The 2014 session rolls on, and we are nearing crossover. Crossover is the time when the Senate must complete work on bills introduced in the Senate, and the House must complete work on bills introduced in the House. It’s called the crossover because after it occurs, the bills cross over to the other house for consideration.
As usual, the budget is the major piece of work to be completed in this session of the General Assembly. In past years, transportation has been the topic at the top of the agenda. With the passage of the comprehensive transportation package last year, there are more arguments over spending priorities and how to balance the budget. With that said, the transportation plan last year has not raised nearly as much money as anticipated because last year’s numbers were built on the presumption that the price of gas would continue to rise. The good news for consumers is that the price of gas, though high, has remained fairly stable.
Not surprisingly, the big issue this year with respect to the budget is the expansion of Medicaid. As outlined in this space a few weeks ago, I think expansion would be a good deal for Virginia. It would provide health care, including mental health service, to between 200,000 and 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians; and it would create a significant number of new jobs in Virginia. The federal government has committed to funding 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years and at least 90 percent in subsequent years. To me, it’s a no brainer: it is the right thing to do, and it makes good economic sense. A proposal to create a Virginia Marketplace to provide coverage for these individuals has been advanced in the Senate. The General Assembly is far from reaching a consensus on this issue, which risks tying up the budgetary process for a considerable period of time.
A number of controversial topics have been debated this session that generated a lot of phone calls and emails. Among the most contentious measures are:
- Sunday Hunting: This year a bill was fashioned by Senator Phillip Puckett and others to allow Sunday hunting on private property by the owner of the property or those to whom he gave permission. I have long resisted voting for Sunday hunting because I think there are things to do outside on a Sunday other than hunt. In Bath County, where I live, hunting remains a popular activity. In the fall, Sunday is the only day that you can participate in other outdoor recreation, like trail riding or hiking, without coming across hunters in the woods.
- Boating on Non-Navigable Streams: Senator Dave Marsden introduced a bill this year granting anyone the right to float on a stream with a drainage area of at least seven square miles. The bill was framed somewhat innocuously but would have allowed, from my perspective, floating on just about every stream in Virginia. Because I was concerned that this approach would have negatively affected some people’s property rights and would have provoked confrontation, I voted no.
- Death Penalty: Currently there is a bill pending from Senator Bill Carrico that would mandate execution by electrocution, a method that is optional under current law, if the chemicals for lethal injection are not available. Starting in 1994 Virginia joined the trend of performing executions by lethal injection. Today, some of the drugs that have been used to make the cocktail for the lethal injection are in short supply. I understand why Senator Carrico introduced the bill. However, there are only four states that currently allow the use of the electric chair. I am inclined not to support this legislation. I think we need to make sure that our statutes are constitutional, and I am concerned that this bill will actually weaken our death penalty statute.
- Ethics Reform: The high profile case involving former Governor Bob McDonnell generated a great deal of interest and legislation pertaining to our ethics laws. The bill moving through the Senate would create the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, expand reporting requirements to include gifts to children, require semi-annual reporting of lobbyists and elected officials, and cap tangible gifts to legislators at $250, among other provisions. The bill is pending on the Senate floor as we debate amendments. While the bill does not go as far as some would like, the provisions are an improvement over current law.
A large portion of my work continues to be in the area of attempting to reform our mental health laws. Two of my proposals, Senate Bills 260 and 263, and legislation sponsored by others have been merged into one bill. The omnibus bill will require subjects be held up to 24 hours under an emergency custody order, create a database of available psychiatric beds, and ensure people in need of hospitalization cannot be “streeted” by establishing state hospitals as providers of last resort. That bill is currently on the floor of the Senate, and I expect to move it to the House by next week. The resolution creating a joint subcommittee to study mental health services passed the Senate and is pending in the House Committee on Rules.
The response to my legislative work on mental health has been overwhelming. People from throughout Virginia and the United States have shared their stories and reached out to me for help. Getting in touch with your elected officials and voicing your concerns is critical to effecting change. The Governor’s Task Force of Mental Health Services and Crisis Response will continue to meet throughout the year. You can submit public comment here.
It continues to be my distinct honor to serve you in the General Assembly. This will continue to be a busy session for me, and I look forward to your input throughout the process. Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at: PO Box 396, Richmond, Va 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.