The General Assembly is off to a fast and furious start. Governor Northam took the helm Jan. 13 and has set the stage for bipartisan efforts on behalf of Virginians. You may recall last November there was a Democratic wave that swept all three statewide offices and netted Democrats 15 new seats in the House of Delegates. There are now 47 delegates with fewer than four years of experience in that legislative body.
In the Commonwealth’s 2017 election, Virginians came out in droves to vote, mostly in response to the 2016 presidential election. Some would call that the gift that keeps on giving. It is important to note, however, both chambers of the Virginia Legislature have Republican majorities, albeit by razor slim margins. Therefore, the math remains the same for moving legislation forward.
The slim Republican majorities were on full display last week in the General Assembly, most notably on the topic of Medicaid expansion. Despite a clear mandate from voters favoring healthcare reform as front and center, despite a unique perspective from our former Army doctor and pediatric neurosurgeon turned governor, Ralph Northam, and despite hundreds of thousands of Virginians needing access to quality, and affordable healthcare, a series of reform bills met a party line defeat in the Senate Education and Health Committee. This is a mirror action of many bills also submitted in the House.
As I have mentioned many times, leaving behind hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal coffers is just plain wrong. It is bad stewardship of Virginia’s taxpayer money. It is bad policy to rely on the Remote Access Medicine clinics and Mobile Medicine Bus in our rural communities. It is flat out wrong to not anticipate the needs of the graying of the Baby Boomers. And finally, some 30,000+ jobs are left out of our economy without the sensible expansion of Medicaid. There is talk of the issue being revisited later this Session, so stay tuned for further updates.
Common sense was also sorely lacking on more party line votes on bills designed to address gun violence in our Commonwealth. More Virginians are killed each year by guns than auto accidents, and it is long past time that we put aside partisan politics and look after the safety of our citizens. Senate bills to enact Universal Background Checks, allow localities to ban firearms in government buildings, and make it illegal to carry a loaded firearm in a public place under the influence of alcohol/illegal drugs all failed. The House side of the legislature did little better, rejecting a bill that would outlaw bumpstock devices similar to the one used in the Las Vegas massacre some four months ago. One of the more egregious pieces of passed legislation is the repeal of the ban on weapons in churches. I am comforted knowing Governor Northam has a veto pen and will use it accordingly to keep Virginians safe while keeping guns out of the wrong hands.
Pivoting to an issue that directly affects thousands of Northern Virginians each workday, a strong transportation network is essential to strengthening our economy and ultimately improving the quality of life for Virginia families. I hear you loud and clear that the General Assembly must improve our transportation system and that starts with firming up the finances and operational capabilities of Metro. Metro’s railcars and buses are a key transportation alternative that keeps automobiles off the road. In my recent legislative survey, 89 percent of respondents indicated that the General Assembly must increase its financial support for Metro. Legislative work to shore up Metro’s funding stream is very much a fluid situation, but it is important that Virginia demonstrate a commitment to the organization, as Maryland lawmakers have already indicated they plan to wait and see what outcomes occur during this Virginia General Assembly Session. I believe we are nearing a compromise bill that may just pass the legislature.
The General Assembly Building is undergoing a multiyear renovation, thus our offices are in the “cozier” confines of the Pocahontas Building. I am delighted that the smaller offices have not deterred so many of you from visiting thus far this session and I applaud those of you who take an active, respectful role in civic engagement.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]