Virginia’s legislature will begin its regular session on Wednesday – hoping to consider about two thousand bills. Sandy Hausman spoke with long-time legislators and newcomers who predict plenty of fireworks before the General Assembly adjourns in about 60 days.
This will be the 25th session for Senator Creigh Deeds, who still looks forward to the marathon lawmaking effort.
“I used to look at legislative sessions like summer camp," he recalls. "There were people you enjoy working with, lots of fun, lots of work. It used to be more bills got introduced in the 60-day session than went through Congress in a year or two, and more bills got passed than were passed in Congress in four or five years.”
But some campers aren’t playing nice anymore, and Deeds says Democrats and Republicans are likely to disagree on many measures.
“The big issues, frankly, will be the same as they’ve been in the past few years. Think of that Talking Heads song with the lyric Same As It Ever Was.”
Lawmakers will, for example, consider bills to keep guns away from people who are under a protective court order or on the federal do not fly list and allow family members to block the sale of weapons to people they fear might use guns in a negligent or illegal way.
On the other hand, there are also bills to let full time faculty members carry guns on campus and allow employees to have concealed handguns in public schools, along with a measure allowing people who can legally buy a gun to carry it, concealed, without a special permit. With strong feelings on both sides of the issues and a governor who supports greater controls, House Minority Leader David Toscano doubts much will happen:
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to get any gun safety legislation out of the House of Delegates," Toscano says, "but you know we have to keep trying, because we just can’t wring our hands every time there is another mass shooting. It’s nice to express sorrow, but we have to do something.”
Politicians are equally polarized on the issue of expanding Medicaid so 400,000 low-income people who don’t now qualify could get medical coverage. Newly-elected Republican Delegate Jason Miyares objects.
“We can have Medicaid expansion, but it’s going to mean less money for our roads, less money for our schools, more crowded schools and more congested highways,” he says.
Miyares knows the federal government has promised to pay 90% of the cost to expand Medicaid but worries the feds might demand states pay more in the future.
“They’re basically saying in ten years trust us. I’m not going to trust a government that’s trillions of dollars in debt.”
“Then frankly we ought to just withdraw from the program that provides federal highway funding” Democrat Deeds retorts.
“I mean we don’t know what the future is going to look like. None of us do, but Medicaid has been part of federal law since 1964, 65, and the funding has always been there for it.”
In his proposed budget, Governor McAuliffe has tried to sweeten the deal for Republicans, proposing a 3% tax on hospital revenues to pay the state’s share of expansion costs. He would also use some of the federal aid Virginia would get for expanding the program to give businesses a tax break. Miyares likes that idea.
“We had zero percent economic growth last year – the same as Detroit, Michigan. Virginia’s economy has ground to a halt.”
But he’s still not tempted by the governor’s proposition. He does, however, agree with McAuliffe’s plan to spend $1 billion more on public schools and research at state universities. At the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, President Meg Gruber says it’s about time. She says Virginia schools have been "terribly underfunded since the recession in ’09.”
Lawmakers are also likely to agree on a $38 million economic development package called Go Virginia and on the way this state deals with kids who break the law. We’ll look at proposals to reform the juvenile justice system in our next report.