The impact of the huge 15-vote swing in the Virginia House of Delegates was assessed by Falls Church’s two representatives in the State Legislature before a standing room only assemblage of constituents at a town hall in the F.C. Community Center on Saturday. Democrats Sen. Dick Saslaw and Del. Marcus Simon faced an energized but supportive audience to give a lay of the land report on Richmond after its first 10 days in session.
The November election tightened the GOP control of the House of Delegates from a 66-34 edge, when it was just barely enough to uphold vetoes from a Democratic governor last spring, to a hair-thin 51-49 margin with two elections held in the balance until the day the legislature was seated on Jan. 10. The results so far, Saslaw and Simon reported, have been mixed, but the mood has most certainly changed.
When Republicans attacked the inaugural address by new Democratic governor Ralph Northam for being too partisan, Simon noted, Northam was puzzled and asked what it was that he said to elicit such a response. It turned out it may not have been so much about what he said as it was the boisterous and noisy reaction to his remarks from the 15 new Democratic freshmen lawmakers who’d just been seated in the hall. Their enthusiasm has so far set the tone for the legislative session, even though Republican discipline in vote casting has still afforded them one-vote margins on most committee votes so far, with many of them broken down strictly on 8-7 partisan grounds.
But Del. Simon said he was pleased with some of the rules changes that were negotiated under the new narrow margin, such as one that now calls for all votes even in sub-committees to be recorded so that the public can know where lawmakers stand on every vote taken.
But Saslaw said, “I don’t think anything will really happen until we (Democrats) are in charge” on issues such as women’s reproductive rights and other key issues such as gun control, gender specificity and K-12 education. That even goes for extending Medicaid in Virginia under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, something the Democrats came into the session identifying as a top priority.
With 400,000 Virginians being denied health coverage allowed by federal law because of GOP opposition in the state legislature, the huge shift in the makeup of the House of Delegates led to the hope that this situation could change. But Saslaw said that he’s “working hard behind the scenes” on the issue, adding that if it does come to pass, it will be called “something different than Medicaid expansion” ostensibly to permit some face-saving by the Republicans.
Both lawmakers said it is unclear so far how the federal tax reform legislation will impact the state, beyond the seeming windfall in revenues that came from citizens filing their taxes before Dec. 31 last month to seek some shelter from the changes. With $1.3 trillion owed by Americans in student loans, Simon said he’s supporting three bills aimed at providing some relief. Saslaw is also backing moves to make the state more progressive in the area of renewable energy. He said he hoped that within a decade, Virginia could become one of the top two or three states in renewable energy.
Both shared the concern of a local barber that a push to strip regulatory controls on the licensing of barbers be defeated, and they shared to concern of a constituent for the large backlog for Medicare waivers to address home health care needs.
“We need more revenue,” Saslaw said, adding he’d give Amazon “anything it wanted” to get them to locate their second major campus in Virginia (Northern Virginia was announced to be on the corporate giant’s short list of finalists this week). “They would bring $250 million in annual income tax revenue much less their corporate tax contribution,” he noted. In that context, he assailed the effect of the car tax relief that was the sole content of a GOP gubernatorial campaign in the 1990s that resulted in costing the state $950 million in revenues annually.
At the urging of Sara Fitzgerald of the Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters, a sponsor of the event, the lawmakers also remarked on their concerns for legislative redistricting that will be coming up. Fitzgerald argued that had Saslaw not cut a deal on redistricting in 2011 to let the GOP have its way in the House and Dems in the Senate on the matter, with November’s elections the Democrats would now have control of the House. But Saslaw said at the time “Democrats’ chances were zero” at the time to achieve any other result.