Last week the General Assembly reached the midpoint of its annual session, or crossover as it is called in the legislature. At this time in the calendar, the House of Delegates and the Senate have completed work on the bills that were introduced into the respective houses. Any bills that were passed are now sent to the other body for consideration. In order for a bill to become a law it must pass through both houses in identical form and be signed by the governor. When a bill is passed in different form in the two houses, a conference committee with representatives from both legislative bodies is appointed to work out differences in a compromise that must then be approved by both houses.
While final action is still pending on most measures, there is some good news to mention in this halftime report. Significant legislation reforming the mental health system has passed both houses in different form and now must be reconciled. In response to the tragic events in Senator Creigh Deed’s family, the length of time that a person who is undergoing a mental health episode can be held without their consent through a temporary detention order will be increased from the current six hours that clearly was not adequate for Senator Deed’s son to eight hours proposed in the House or to 24 hours approved in the Senate. The final length of time to be worked out in a conference committee must balance individual civil liberties with the need to protect the person and the community from harm. Beyond the procedural issues to be resolved is the question of the level of funding for mental health programs that clearly needs to be increased.
Bipartisanship broke out in the House with representation from both parties working together to craft new ethics legislation that will increase transparency and accountability within the context of a part-time citizen legislature. Twice per year disclosures of economic interests will be required with all reports available for review electronically by the public. Ethics training will be mandatory for all public officials, and an ethics commission will be established to provide oversight for the process.
There is consensus among parents and educators that the current Standards of Learning (SOL) system needs reform. A bipartisan group of delegates developed reforms that were unanimously approved in the House and are likely to be agreed to by the Senate. There will be fewer SOL tests, opportunities for alternative assessments, and a commission to consider additional reforms.
Repeal of the tax on hybrid vehicles will be approved.
The remaining key issue about which there continues to be major differences among the political parties and the two houses of the legislature is the expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance for as many as 400,000 Virginians. All the other successes at the half pale in comparison to resolving this big issue in time for the legislature to adjourn as scheduled on March 8. Reaching the goal line on Medicaid expansion will determine if this session is a winner.