The 2013 Session of the General Assembly of Virginia is now complete, and conventional wisdom has been turned on its ear. Typically, in a state election year the legislature avoids major initiatives. Delegates and senators, who are on the ballot in odd numbered years (delegates every two years, senators every four) are leery of doing anything, including raising taxes, that will arouse strong feelings in an election year. The 2013 Session broke this trend. Two substantial accomplishments occurred, and the appreciation or blame lay with the House and the Senate, and the Governor.
Since 1986, no major initiative regarding transportation funding has passed. Instead the issue has been booted down the road like a can to future General Assemblies. Funding has dwindled to the point that the formulas which benefit rural counties are beneficial to no one anymore. State funding for secondary roads is insignificant. Projects linger because of insufficient funds. The most prosperous regions of the state have been crippled in traffic jams. Frankly, over the past ten or fifteen years, as the crisis has developed, both Democrats and Republicans have done a lot of talking about this issue but little of substance has been accomplished. Coming into this session, there was little reason to believe that the norm would change, but it did.
Right before the session, the Governor announced a transportation funding plan. As I have discussed for the past several weeks, the plan had merit and demerit. It raised some money for transportation, and moved a lot of shells around to make it appear revenue neutral. I was not overly critical of plan because I understood that it signaled that the Governor abandoned the approach he took in his campaign of funding transportation projects through gimmickry.
The House and the Senate took different approaches with the bill and ultimately produced a compromise that is too complicated, further balkanizes our transportation system by allowing Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise their own money separate and apart from the Commonwealth’s funds, creates different levels of taxation for different fuels, penalizes owners of hybrid vehicles, and raises the sales tax, both in general and on the sale of automobiles. My friend Chap Petersen pointed out all of these deficiencies in explaining to the Senate why he would not vote for the bill. I agreed with everything Chap said, but I came to a different conclusion.
The final compromise ultimately will generate $880 million a year for state transportation projects. It will also generate between $300-$350 million for Northern Virginia and another $175-$200 million for Hampton Roads. While I agreed with everything Sen. Petersen said, I understand that legislating is about compromise. I knew the bill was imperfect, but instead of the flaws, I was captured by the possibilities. New funding will allow projects like the completion of the four-laning between Eagle Rock and Clifton Forge to finally have a chance. It will allow safety improvements to be made in the I-81 and US 29 corridors. It will replenish secondary road funding budgets at the local level.
And importantly, the legislation establishes for the first time a fixed source of revenue for rail and transit. The passenger rail service between Charlottesville and D.C. will remain viable. We are the first state in the nation to have a fixed source of state funding for rail and transit. This is a major accomplishment.
Because there were insufficient Republican votes in either the House or the Senate to pass the bill, the Governor and the Speaker needed Democratic support. The other major accomplishment of the session was that the Medicaid reform process began. This will ultimately provide health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians. Senate Democrats held out on the transportation bill until we received the approval of the Governor for a proposal to reform and expand Medicaid. The agreements were nearly foiled by an opinion from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
The budget conferees established a 12 member commission to approve expansion after the reforms had been implemented to ensure accountability, integrity and a focus on prevention. The plan will have built-in, reasonable limitations on non-essential benefits and includes provisions for patient responsibility to include reasonable cost sharing and active engagement in health and wellness activities to improve health and control costs. Finally, the plan stipulates Virginia can withdraw from Medicaid expansion in the event that federal funding drops below 90 percent of its costs. The language of the conference report initially gave the commission discretion to approve expansion after those reforms have been agreed to by the federal government. The Attorney General opined that that language provided for an unconstitutional delegation of authority from the General Assembly to a subset of the General Assembly. While lawyers can disagree about the constitutionality of the language, we sought at once to address any potential problems. The language was modified to require the commission to expand Medicaid once the reforms are in place. The Governor’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources is confident that the reforms will be agreed to by the federal government.
The bottom line is that conventional wisdom was foiled this session. The 2013 Session of the General Assembly accomplished two long-term goals for which I have advocated for years. We expanded health care services to the working poor. Improving access to health care will improve the workforce and, in doing so, improve Virginia’s economy. And we established a sustainable stream of revenue for transportation for at least ten years. The funding will allow us to make necessary repairs to our bridges and culverts, over 45 percent of which are structurally deficient or at risk of becoming so. It will allow us to move forward on projects that have been promised and not built for years. And, the compromise will allow us to unclog the traffic jams in metropolitan areas and to move more people through rail and transit.
The 2013 Session of the General Assembly was busy in other areas as well:
- Bills were passed to require photo ID at the ballot box. Just last year we required for the first time, that IDs be produced before voting. This process worked well in large part because the Governor ordered that new voter registration cards be sent out shortly before the election. There was no need for this change in my view and I voted against it. It still has to survive the scrutiny of the Governor and the Justice Department.
- State employees got pay increases, some for the first time in six years. In addition to a two percent increase effective July 25 of this year, employees with five or more continuous years of service will receive an additional $65 per year of service up to 30 years. State-supported local employees will receive a three percent increase effective August 2013. Funding is also provided for a three percent raise in July for faculty at our institutions of higher learning as well as flexibility for colleges and universities to provide other performance based adjustments for non-classified staff.
- Legislation passed getting tough on texting while driving. Now an infraction will be punishable by a $250 fine for the first offense and after that by a $500 fine. If one is found guilty of reckless driving and is texting during that time, they will have a $500 minimum fine.
- A bill passed to require titling and registration of mopeds.
- Bills were passed putting a single line into the Code of Virginia establishing that parents have a fundamental right to bring up their children as they see fit. I voted against this legislation, not because I do not believe it is correct, but I believe it is correct precisely. Unnecessary language placed in the Code can only have as its purpose mischief.
The General Assembly passed 1527 bills and resolutions out of the 2574 introduced. If you would like additional information about specific bills, feel free to contact me or go to https://lis.virginia.gov/lis.htm. It is my high honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. I am back at work at my regular job, practicing law. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 3 to consider the Governor’s amendments and vetoes of legislation, and also to elect judges. If you need to contact me prior to that time, feel free to call my Charlottesville office at (434) 296- 5491, my Hot Springs office at (800) 545-5899 or email me at [email protected].