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.
With this work, I hoped to put to rest the budget for 2018. After all, local governments rely on state funding. A sizable chunk of the state budget goes directly to local governments or funds local programs. Localities are required to have their budgets completed by May 15. Our failure to finalize a budget puts every local government in a lurch. In addition, agencies and individuals, organizations and businesses that contract with the state do not have a clue about what the new budget will bring. The responsible thing to do is to adopt a budget. So, we arrived in Richmond on Tuesday to work.
Senator Hanger and at least one other member of the Republican caucus, which controls 21 out of 40 seats in the state Senate, are ready to vote for a budget that includes Medicaid expansion. Because the Republicans control the majority, they control the agenda. For over 11 weeks, since the regular session ended, the people of the Commonwealth have seen nothing accomplished but delay, after delay, after delay.
The budget proposed by Senator Hanger was presented to us the day before we were to vote this week. The plan not only expands access to healthcare for more than 300,000 Virginians, but it also funds many high priority items for mental health. The package includes funding to accelerate the implementation of STEP-VA by phasing in new requirements for outpatient services, expand CIT training programs and jail diversion efforts, as well as adopt a regional approach to alternative transportation for those subject to a temporary detention order. Frankly this budget could be transformative for healthcare and specifically for behavioral health in Virginia.
The budget includes so many more priority items, including pay raises in the second year of the biennium for public employees, funding for critical judgeships, including positions in the Circuit Court in Charlottesville and the General District Court in the Alleghany Highlands, and additional money for brain injury services. Beyond those high dollar items, the proposal funds the Beehive Grant Program and studies to review the composition of biosolids and the health impacts of its use. The budget accomplishes these goals while also doubling our cash reserves. While no plan is perfect, there’s very little not to like about the proposal.
But some disagree. In the abbreviated session on Tuesday, many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle expressed their opinions during points of personal privilege. Frankly there is plenty of room for intellectual differences. That’s what makes the world go round. This process is about compromise; it’s about resolving differences to serve the majority of the people. We work to put aside our partisan differences and get things done. Instead of a rigorous policy discussion and real legislative work, Tuesday’s session only brought hyperbole and rancor.
One member stated he would be back in 2019 and 2020 to “kick your ass.” The use of that language is beneath the dignity of the state Senate. I’m not a prude and certainly use worse language daily, but in a debate and public discussion we must remember the example we are called on to set.
Other members voiced their concern that government spending simply doesn’t work for people. We heard that Medicaid, a federal-state partnership for more than 50 years, has been a failure and is hurting Virginians. If Medicaid is a failure and fundamentally broken, where are the bills to eliminate the program? Those who talk about the failures of Medicaid have failed year after year to introduce legislation to repeal Virginia’s involvement in the Medicaid program. The reason is because our Medicaid program works, and our healthcare system is dependent on the program.
We heard about how public spending should be to pay for infrastructure. While I couldn’t agree more about the need to invest in infrastructure, it needs to be statewide. We all need to have skin in the game. We can’t simply transfer wealth from one part of the state to another. And I would suggest that maintaining a healthy workforce and ensuring our most vulnerable citizens may live in dignity is important to attracting companies and economic development.
My personal approach to floor speech is that I speak when I think I have an opportunity to persuade or educate. Otherwise I save my thunder until I get home. It’s more important that I communicate with the people I represent. I need to let people know what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, and why I do what I do.
The Senate returns on May 29th, and we are scheduled to have a budget vote by the 30th. I wish I could say that I believe that was going to happen but frankly, I don’t have much faith in the leadership of the Senate at this point. Nonetheless, I will remain optimistic that we finish the budget post haste without wasting more time.
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.