While the Constitution of Virginia sets forth the requirements for how a bill becomes a law, such as passing both houses in exactly the same form and being read three times before a vote is taken, there are certain rules the legislature adopts each session to govern the conduct of business. One function of those rules is to set forth exactly how much time each body has to consider its own bills, including its version of the budget. The crossover, when the Senate and House have to finalize action on bills that originated in their own chamber, is February 13. With the budget bill, a few more days are granted. We will not vote on our respective versions of the budget until February 22.
This session has brought some uncertainty, for a couple of important reasons. First, the election last year brought us a new governor. Ralph Northam has been part of the legislative process for ten years – first as a senator then as lieutenant governor – so he is well known and well liked. The second big change, as discussed before, is the new Democratic strength in the House of Delegates brought about by last fall’s elections. While the Republicans have had a slim 21-19 majority in the Senate of Virginia for several years, the House hasn’t been this close since the late 90s.
For the past several years, one of the sticking points in the legislature has been consideration of Medicaid expansion. Many legislators, including me, felt the elections could bring a renewed discussion of that issue. In fact, just this past week, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, and Governor Northam began a public dialogue on this subject. A majority in the House of Delegates is willing to consider expansion if it is tied to a work requirement.
Those who are currently eligible for Medicaid are primarily children, pregnant women, elderly, or disabled. While work-related activities are necessary for some benefits, like unemployment, it would be a new component with respect to Medicaid benefits. The work requirement is not a significant problem for the Medicaid expansion population. As I’ve stated before, 75 percent of those who would be eligible either work full-time or live with someone who does. In my view, this shift in the House of Delegates is a positive sign for uninsured Virginians, and I do not see this as a deal breaker if we can find common ground to help people.
In terms of the proposals I put forward, a number of bills have either met their end or continued to move through the process this week.
In response to the confusion sown by the paramilitary groups that descended on Charlottesville last August, I sponsored two bills that failed this week. Current law criminalizes the imitation of police and fire personnel. The first bill would have added impersonation of military personnel, including the National Guard and the Armed Forces Reserves. The second bill sought to provide local governments with the authority to restrict military garb during permitted events providing it could constitute a threat to public safety. The list of things that went wrong in Charlottesville that tragic day is long. And anyone on the ground would tell you that while the armed militia groups did not appear to cause violence and were not subject to arrest, the confusion about who they were and what they were doing added to the melee.
On Monday, the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor incorporated my billto require more insurance companies to participate in the health care exchange into a similar bill of Senator Dunnavant. The legislation is now awaiting action in the Senate Finance Committee. SB 672, which allows self-employed individuals to participate in the small group insurance market, passed the Senate just this morning.
Today the Senate also passed a bill to expand opportunities for teens to participate with volunteer fire departments. While the demand for fire and rescue personnel is growing, fewer volunteers are signing up to serve their communities. Under current law, teens can only participate if they have certification. This bill will allow non-certified teens to participate in non-hazardous activities.
Two bills that have generated significant interest from the conservation community and many constituents are Senate Bill 698 and SB 699. Should the pipeline projects move forward, these bills ensure that the Department of Environmental Quality can issue stop work instructions during construction if land disturbing activities have caused or will cause substantial adverse impacts to water quality. The bills have stalled on the floor while some of my colleagues attempt to tweak the language even further.
Although this issue did not generate a lot of interest throughout the Commonwealth, a Freedom of Information Act request in Newport News for certain information from the court system resulted in a flurry of bills. The competing proposals sought to either open up or restrict access through FOIA to court documents. In the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, a bill from Richard Stuart of King George County essentially defers the issue shielding all information from the Supreme Court of Virginia from the public until the Court sets its own rules. I voted against the bill because in my view the public pays for all three branches of government and is entitled to information about all three. I just do not think any part of government should be above or beyond the reach of citizens.
Redistricting reform has been a priority of mine for over a decade. I have introduced a number of bills designed to reduce the influence of partisanship in the drawing of our legislative boundaries. A criteria bill put forward by Senator Suetterlein of Roanoke County passed the Senate last Friday. I opposed the bill. Senate Bill 106 picks and chooses certain criteria from other bills, and I fear it simply locks in the status quo.
It continues to be a high honor for me to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. If you would like to share your views on any of the bills before us, need help with a state agency, or wish to visit during the General Assembly session, please contact me at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected].