The 2018 Session of the General Assembly is history. It will be noted for a new governor, success and failures, including our inability once again to agree on a biennial budget.
At the beginning of the session, we said goodbye to Governor Terry McAuliffe and hello to Governor Ralph Northam. Gov. Northam is the first native Virginian to hold the office of governor since Jim Gilmore was elected in 1997. The General Assembly, which is about 50% native Virginian, is truly reflective of the makeup of our population, as only about half of those who live in Virginia are native born. Virginia is to a large extent a product of our transitional society of the 21st Century.
Ralph Northam is a decent man. He brings a lifetime of experience that includes growing up on the rural Eastern Shore, being a Keydet at VMI, treating wounded Gulf War soldiers, caring for the sickest of children as a pediatric neurologist, and serving in the Senate of Virginia. I think that by manner, intellect and experience he is well equipped to be our governor.
The Governor has called the General Assembly into a special session on April 11, 2018 because the legislature failed at its most important task, adopting a new two year spending plan. The Special Session will be limited to consideration of the biennial budget. During the Special Session, you can expect legislators to be called to Richmond from time to time rather than meeting every day. The Special Session will allow the budget conferees the opportunity to formally discuss the budget and work toward reaching a compromise. While the new budget will not take effect until July 1, it is critical that we finalize the budget as soon as possible. Local boards of supervisors, city and town councils and school boards must complete their budgeting process by the middle of May. A significant portion of the state budget is transmitted back to localities, so trying to develop a local budget without firm numbers from the state is difficult. The earlier we get the budget done in Richmond, the more smoothly those local governments can complete their work. The later this process drags on, the more uncertainty is introduced into the local budgeting process.
The biennial budget, which includes both general and non-general funds, is about $115 billion. The general fund has been relatively stagnant for a number of years, but non-general funds, including federal Medicaid expansion dollars built into the budget by former Gov. McAuliffe and reaffirmed by Gov. Northam, have continued to swell Virginia’s budget. The biggest area of contention is Medicaid expansion.
The House adopted Medicaid expansion, along with a work requirement for those to whom it would apply, and the Senate did not. Medicaid expansion allows us to draw down more federal dollars and frees up general fund dollars. The resulting chasm between the House and Senate budget proposals is about $841 million. Medicaid expansion would pump about $2 billion a year into Virginia’s economy, providing health care for upwards of 300,000 working Virginians and an offset to Medicare reimbursement cuts to hospitals. Because so many additional people will have access to healthcare, Medicaid expansion is expected to spur new opportunities and growth in the healthcare fields, including new physicians and nurses and stability for struggling rural hospitals.
Also at stake in the budget process, and not to be forgotten, is funding for public education, which has never quite caught up to the 2009 level, planned raises for state employees and teachers, need-based financial aid for higher education, and conservation funding.
While the primary focus of the recently concluded General Assembly session and the sole focus of the coming Special Session is the budget, many other issues were considered. Some of the notable ones include the following:
For more than a decade, I have advocated for redistricting reform. The legislation I introduced envisioned a bipartisan commission modeled after those in other states, although I have supported other approaches including a nonpartisan commission. In recent years, the Senate has passed some form of redistricting reform only to see the legislation die in the House. Given the elections this past fall, we had an opportunity this year for real reform. The House and Senate passed legislation this session to set criteria for drawing legislative districts. The Constitution of Virginia already requires districts to be compact, contiguous, and comprised of roughly the same amount of people. The legislation that passed did not create a nonpartisan commission to draw the lines. Nor did the legislation address incumbency protection or other political considerations. This bill just picks and chooses criteria that maintain the status quo. It gives the illusion of progress, but it is simply an illusion. For that reason, I voted against the legislation.
Although I do not represent a district in proximity to Northern Virginia, the reliability and safety issues plaguing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) are a significant problem with statewide repercussions. The subway system that serves the DC area is enormously important for the economy of Northern Virginia, which pays a lot of tax dollars that find their way to our part of the state. It is in everybody’s interest to promote economic growth in all parts of the Commonwealth. Legislation was agreed to during the final days of session to fund Virginia’s share of a half billion dollar investment in the infrastructure of the Metro system. The plan, however, takes money from other Northern Virginia transportation projects. Given the complexity of the bill, I expect the Governor may offer some amendments in the coming weeks.
One of the big issues in the area I represent is the limited access to high speed internet in many parts of the district. In today’s economy, broadband is almost as critical as electricity to one’s ability to participate effectively in the 21st Century economy. Likewise, schoolchildren who have limited connectivity are at a disadvantage due to the increased use of online educational resources. The General Assembly passed legislation to allow telecommunication companies to install towers and poles in rural areas and limit the amount that they can be charged for that activity. I voted against the legislation because while it is limits the ability of localities to control decisions over the placement of towers and poles, it does not guarantee better service in the rural parts of the state. In fact, the companies admitted that was not their purpose. Many of them want to be able to use rural areas as a conduit from one metropolitan area to another but do not necessarily want to provide service to those conduit areas.
As I discussed in earlier newsletters, in 2015 the General Assembly passed legislation, which I opposed, limiting the ability of the State Corporation Commission to set rates and allowing the company to keep excess earnings rather than issuing refunds to consumers. This year, Dominion pushed for legislation to allow the company to base its future rates off of these artificially high rates that have been in place since 2015 while only refunding a portion of the money overcharged to consumers over the past several years. While the bill improved during the legislative process, I still voted no. The final bill allows Dominion to keep some of their excess profits and changes the SCC review from a biennial one to one that occurs every three years, but it returns about $200 million to the consumers, reinforces a commitment to renewable sources of energy and promotes energy efficiency projects, and does not include the offensive double dip language that was in the introduced bill. The governor has already signed this legislation.
School Suspension Bills
Last year, we considered a number of bills to address the school to prison pipeline. The legislation sought to limit the school’s ability to suspend children from school. I voted against those bills because I thought they inhibited the local school board’s ability to run their school system while in no way providing additional supports and services to make certain the child could succeed in the classroom. This year the bills were amended to require a finding that no other remedy is available before a suspension longer than 45 days could be administered to an older child or before any lengthy suspension of a very young child. I felt this did not create an undue burden and supported the bills, which are awaiting action by the Governor.
The primary focus of my mental health reform work this year related to budget issues. However, I successfully sponsored a bill to require the reporting of involuntary commitments of juveniles to the National Crime Information Center for the purposes of background checks and to require additional mental health training for our firefighters. While I expect both of those measures will help, the biggest impact this year is tied directly to Medicaid expansion. If we expand Medicaid, we can extend care to somewhere between 60,000-75,000 people who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Medicaid expansion would also free up money that would allow us to address the bed shortage, increase discharge planning services for inmates with mental illness, expand supportive housing, and many other things.
The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century will focus this year on the structure of our mental health system. What should our system look like? How do we complete the implementation of STEP-VA to revitalize our community services? Is our system of public hospitals rightsized, or do we need to adjust the amount or type of beds available? What changes do we need to improve upon accountability, consistency, and effectiveness? The questions are challenging, but I am hopeful we can develop a plan by the end of this year to consider during the 2019 Session. If you have a specific interest in the Joint Subcommittee and wish to follow our work, you can sign up here.
The General Assembly will convene on April 11 for the Special Session. I expect we will only be in Richmond for one day and subsequently be called back periodically as the budget negotiations continue. We will reconvene to consider amendments and vetoes of the Governor on Wednesday, April 18. Stay tuned.
As always, you can reach me at [email protected] or at (434) 296-5491 in Charlottesville or (540) 839-2473 in Hot Springs.