Dear Friends and Neighbors,
With only nine days left in the session, things are starting to move quickly. This is the time when conference committees start their work to try to resolve differences between the House and the Senate on specific bills. Conference committee reports can be tricky, since bills that come out of conference are "take it or leave it" propositions and cannot be amended. That means deciding whether a bill on the whole is worth passing even if you don't like particular aspects. Right now, both the budget and the Governor's transportation bill are in conference committee.
I am looking forward to seeing many of you for my first annual Constituent Day on Monday, February 18th. We have a great day planned and it is definitely not too late to join us if you are interested. In addition to a tour of the Capitol, we have arranged for a tour of the Library of Virginia. The Library of Virginia contains over 90 million objects, including county records, photos, newspapers, and more. Our tour will feature some of the items from Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax. For more information, please call (804) 698-1037, email [email protected], or click here.
This year we are only making amendments to the budget, since Virginia operates on a biennial budget that we adopted last year. However, many of these amendments deal with very substantive issues. For instance, an issue generating significant debate is whether to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the federal health care act. Today, approximately one million Virginians lack health insurance, which means that our emergency rooms provide the primary source of health care for many of these individuals. As a result, the financial burden of this care is shifted mainly to those with private insurance in the form of higher premiums. Under the federal health care law, Virginia has the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to those with income under 133% of the federal poverty level, which represents more than 300,000 people. For the first three years of the program, the federal government will pay 100% of the cost. The federal share will then be slowly reduced to 90%. This is expected to save Virginia significant money by making the system more efficient and ensuring that more people get preventative health care. While there has been some hesitance, the issue now appears to have shifted from "whether" to "how" Medicaid expansion should occur. The House budget suggests delaying the extension until at least 2015 in order to implement needed reforms first, while the Senate budget implements reforms and the extension simultaneously. The ramifications aren't insignificant - with the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce noting that the delay would result in Virginia leaving over $3 billion on the table. Given this, I support action now. That said, the one issue that almost everyone agrees on is that the federal government must uphold its end of the bargain and that the expansion is contingent on adequate funding.
Another major issue for Northern Virginia is cost-to-compete funding. This is additional funding in the budget to account for the fact that it is more expensive to live in Northern Virginia. In fact, a 2012 study commissioned by Virginia's Join Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) confirmed that the labor market is 25% more expensive in Northern Virginia than the next closest region and that the current cost-to-compete is underfunded. This last budget, Governor McDonnell proposed to eliminate cost-to-compete for school support personnel - representing an approximately $61 million cut for Northern Virginia school divisions. We were able to restore most of that last year. However, the Governor has again proposed to eliminate it. While the Appropriations Committee put back $6.1 million for this year, this still represents a cut of 81% from before 2012. I spoke on the House floor for restoring the cost-to-compete. You can see the video here.
In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, Governor McDonnell established a multidisciplinary task force to review school and campus safety. The first round of legislative recommendations from task force was introduced by the Governor's office last week. These include:
- Immunity from Civil Liability - Expands current Virginia law by extending civil immunity to any person who reports, with good faith, information about an individual who poses a credible danger to a school.
- Lockdown Drills - Requires each school division to designate an emergency manager to coordinate school preparedness and mandates schools to conduct a lockdown drill once each semester.
- Juvenile Information Sharing - Provides to schools information about students who are taken into custody for violent crimes.
- Critical Incident Response Model Curriculum - Provides for the development of a model critical incident response training program for school personnel.
- Funding for Facility and Security Upgrades - Creates a fund to provide grants or loans to localities, subject to local match, to improve security.
- Threat Assessment Teams - Requires each school board to establish a violence prevention committee and threat assessment team similar to those required for Virginia's public institutions of higher education.
- Penalty for Straw Man Gun Purchases - Increases the punishment for all straw-man transactions, which occurs when a person lawfully purchases a firearm with the intent to transfer that firearm to a person ineligible to purchase a firearm.
- Penalty for Entering a School Armed - Creates a new criminal offense for entering a school while armed with the intent to commit a violent felony. The proposed punishment is a Class 3 felony (5-20 years).
I am interested in your comments, suggestions, and reactions!
Redistricting Saga Ends
Redistricting once every 10 years is painful enough - which is why most people were dismayed that the Senate GOP, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, took advantage of the absence of one Democratic member to force through a complete redistricting of Senate boundaries. The action would have significantly altered our local Senate districts. For example, you can see the proposed change to Senator Petersen's district here. The issue isn't so much that redistricting is a messy, political process (although I have co-sponsored legislation to make this non-partisan). Rather, the issue is that it was done with no warning and no input from the public - hardly the sunshine that we so desperately need for people to have faith in their government.
Since the redistricting occurred by amending a House bill that only proposed technical adjustments to district boundaries, the Senate amendment had to come back over to the House for approval. Last week, Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican, declared that the amendment was non-germane, effectively killing the bill. While the Speaker could have ruled the opposite, he eloquently defended the importance of respecting a process that was designed to keep legislators from tacking on amendments that have little to do with the underlying bill - something that has served us well in Virginia. And for that, I say thank you Mr. Speaker!
Thanks to everyone who has provided feedback to me during this session. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and input. It is truly an honor to represent you in the House of Delegates.