The old saying “the days go slow, but the years go fast” reminds us that time passes relatively quickly. My belief is that we have to live with urgency because life is short and we only get so many days in which to make a difference. With legislative sessions, the days are long and full, but it is hard to believe we are already over two and a half weeks into the 2018 Session. Committee meetings occupy most of the mornings and afternoons, and the daily floor sessions are getting longer.
Medicaid expansion remains one of the priority issues this legislative session. In my newsletters in the past, I have outlined many of the benefits and potential concerns about expanding Medicaid. The bottom line is that Medicaid expansion would provide coverage to nearly 400,000 Virginians, seventy-five percent of whom work full-time or live with someone who does. The population we are discussing is the working poor: people who cannot get insurance through their employer and do not make enough to afford private insurance. Virginians are paying for Medicaid expansion through increased taxes contained in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). We are just not receiving the benefits of those taxes, which were not repealed during the first year of the new federal administration. In terms of cost, the federal government pays no less than 90 percent of expansion. In fact they paid 100 percent during the first few years. We lost out on that opportunity. Now it is down to 92.5 percent. We are spending state revenues because of our decision not to expand, so expansion would add nearly $130 million to Virginia’s budget. Expansion would allow us to ease the pain of many rural hospitals struggling to deal with federal cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates. The money we save and the increased access to services would allow us to fulfill much of our vision to improve our mental health system. Medicaid expansion is critically important to me, and I will continue to beat the drum.
After the election last fall and the arrival of 15 new Democrats in the House of Delegates, there was some sense that talk around Medicaid expansion would bloom into action. After all, a recent poll shows that 83 percent of Virginians favor expansion. In fact, I believe there is real discussion about the issue in the House of Delegates. This week saw the defeat of bills seeking to expand Medicaid on a party-line vote in the Senate. I remain hopeful that before the veto session in April we can find a way forward either through an initiative in the House of Delegates or the budgeting process. There are lives in the balance, people who desperately need the care.
A Trio of Transportation Bills
This session rolls forward on other issues. A trio of transportation related bills came to a head this week. Senator David Suetterlein from Roanoke County has for the past two years introduced bills to redefine reckless driving by speed. Under current law, reckless driving occurs when one travels more than 20 miles over the speed limit or in excess of 80 miles per hour. Sen. Suetterlein’s bill would raise the limit from 80 to 85. Because speed limits over 60 are primarily on our interstates and other four-lane highways, the bill would have limited effect. I voted no, just like I did last year. My concern is twofold. First, I think it sends a dangerous signal to young drivers that it is okay to travel more than 80 mph. I think it is important to retain the enhanced penalty for driving that fast. Second, I feel it isn’t responsible to ignore the carnage that has occurred on Interstate 81 over the years. Far too often one is traveling through the bucolic Shenandoah Valley only to come to a stop that may last for several hours because of a crash. Anyone who travels I-81 regularly knows it has a high volume of truck traffic, and much of that traffic goes too fast. I am not interested in changing our laws to encourage faster driving. I am interested in a way to ensure that people have safer trips, which would require more innovation than simply raising the speed limit for reckless driving. Nevertheless, the bill passed in the Senate.
The second bill was from Senator Scott Surovell of Fairfax County to allow certain immigrant workers not otherwise eligible for a driver’s license to obtain a special permit to drive on Virginia’s highways. The bill died in committee despite my support. While we have no real way to control immigration at the state level, it seems to me that we have to face reality. A significant segment of our labor force, particularly on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley, is made up of undocumented immigrants. Many of these workers are driving to and from their employment as unlicensed and uninsured drivers. If we want to improve the safety on our roads, we need to ensure that everyone who operates a motor vehicle has demonstrated knowledge of our traffic laws and has motor vehicle insurance or pays the uninsured motorist fee. Sen. Surovell’s bill would have accomplished those goals but failed on a party-line vote for the second year in a row.
A third traffic-related bill of interest was carried by Senator Bill Stanley of Franklin County. His bill would have eliminated the practice of suspending driver’s licenses merely for failure to pay court costs. Too many people who simply cannot pay their court costs go to jail every week because they are caught driving on a suspended license. Often, the license is suspended without their knowledge. Many of those who know still drive to keep their jobs and to feed their families. We are punishing people for being poor and need to focus on better ways to collect that debt besides jail. Sen. Stanley’s bill passed out of the Courts of Justice Committee and was re-referred to the Senate Finance Committee. I am hopeful that it will move forward this year.
Insurance Rates in Charlottesville – Albemarle
As I detailed a couple of weeks ago, I introduced four bills in response to the insurance market’s treatment of the Charlottesville-Albemarle region. The highest rates in the country on the federal exchange are paid by people who live there. The bills seek to start a conversation about the problem and to develop some solutions. So far, I have been visited by multiple people in the health insurance field to talk about the issues. While I am uncertain whether any of the bills will be successful, I am grateful to have generated these discussions. As I have said before, the instability in the insurance market is largely driven by the uncertainty at the federal level. Rather than focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Congress needs to focus on finding fixes.
A bill that went forward this week would allow the Bath County Board of Supervisors by ordinance to raise by five percent the transient occupancy tax (TOT) paid at The Homestead. The legislation would allow Bath County and The Homestead to raise about $1.5 million annually through the increased tax. Under the provisions of the bill, that money would have to be plowed back into The Homestead property and would be leveraged to secure private dollars to make improvements. Every dollar of the increased tax would generate three or four dollars in private investment. This would not only allow for improvements to The Homestead but for the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs. In my view, it is important that The Homestead, a major source of employment and tourism in Bath County, be stable. The bill seeks to achieve this and has received bipartisan support. Senator Emmett Hanger of Augusta County is working with me on the bill.
It continues to be a high honor for me to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. If you would like to share your views on any of the bills before us, need help with a state agency, or wish to visit during the General Assembly session, please contact me at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected].