Local Commentary

Senator Saslaw’s Richmond Report

The 2013 General Assembly of the Legislature came to a close on February 23. This year was the short session, consisting of some 46 days at the Capital. The shorter legislative session did not stop the onslaught of thousands of introduced bills. Not being a budget year, we were merely tasked with making amendments to the existing document. Of course, there were hundreds of requests – most went unmet. Here are a few highlights of the General Assembly that will become law soon.

Virginia ranks 48th in per capita Medicaid spending. We have one of the highest income thresholds in the nation for eligibility. The passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act in 2010 was to open Medicaid programs to people with incomes up to 138% of the national poverty level. The federal government would pay the entire cost for three years of healthcare insurance and then reduce payment to around 90%. For the Commonwealth that amounts to about $2B annually – money paid by Virginians through their federal taxes.

Governor McDonnell lead the opposition to this and worked diligently to defeat any bi-partisan efforts to recoup Virginia tax dollars, which would apply to providing access for healthcare outside the emergency room treatment which is commonplace for indigent patients. Those of us that have healthcare insurance often see a significant rise in annual premiums to cover the least cost effective care of an emergency room visit for the poorest of patients. Aside from providing coverage to an additional 400,000 Virginians, it is estimated some 30,000 new jobs would be created in health-care related fields. This should have been a logical next step, but it was not. This issue was one of the most intensely debated during the General Assembly and still remains in limbo on the Governor’s desk.

Despite the record low spending for the uninsured in Virginia, we will be looking at Medicaid reform measures to revamp the program and its costs. We voted to create a Commission (another Washington-like panel) to incorporate the Medicaid expansion sometime in 2014 after those reforms are in place and when Virginia has a new Governor.

I have spent many columns discussing the transportation crisis plaguing the Commonwealth. Gridlock is an economic albatross in many ways – it impairs our ability to move people and goods in a timely and cost efficient manner; it impacts our pocket books and our quality of life in loss time; and it contributes to excess pollution, just to name a few consequences. For the better part of the last decade we have made unsuccessful attempts at breaking through the logjam of “no new tax campaign pledges” versus doing what is the best interests of Virginians. The 2013 bipartisan legislative compromise that we achieved is a significant move forward. Again, this was achieved despite the overt interference of the Governor looking to make a political legacy without a substantial investment for the future.

Our region will be the beneficiary of some local options that remedying some of the infrastructure problems. More importantly, there will be money for mass transit and rail as well as the Silver Line to Dulles. This is a significant component for the urban centers that are the economic engine of the Commonwealth. Another asset to the bill is the containment of an all-out raid on the General Fund. There is no mistaken the priority we should place on having a world-class educational system and preparing the next generation to compete in the global economy. On a positive note, we will fund an additional 50 slots for the Thomas Jefferson H.S. in 2014.

Although it has taken several years, the legislature has made texting while driving a primary offense. Clearly, this is not an issue restricted to our youth – it is a serious public safety problem.

The best news we can share about enlightened gun control is the fact that no additional NRA supported bills came to pass. Regrettably, we did nothing to address the ownership and use of assault weapons in our communities. I believe in the Second Amendment but our society has evolved since its adoption including the manufacturing of air to surface missiles and semi-automatic weapons that can fire off hundreds of rounds per minute. It’s time to recognize the carnage in this nation that is the result of the wrong weapons in the wrong hands.

Unlike the 2012 session when Virginia was the subject for stand up comedy, the Far Right’s social agenda was kept out off the national stage. Along with that effort, went any attempts to repeal some of the more intrusive legislation passed last year.

We return to the Capital City on April 3 for the Reconvene Session. Right now, the Governor is reviewing all of the bills passed. He can sign, amend or veto them. This Governor is known for a very “active pen” – last year he amended more bills than Mark Warner did in all four years as Governor.

Before closing, I would like to add my personal thanks to Delegate Jim Scott for his many years of service to our community. This past year in particular, Jim and I worked closely on a number of bills and budget amendments requested by the City. Best wishes in your future endeavors, Jim!

Finally, I appreciate hearing from so many of you during the session and throughout the year. Please mark your calendar for our next town hall – April 6 at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School. Hope to see you there.