January 12, 2016 News & Features » Cover Story


What to Watch For in Virginia's 2016 General Assembly Session 

At stake: Medicaid, guns and the official state snake.

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s $109 billion, two-year budget legacy comes smack in the middle of a four-year term, suggesting that it represents what he really wants to hang his hat on.

That’s not lost on House Minority Leader David Toscano, a Democrat from Charlottesville. “Even though the governor has been in office almost two years, this is his first budget,” he says in a statement. “It is not widely understood that a governor does not have a chance to propose a budget that is totally his own until well into his second year in office.”

The next governor, therefore, largely will be working on the ground prepared by McAuliffe during the first two years of his or her term.

McAuliffe is likely to butt heads with the General Assembly in shaping that vision, if past efforts and the Republican-dominated legislature are any indication.

Will he insist on a strident push for Medicaid expansion, which has failed twice? Or will he try to compromise on issues that could be less divisive, such as education reform? And then there are the issues of gun control and business regulations.

He’ll share his priorities with the legislators and the public on Jan. 13, hours after Virginia’s General Assembly convenes at noon.

What follows will be 60 days of debates, lobbying, floor speeches, wheels and deals, comments and committee meetings. Lots of committee meetings.

Amid the serious issues, the General Assembly is prone to lighthearted moments, too, and the occasional bill that’s out of left field. There could be a gripping discussion about one delegate’s bill to establish the official serpent of the commonwealth or another legislator’s insistence that all flags flown by state and local entities be American-made.

Here are some things to watch:

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McAuliffe has put on his gloves for a third fight with Republicans over Medicaid expansion, which is meant to bridge the gap for people who are ineligible for the program under Virginia’s rules but whose family income falls below the federal poverty line.

Two years ago, the quarrel was at its ugliest when the government almost came to a standstill, with both sides refusing to back down.

McAuliffe’s proposed budget includes a spending plan that takes into account $156 million in projected savings from Medicaid expansion. He lists potential line items to which this return would be devoted, including education, business and other investments. In all, he says he expects Virginia to save as much as $353 million if the initiative is adopted.

But House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, says that Republicans in his chamber would fight any attempt to factor in such savings from receiving more federal funding for Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, says that counting these projected savings shows Virginians the potential positive impact on the entire budget.

He hopes that the third try won’t be a strikeout. “I am the eternal optimist,” McEachin says. “I will try to find a way to convince my [Republican] colleagues.”

McAuliffe also has introduced a plan to take the burden off of state coffers by paying for part of the expansion with a tax on hospitals. That revenue would be combined with federal funding and cover a 10-percent match expected from the state.

Members of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association grudgingly threw support behind the tax in hopes that expanding Medicaid would tackle rising costs of indigent care.

“Arriving at this moment did not come easy” the association’s president, Sean Connaughton, wrote to McAuliffe in a letter quoted in The Washington Post. “However the mounting financial burden of diminished reimbursements, increased uncompensated care, and federal funding cuts necessitate the exploration of even the previously unthinkable. The status quo is simply unsustainable.”

A robust debate also will take place about reforming the Certificate of Public Need laws for Virginia hospitals. Currently, applicants are required to prove that a potential new facility would be accessible to area residents, create an immediate economic impact and be financially feasible. Most important, the area served must need enhanced facilities.

But many Republicans say the process impedes the creation of a more free-market-oriented health system. Several legislators have proposed bills to gradually phase out Virginia’s public need laws or eliminate requirements for certain facilities.

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Strengthening failing schools and offering parents alternative education options will be areas of prime focus.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have supported continued funding for year-round schools, aimed at improving test scores and combating summer brain drain. Last year, 54 schools in 10 school divisions were awarded $5.3 million in grants to implement such programs.

In 2015, a Petersburg elementary school was touted as making a strong case for year-round schools by McAuliffe and legislators from both parties. After a trial run, the school was fully accredited after previously failing to meet bench marks.

“Petersburg is the best example, some have tried in the past and backed away from it,” says Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Landes also expects education committees in the House and Senate to begin discussions on how to reform the state’s Standards of Quality — a barometer that determines funding for staff and technology. But that’s a discussion that would take place over several years.

