From fox penning to ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a diverse array of legislation has made its way through the Senate of Virginia. The same is true for the House of Delegates. Now that we enter crossover, both chambers will review any approved legislation from the other house. Additionally, the budget bill is working its way through each Chamber and will be reconciled before the final gavel falls on March 8.
One of the most significant developments this session was the Senate reorganization following the elections of Jennifer Wexton and Lynwood Lewis to fill the vacated seats of Lt. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring in the Senate. Following precedent set by Senate Republicans in the 2012 Session, Senate Democrats used the tie-breaking power of the Lieutenant Governor to reshape committee assignments. Democrats now chair and make up a majority of most committees in the Senate.
Medicaid expansion remains a highly contentious issue at the capital. Thousands of Virginians – mostly working poor, seniors and others stand to benefit from expansion. If the legislature embraces expansion, 25,200 veterans and their spouses would qualify for health coverage through Medicaid. Moreover, there are 41,721 adults in the 35th District alone who would gain health coverage through expansion. The Department of Medical Assistance Services reports Virginia would save nearly $1 billion by 2022 by expanding the health program. It makes absolutely no sense to continue resisting this initiative. If the legislature fails to expand Medicaid, the costs of emergency medical care for the uninsured, are going to continue to fall on businesses and insured individuals.
Mental health reform is making its way through the legislature. An omnibus bill, SB260, being carried by Senator Creigh Deeds contains a package of reforms aimed at enhancing service in our mental health system. The bill passed the Senate without any opposition. One significant change is extending the time of an emergency custody order from 4 hours to 24 hours. This bill will also establish a bed registry that would make it easier for community services boards to locate a bed for a patient. Additionally, it mandates that the community services boards spend no less than four hours searching for a bed, and if they fail to find one, then the Department of Behavioral Health and Human Services shall be contacted. The Department will assist the community services boards in finding a bed, and if no bed can be located by the last hour of an emergency custody order, then the Department may place an individual in a state facility. These initiatives are necessary to insure that Virginia provides the best care for its patients, as well as maintains public safety.
In response to what is now known as “gift-gate,” ethics reform is another top priority for the Session. A bill (SB649) has passed the Senate that would establish the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. The Council would be tasked with oversight of gifts to legislators from lobbyists and other persons, post disclosure forms online, and provide opinions, advice, and education. It also requires gifts to immediate family members to be disclosed, and limits tangible gifts to legislators and certain executive officers to $250. Having served for a good many years, let me just say that I cannot recall any instance when a registered lobbyist was the cause of misconduct by an elected official. I believe that either a person has a correctly calibrated moral compass or not. The House has its own version of a reform bill so nothing is cut in stone yet.
In the remaining weeks of this General Assembly, the state budget will be at the forefront as debate begins on allocating funds. Members of the legislature have introduced well over $2 billion in amendments to the proposed budget. I am confident that the budget process will reflect the Senate’s history of compromise and moderation combined with compassion and fiscal responsibility.
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Town Hall Meeting – This Saturday, February 15 from 10 a.m. – noon at Sleepy Hollow Elementary. See you there!
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]