We are nearing the completion of the first full week of the 2018 Session of the Virginia General Assembly. Last weekend we enjoyed some pageantry as Ralph Northam was inaugurated as the 73rd Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Monday, he gave his initial address to the legislature. The inaugural and his speech this week were similar but had different receptions.
First, the inaugural address was a broad statement of Governor Northam’s vision for the Commonwealth. It included a glimpse into the Governor’s soul and a sense of what makes him the right person, at the right time, for all the right reasons to be the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Governor is a native Virginian and grew up in a rural community on the Eastern Shore. Those values shone through in his speech, which was very well received on a cold day in the capital city. Certainly there have been colder inaugurations and ones with worse weather. I remember Governor George Allen’s inauguration when there was nearly a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature was 13 degrees. Governor Kaine’s swearing in was held in Williamsburg and, like Governor McAuliffe’s, was accompanied by rain. This year, the rain subsided before the ceremony began.
On the following Monday, Governor Northam spoke before a Joint Assembly of the legislature. His speech ruffled the feathers of some of my Republican colleagues, primarily because it focused on the themes on which the Governor campaigned. Candidly, he did not take a different position and that disappointed some of my colleagues. People are so cynical about politics and politicians that it is surprising to some, and frankly refreshing, when a person does what he says he will do. The Governor laid out his priorities and made clear to the electorate that his focus will remain on the policies he spoke of during the campaign.
This week was not without controversy. Early in the week, Senator Bill Stanley presented a bill to the full Senate to extend the expired license of a closed hospital in Patrick County. Because the bill had an emergency clause, it required 32 votes to pass in the Senate. The bill only garnered 30 votes. Generally, I will support the expansion of healthcare anywhere I can, but I voted no on this legislation.
Senator Dick Saslaw asked Sen. Stanley to delay the vote on the bill for one day to allow for legislators to learn more about the hospital and have conversations with Sen. Stanley about healthcare. Although it is tradition in the Senate to extend that courtesy, Sen. Stanley refused. This is my twenty-seventh session. In that time, I do not recall a member ever refusing to let a bill go by for the day at a time when we are not facing looming deadlines.
Many people connected the failure of this bill to Medicaid expansion. A recent poll showed that 83 percent of Virginians support the expansion of Medicaid. Indeed, there are about 8,500 people in the district I am honored to represent who would be eligible for Medicaid should it be expanded. There are 19,000 people in Senator Stanley’s district who would be eligible. One can make the argument that the expansion of Medicaid would have more of a direct impact on the health of any district than that of a critical access, 25-bed hospital that had a daily population of eight or nine. And one can make an argument that there is no guarantee the hospital will reopen even if such a bill passes. In any event, I am convinced that the underlying policy will be enacted in one form or another to help the people of Patrick County and remove any barriers to finding a buyer to reopen the hospital.
The Courts of Justice Committee met for the first time on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The day coincides with gun lobby day, and the docket was full of bills seeking to amend our gun laws. Many bills were defeated, including some I introduced in response to the horrifying events that occurred in Charlottesville this past summer. Bills that would have provided Charlottesville and Albemarle County more authority to limit firearms at public events, SB 665 and SB 668, were defeated. Delegate Toscano sponsored similar bills in the House of Delegates that have yet to be heard.
One of the other problems during those tragic events was the confusion brought about by the armed paramilitary groups who descended upon the City. During an already chaotic scene, most people were confused about who was there in an official capacity to keep the peace, who was attending the rally, and what role all of the groups played. I have introduced legislation to try and prevent the impersonation of an active duty service member. I tried to approach this policy change via two different bills. One bill passed through the Courts of Justice Committee and is now awaiting action in the Senate Finance Committee due to the potential fiscal impact of the bill. The other bill is pending in the Local Government Committee.
Another bill that has arisen this session directly addresses the City of Lexington and an ordinance passed last year relating to short-term rentals, or AirBNB. Some groups believe the ordinance exceeds the authority given to local governments last year. I am trying to bring all of the parties together to clarify the objections and see if there is a possible resolution to the controversy.
All of the committees are in full swing as we adjust to the new building. Because the Pocahontas Building is smaller than the former General Assembly Building, we are also holding committee meetings in the Capitol. During the session, legislators often have to be in multiple meetings at the same time. In the past, it was easy for me to just slip across the hall to another meeting for a vote or to present a bill. Now, I have to go from one building to another, which requires much more time and preparation. It also gives me less flexibility when I have to leave a proxy and limits my ability to look for amendments or ways to solve problems. I am certain that the process will get easier as it goes along, but I look forward to the day that the General Assembly committee meetings can be held in one building. One positive outcome, however, is that the meetings are now televised and more accessible to people who are unable to travel down to Richmond to view the legislative process in person.
As always, it remains a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can ever be of service, answer questions, or help you visit during the 2018 Session of the General Assembly, please contact me at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected].