(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s General Assembly wrapped up its 2018 regular session Saturday with its most important task unfinished. At an impasse over whether to expand Medicaid to some 400,000 eligible Virginians, the legislature failed to pass a state budget before adjournment and will have to take that up at a special session.
That stumble eclipsed several significant accomplishments during the 60-day legislative session, including a sweeping overhaul of electric utility regulation and several pieces of criminal justice reform that had been stalled for years.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve been able to do in the last 60 days,” Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said shortly before both houses adjourned. “(But) we’ve left one of our largest missions unfinished, and that’s the budget.” He promised to call a special session soon, possibly within the next two or three weeks.
The legislature must pass a spending bill by July 1 to avert a shutdown of state government.
While Republicans control both the House of Delegates and the Senate by the thinnest of margins, the House opted to go along with Medicaid expansion and built that into its budget while the Senate refused and approved a wildly different spending plan. Negotiators were unable to find common ground.
The big question going into this year’s Assembly was how Republican leaders would handle their razor thin majority in the House of Delegates. Democrats fired up by anti-Trump sentiment made big gains in last fall’s elections and obliterated what had been an ironclad Republican control of the House.
With the balance in the 100-seat chamber at 51-49, new Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has tried to manage conservatives in his own party while avoiding a rebellion among a historically diverse slate of Democrats. In the final days, though, the real tension was between Republicans in the House and Senate over the budget.
Cox led a divided Republican caucus to approve a $115 billion two-year budget that accepted federal money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Republicans had resisted expansion the past four years, but a few factors changed after last fall’s elections.
First, the blue wave made clear that a majority of Virginia voters favored expanding Medicaid. New Democratic candidates picked up 15 seats that had been held by Republicans. Second, the election of Northam as governor gave Republicans someone they were comfortable cutting deals with.
A former lieutenant governor and state senator, Northam has close relationships with Cox and other Republicans and was willing to consider some conservative conditions in order to pass Medicaid expansion. The House budget included work and job-training requirements for Medicaid recipients.
Northam also worked with Republicans in both chambers to broker other legislative deals. The utility overhaul – known as the Dominion bill after the state’s most influential corporation, Dominion Energy – will undo an electricity rate freeze that had prevented Virginia customers from getting rebates or base rate decreases since 2015.
The sweeping legislation, largely written by Dominion, will return some $200 million in overcharges to ratepayers, but will make future rate reductions less likely as the utility is allowed to invest that money in renewable energy, grid modernization and other capital projects.
Northam also brokered a deal to raise the state’s felony threshold to $500 from $200, which had been tied with New Jersey for lowest in the nation. That agreement, long-sought by Democrats, included a Republican priority: imposing stricter requirements for people convicted of crimes to pay restitution to their victims.
But the bipartisan bonhomie hit a wall on matters of gun violence. A host of gun safety bills, many backed by Northam, died or simply vanished in Republican-controlled committees in both House and Senate. Democrats renewed their call for action after the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida, but Republicans pushed back hard, claiming their opponents wanted to take away all guns.
With relentless social media attention on the issue, Cox finally appointed a select committee to look at school safety for next year’s session – but specified that guns would not be part of the agenda.
The biggest showdown, though, came between leaders of the House and Senate over Medicaid. Though Northam lobbied hard with his old pals, Senate Republicans – who did not face elections last year and maintain a 21-19 majority – held firm against expansion.
The result was a Senate budget that did not include accepting some $2 billion in federal dollars for Medicaid.
The House budget used that Medicaid money to cover some items now paid for by the state, freeing up some $370 million to be spent on other priorities such as education and raises for teachers and state employees. The Senate budget has no such spending.
As they left town Saturday, though, they could point to several other accomplishments, including:
The House and Senate passed two bills, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, that together will give Metro its first-ever source of dedicated funding. It will amount to $154 million a year in permanent funding so long as Maryland and the District of Columbia kick in their shares. Virginia would withhold some money if Metro does not hold growth in operating costs to 3 percent a year.
– Compensation for wrongful imprisonment
Both chambers passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, to compensate four Navy veterans who were wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Norfolk in 1997 and served years in prison. The “Norfolk Four,” pardoned last year by then-governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, will each receive amounts ranging from $858,704 to $895,299.
They also passed a bill, brought by House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, to compensate Robert Davis, who was imprisoned for 13 years for a 2003 double murder he didn’t commit. McAuliffe declared him innocent in December 2016.
– College credit for certain high school programs
The legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, meant to ensure that high school students who take “dual enrollment” courses through community colleges can transfer those credits toward college degrees. That was part of a package of “Practical Solutions to Everyday Issues” that Cox pushed as a way to rebrand the party after November’s election losses.
– Student privacy
The House and Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, meant to keep certain information about public university students private. The measures were proposed after NextGen Virginia, a liberal advocacy group, sent text messages promoting Democrats running for office in state elections last year, after using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain their personal cell phone numbers from Virginia colleges. The bills would prohibit the release of such information under the Freedom of Information Act without the student’s consent.