We are winding up the 2018 Session of the Virginia General Assembly. This is crunch time. As I’ve told people for years, this is the most dangerous part of the session. Amendments to bills are made on the fly and passed between the House and Senate. Weary legislators often miss the meaning of amendments and votes are miscast. Mistakes are made.
The Constitution of Virginia requires that the House and Senate pass legislation in the exact same form in order for the bill to go on to the Governor and become law. Disagreements between the House and Senate have to be resolved through a conference committee process. The House and Senate each appoint a few members to try to resolve differences in the legislation. If they can reach a resolution, the conference reports then go back to both chambers for approval. If the compromise passes both the House and the Senate, the bill then goes on to the Governor. The Governor then has the opportunity to sign into law, amend or veto the legislation. If a bill passes both chambers and is communicated to the Governor more than seven days before the end of session, the Governor must act on the bill before the legislature adjourns. The remaining bills must be acted on by the Governor within 30 days of adjournment.
At least two bills that I introduced this year will be subject to gubernatorial amendment. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a project that if built will go through several counties – Bath, Highland, and Nelson – in the 25th District. Senate Bills 698 and 699 were designed to give the Department of Environmental Quality the ability to issue a stop work order if the construction of the pipeline will have adverse effects on water quality. As introduced, the bills included an emergency clause. While most bills are effective July 1, a bill with an emergency clause takes effect as soon as the Governor signs the legislation. I removed the clauses earlier in the process when it became clear some of my colleagues opposed the bill. While the pipeline projects are not popular in the 25th District, they are popular in other parts of the state. Bills with emergency clauses require an 80 percent majority. I wasn’t convinced we would meet that threshold and didn’t want the bills to fail. Without the emergency clause, the bills passed both the House and Senate. I expect the Governor will send down amendments to reinstitute the emergency clause so the law can take effect immediately. Gubernatorial amendments only require a simple majority to pass. It isn’t sufficient to have to wait until July 1 when some work may have already begun.
The biggest issue in conference is the budget. In the old days, the budget conferees would meet secretly and hash out their differences. Deals would be cut and a budget produced with little information about how it all came together. In the years since I’ve been here, the process has become much more transparent. It is clear the budget conferees this year are at an impasse.
The primary issue in dispute is Medicaid expansion. While the two year budget is about $116 billion in size, Medicaid expansion contributes to a nearly $831 million difference between the House and Senate versions of the budget. As you will recall, the House adopted a version of Medicaid expansion that includes a work requirement. The Senate continues to resist expansion. Because Medicaid expansion would provide insurance coverage to upwards of 300,000 Virginians, thousands of whom struggle with serious mental illness, I’m hopeful my colleagues in the Senate will accept the approach put forward by the House.
What I anticipate happening is that the Governor will call a special session upon adjournment of the regular session. The special session will be for the sole purpose of reaching budget agreement. The process is not without precedent. As recently as 2014, a special session was required for the budget. If a special session is called, it is imperative that agreement on the budget be reached as soon as possible.
It continues to be an incredible honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of service to you, please contact me at [email protected]. The special session would not require me to be in Richmond every day, so I expect to be home in Bath County next week. My office in Charlottesville can be reached at 434-296-5491 and in Hot Springs at 540-839-2473.