missive that I suggested that the Governor could use his constitutional power to line item veto certain articles in the budget, specifically the punitive language that was inserted by the Senate to prevent an executive expansion of Medicaid, and sign the rest of the budget.
The Governor went a little further than I suggested and line item vetoed other matters as well, including the appropriation for the new Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Commission, a potential forced partnership between Chesterfield County and Petersburg City schools, and an appropriation that would prevent the Governor from filling vacant judgeships.
The Governor’s ability to line item veto the budget is limited by the Constitution of Virginia. In general, as I explained before, the Governor can sign legislation or veto legislation. With respect to the budget, he can line item veto certain portions. The Constitution of Virginia, specifically Article 5, Section 6, Subparagraph D provides that “[t]he Governor shall have the power to veto any particular item or items of an appropriation bill, but the veto shall not affect the item or items to which he does not object. The item or items objected to shall not take effect except in the manner provided in this section for a bill vetoed by the Governor.”
In the few cases that have been argued about the Governor’s veto, the courts have ruled that the Governor must veto an entire appropriation. He is not entitled to cherry pick language out of a specific item within the appropriation bill or budget.
Republican legislators were aware of the limitations and attempted to interweave the anti-Medicaid expansion language in such a way that the Governor could not strike it from the bill without striking the entire Medicaid program. The Governor vetoed the amendment by striking the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) language from the budget. The MIRC was created as a compromise last year to establish a commission to reform our Medicaid program and provide a pathway to expansion once the reforms had been achieved. The MIRC has already fulfilled its responsibility to reform our Medicaid program, yet the commission members have not expanded Medicaid, so the continuation of the MIRC seems totally inappropriate and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The Speaker of the House of Delegates ruled that the veto went beyond the scope of the Governor’s Constitutional authority and was not properly before the House for consideration. The Speaker claims his precedent from a ruling that former Speaker Tom Moss made in the 1990s. While I was in the House of Delegates during the 1990s while Tom Moss was the Speaker, I do not recall the specific ruling he made.
In spite of the specific language in the Constitution that an item does not become law if it vetoed by the Governor, unless that veto is overturned by a two-thirds majority of both houses, the Speaker’s ruling prevented a vote on the veto. He made a similar ruling with respect to the Governor’s ability to limit judicial appointments.
Now, instead of this matter being resolved by the democratically elected representative of the people, the legislature, the Governor will have to decide whether to pursue this issue in the courts.
The Special Session continues as the Governor’s appointments have been tied up by the newly Republican-controlled Senate, and the judgeships which are vacant still have to be filled. I would anticipate that the General Assembly will go back into session within the next two to three weeks to resolve these issues.
The Republicans used the new majority status to reorganize the committees. I lost the committee assignments – Finance and Rules – that I had gained earlier in the winter as well as my chairmanship. While it is true that most committees will not meet until next January, the move gives Republicans the ability to send their members to any interim committee meetings. The Finance Committee takes no action when we are out of session, but the Committee meets periodically to get information about the budget and the revenue situation. I expect the Rules Committee will also convene to reorganize the membership on study committees.
All of this action could change again depending on the results of the interesting contest underway in the 38th Senatorial District in southwest Virginia to fill the seat of former Senator Phillip Puckett. A Delegate from Russell County and a member of the Tobacco Commission, Ben Chafin, is the Republican nominee. The Democratic nominee is Mike Hymes. Mike is on the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors and works in human resources for a coal company. The special election is set for the 19th of August, and I anticipate that the race will be expensive, fast and furious.
It continues to be my pleasure to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of assistance or answer any questions, please contact me at 434-296-5491 or [email protected].