The 2019 Session has almost reached crossover, the point at which the Senate and House can only consider legislation introduced in the other chamber. While the date falls just past the midpoint of each session, it is considered halftime. The big issues remain unresolved.
Hundreds of bills have been discussed and have met their fates. For example, the ERA does not appear that it will pass although there was talk of resurrecting the legislation in the House. Many of the Governor’s gun safety proposals were rejected in both the House and the Senate. While many more conversations remain on the transportation bills, many of the big issues seem unresolved. The budget remains in the state of flux.
The House appears to have killed the toll bills for Interstate 81. As I discussed last week, the Senate was considering multiple approaches to address the needs of the I-81 corridor. My preference was to eliminate the provisions adopted in 2013 that further balkanized our system. The Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee heard all of the bills on Wednesday. The legislation (SB 1770) failed in part because bonds have already been issued on the basis of funding generated from provisions of that 2013 plan. My bill did spark conversation, and I think advanced the need for a statewide transportation funding stream.
The subcommittee advanced Senator Obenshain’s bill (SB 1716) after a major rewrite that eliminated the provisions specifically related to tolls. The subcommittee also considered bills by Senator Edwards (SB 1470) and Senator Hanger (SB 1322) to raise the statewide gasoline tax at the rack (wholesale level). Instead of moving forward with a tax increase, the subcommittee amended the bill and directed Secretary of Transportation to identify long-term revenue streams given the dwindling ability of the gas tax to keep up with the cost of maintaining our transportation infrastructure. The bills will be voted on by the full Senate early next week.
This year, for the first time in many years, we have a large budget surplus. The surplus is the result of a good economy and some changes at the federal level with respect to taxes. As I’ve discussed previously, the federal tax law that passed in December 2017 has implications at the state level that create a windfall in our revenues. In addition, the Supreme Court of United States says that we can tax internet sales. We have an opportunity this year to address some significant needs in many areas of state government with the additional revenues. What to do with the money is generating significant debate.
The Governor proposed using a large portion of the money to fully fund the earned income tax credit, which has the benefit of giving some tax relief to taxpayers who did not enjoy any tax cuts from the federal reforms. He also proposed a five percent pay increase for public school teachers. In addition to the Governor, every legislator has a competing view of how best to allocate the funds. I sponsored budget amendments to provide more funding for state parks, to boost critical mental health services, and to provide relief to Gary Bush who spent years in prison after being wrongfully convicted. In an election year, however, the majority wants to prioritize returning a large portion of the surplus to the taxpayer. I have no objection to finding a way to use part of the surplus for a tax rebate, but the details of such a proposal are critical.
In the House of Delegates, the proposal is to set aside the majority of the $1.2 billion and call a special session in September to determine how best to provide rebates to taxpayers. Since all 140 seats are on the ballot in November, a decision later this year would provide a better opportunity for elected officials to pander to the voters. The House has committed to fund the much-deserved 5 percent pay increase for teachers. In the Senate, things are less clear.
On Wednesday, the Senate Republicans revealed a plan (SB 1372) to conform taxes, at last. However, the proposal was tied to several policy issues on which there is no agreement. Tax conformity bills must contain an emergency clause to allow the bill to take effect immediately upon the signature of the Governor. In those situations, bills must receive the vote of eighty percent of the legislature. It is unrealistic to obtain such an overwhelming majority on a divisive issue. So, the minuet continues while we waste valuable time during this short session.
This past week also saw action on some of my bills related to health insurance. The outrageous hike in premiums the Charlottesville region saw in 2018 generated significant discussion and debate about our insurance laws. The premiums were the highest in the nation. With the help of a dedicated constituents, Karl Quist, Ian Dixon and Sara Stovall, we made some headway last year and have continued that work in 2019.
As you may recall, last year I successfully sponsored a bill to permit self-employed individuals to purchase insurance on the small group market. We did not intend to exclude multi-owner businesses and have taken steps to close that loophole (SB 1475) this year. The second bill (SB 1734) would require insurance companies to disclose additional information if they are seeking to raise premiums a significant amount based on the region served. This drove the premium spikes in Charlottesville. What happened was so outside the norm, and we want to make sure it does not happen again. A third bill (SB 1735) sought to make reporting to the All Payers Claim Database mandatory for insurance companies. My legislation was incorporated into legislation introduced by Senator Newman. While I think Virginia needs to take larger steps forward to increase transparency in health care pricing and spending, I think this is a good first step.
The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday, February 23. We have only three weeks to complete work on all legislation and finalize the budget. I look forward to hearing from you during these closing weeks. My office can be reached at (804) 698-7525 or firstname.lastname@example.org .