There are only two weeks remaining in the 2018 Session of the General Assembly. The remaining time will be spent, like the past week, on the budget. On Thursday of this week, the House and Senate passed versions of the budget. The next two weeks will be dominated by reconciling the differences between the two proposals. While there is much common ground between the two budgets, there is about a $621 million gap between the two largely due to the House’s adoption of Medicaid expansion.
The House did not adopt straight up expansion and instead passed a proposal similar to Kentucky’s approach. As I referenced earlier this session, the House included a work requirement. Able-bodied recipients need to be looking for work, in school or a job training program, or working. As discussed before, about 75 percent of the people in the expansion pool either work full-time or live with someone who does. So I don’t think this requirement is overly burdensome or a deal-breaker.
Since Medicaid expansion was included in the Governor’s introduced budget, the exclusion of that policy from the Senate budget required significant cuts in other areas. While many of my priorities with respect to mental health are included in both versions of the budget, the Senate notably scaled back the STEP-Virginia program, took money out of the budget for jail death investigations, and eliminated funding for strategies for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to address capacity issues. The Senate budget also eliminated funding for pay increases for teachers, state employees, law enforcement, and made significant cuts to higher education. Principal among those is a halving of the proposed funds for need-based financial aid.
No budget is perfect. Each is a result of a compromise between the parties who are at the table. There is give and take involved, and no one can expect to get everything they want. In the past, I have typically voted for the budget understanding that it is a work in progress and that I may have more influence if I am inside the tent rather than outside. However, this budget deviated significantly from the things I believe are important – primarily in the areas of health care and education – thus I could not vote for the budget. I am hopeful the next two weeks and the conference committee will produce a better result. As I’ve indicated before, this is one move in a chess game. The next move will be made when the conference report is adopted, usually in the final hours of the Session. After that, the Governor has several weeks to offer amendments and line item vetoes in advance of the reconvened session in April. I remain hopeful we can resolve the issues of disagreement by that time.
Notable for many of my constituents, we were not able to secure funding for the state park in Highland County. That remains a goal and something we will have to continue to work on. Additional judgeships will be funded, but neither the House nor the Senate has agreed on how many judgeships to fund or where those judgeships will be. The Senate budget funded many of my mental health priorities, including discharge planning, telemental health, and training for rural law enforcement.
One issue that dominated my week relates to hospital capacity. Last year we learned that when state mental health hospitals are over 85 percent capacity, patient health and the safety of both patients and staff are at risk. State hospitals were at 92 or 93 percent last fall. The Department adopted strategies that involved using assisted living facilities to house patients. Expanding on those strategies were among some of the items cut in the Senate budget. This week the hospitals reached 97 percent capacity as of Tuesday. Both Eastern State Hospital and Catawba were at 100 percent, and some other facilities only had one or two available beds. Scurrying between meetings with the Governor, members of his staff, and various hospital organizations, I worked to try and find a safety valve. While we are developing long-term and short-term solutions, the Senate budget action was particularly disappointing.
The following bills of local interest will see final action in the next week. Legislation to allow:
- the Highland County Board of Supervisors to assess an emergency services fee,
- Bath County to levy an additional five percent transient occupancy tax at the Homestead, and
- all localities to appoint members of the governing body to sit on the visitor bureaus.
Three of the bills I introduced passed the House this week and will now go to the Governor for his consideration. Those bills are:
- Senate Bill 679 that allows Albemarle County to regulate parking on secondary highways,
- Senate Bill 682 that ensures afterschool programs are not captured under day care facilities regulations, and
- Senate Bill 887 to allow minors to engage in some non-hazardous programs with our local fire departments. You can review all of the legislation I introduced here.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Thank you for giving me that opportunity. If we may be of service during these final two weeks of session, please let us know by calling us at (804) 698-7525 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.