Ken Plum: 2016 Virginia General Assembly session preview
The General Assembly will convene for its regular session on January 13. Major work in the even-numbered years is passage of a biennial budget. With some recovery in the Virginia economy it should be possible to pass a required balanced budget without program or staff cuts, but it will not be possible to fund all the budget requests or pent-up demand from the dire budgets of the past decade. Budget deliberation will be controversial, however, because of the refusal to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion that would free up about $350 million of state monies that could be used for other purposes.
Many of the issues that concern me will face an up-hill battle. We should fully fund the state share of public education, but there are those who will resist those efforts. I support expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance for the working poor. I am also concerned that Virginia’s lax gun laws can lead to more gun violence. We need to expand background checks for all gun sales. We should take action to keep guns out of the hands of persons against whom protective orders have been issued by a court. Likewise, commonsense laws should be passed to keep guns out of the hands of children. Looking to the next round of legislative redistricting we need to pass a constitutional amendment to require independent, nonpartisan drawing of legislative boundaries. A constitutional amendment would permit the people to vote on it.
Last week the Republican majority was reported to have announced its priorities for the upcoming session. I understand that in public education their priority is passage of a constitutional amendment to allow for the establishment of charter schools. Such an amendment passed the General Assembly last year and with passage this year would go to the voters for approval. With public schools already having the power to establish alternative schools; magnet schools; and vocational, gifted, and special education centers it is difficult for me to see the value or need for charter schools that would drain resources from public schools.
Although the misleading campaign against tolls on I-66 had little impact on the outcome of recent elections, the majority intends to propose legislation to prohibit tolls on I-66. Their bill can lead to a full discussion of the tolling proposal. They can explain to single-occupant car drivers why they oppose access to I-66 during the rush hour if a driver is willing to pay a toll. Or, how they will raise the money to widen I-66 without toll revenue. Or why other roads will continue to have tolls.
A perennial favorite with the majority party is to pass bills and resolutions to say that Virginia does not have to comply with federal law. This year the aim is the clean air regulations issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. There also apparently will be a further attempt to tighten voter registration that will also make it more complicated and may discourage registration.
Republicans called their priorities “a broad, bold agenda.” Others may find their session agenda to be too confrontational and controversial.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.