Expect Democrats to push against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that many Republicans hope will grow the number of the state’s charter schools. It would allow the State Board of Education to create charter schools without approval from local school boards. The amendment received initial approval in 2015 and must pass the General Assembly once more, before it can go to the public for a referendum.

Many Democrats disagree on the grounds that the operation of public schools belongs in the arena of local schools boards, not the state.

Tackling rising tuition and university fees also may dominate discussions about higher education. McAuliffe’s budget calls for an additional $48 million in financial aid for undergraduates. He also proposes $50 million to incentivize colleges to graduate more in-state and underrepresented students.

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Expect the push for Medicaid expansion to go beyond health care and into the business realm. McAuliffe proposes using part of the $156 million in projected savings from the initiative to pay for a cut in the corporate tax rate.

It’s a move that Republicans see as bait to lure them into the uncomfortable position of accepting Medicaid expansion in exchange for tax cuts. “One of our dilemmas is that $156 million in assumed spending may not be there,” Cox says.

The size of the tax cut also may be up for debate. The reduction is a quarter of a point, from 6 percent to 5.75 percent, which McAuliffe says would help draw more business to the state. It would account for a loss of $64 million in the proposed biennial budget, which totals more than $100 billion.

Republicans say that taxes should be lowered even more, while some Democrats call the cut overly favorable to business.

But there are some items on the negotiating table on which both Democrats and Republicans can agree. McAuliffe proposes that $350 million in bonds go toward improvements to the Port of Virginia — a sum that can be more easily hashed out between the parties.

Efforts by McAuliffe to lessen the state economy’s dependence on public-sector jobs also are likely to gain traction. He’s established a committee to tackle the problem by improving infrastructure and broadband access, providing work-force training opportunities, fostering entrepreneurship and other initiatives generally favored by both parties.

Regulation of environmental standards for businesses is another smaller issue sure to play out in the background. Republicans have introduced a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Quality to get General Assembly approval before submitting a state plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval. It’s a move that Republicans hope would curb the amount that businesses spend to comply with environmental quality regulations favored by Democrats.

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A raging national gun-control debate could spark political posturing from legislators. President Barack Obama’s emotionally charged speech, which rolled out an executive order expanding background checks on gun buyers, is likely to add passion to both sides.

Republicans could push back against Attorney General Mark Herring’s announcement that Virginia no longer will accept concealed handgun permits from 25 states. Herring says that reciprocity agreements with the states should be revoked because their concealed weapons laws aren’t as strict as Virginia’s.

Legislators have proposed several bills to either rein in firearms or protect a perceived loss of Second Amendment rights. Among them:

• Individuals who aren’t licensed firearms dealers would be banned from buying more than one handgun in a 30-day period (House Bill 1671). Violations would be punishable as a class-one misdemeanor.

• Allow faculty members of public higher-education institutions with a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit to carry a concealed handgun on campus (House Bill 79).

• Plans or blueprints for new public schools buildings would be required to include an indoor, active-shooter gunshot detection and alerting system (House Bill 187).

• Prohibit someone who is subject to a protection order from possessing a firearm (Senate Bill 49). Currently, there are limitations on such people only for transporting or purchasing guns.

• Allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon without a permit (Senate Bill 48). Anyone legally able to purchase a gun would qualify.

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Oddball Bills

The General Assembly often considers bills that are, well, a complete laugh riot. Some are just plain weird and others make you wonder about the story behind them. A few that are likely to raise a brow or two:

• Elephants will be happy if House Bill 302 becomes law. It prohibits the use of items such as a bull hook, ax handle or block and tackle to train or control an elephant. Violation would be punishable as a class-one misdemeanor.

• One Senate bill requires anyone who sells a newborn calf to certify that it was fed at least four quarts of colostrum — found in the mammary glands of mammals — during its first six hours.

• In patriotic fashion, Senate Bill 229 requires U.S. and Virginia flags flown by school divisions and state and local government bodies to be American made.

• House Bill 335 would establish the eastern garter snake as the official snake of the Commonwealth.

• Cheating on your spouse could get you only a slap on the wrist from the state under Senate Bill 174. Adultery, now a class-four misdemeanor, would be punishable with a $250 fine with the proposed law. The fine for your indiscretions would be payable to the state’s Literary Fund. S



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