The most essential responsibility entrusted to state legislators is to be good stewards of public funds. State funds to operate government come from the citizens and should be prudently spent on infrastructure and other core services that enhance our quality of life. This past March, the General Assembly dropped the ball and left the Capitol without a spending plan. Have the last two months been the healing salve to get this job done? On May 14, the Senate will reconvene in Richmond once again to take up the task of putting a biennial budget in place.
The “great divide” (to expand Medicaid or not) between the House of Delegates and the Senate has yet to be resolved. In that abyss lies the fate of hundreds of thousands of Virginians who may be one illness away from financial ruin or one illness away from a death sentence. Access to healthcare in our society should be a fundamental right – it should not be a perk for the fortunate.
We are fighting an opioid addiction in this country. In 2016, more than 1,200 Virginians lost their lives to these insidious drugs and left devastated families in their wake. Virginia’s signature Medicaid initiative for addressing substance abuse and opioid addiction has seen positive outcomes during the past year. More than 16,600 Medicaid members received treatment. Prescriptions for opioid pain medications for Medicaid members declined by nearly 33 percent. More importantly, hospital ER visits by Medicaid members due to opioid use also declined by nearly a third. This program is producing the return on investment we need for curbing the problem of substance abuse and addiction.
For years, the Deeds commission on mental health has looked to address the growing crisis in the Commonwealth. The uncertainty of funding places limits on healthcare providers and advancing progress on this issue. Funding the placement for individuals with mental health is a huge challenge. A mere $3.75 million has been proposed for increasing bed space in mental health facilities. My guess is that you may know someone (be it family or friend) who is dealing with the ramifications of limited treatment options and the cost associated with treatment.
The consequences of not committing to a budget will soon spill over to local government. Many localities are marking up their budgets in the dark. This affects funding for public education, higher education, public safety, veterans returning to civilian life, and other important issues like investing in our environment and the future.
Earth Day 2018 saw renewed respect for the environmental concerns. We know the environment is an issue we cannot neglect here in Virginia. This past session, the defeat of HB 1270 was an important step in moving forward with state based clean power. The Trump Administration refuses to take action to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change, thus it’s more important than ever that Virginia move forward with our own clean power plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change in Virginia.
The grid modernization bill was also an important step in the right direction for clean power and energy efficiency. There is a $1 billion investment in energy efficiency over the next decade that will help reduce energy consumption and bring down electricity bills. Furthermore, for the first time ever Virginia has made a substantial (5,000 megawatts – enough to power half of Virginia’s homes) commitment to clean, renewable solar and wind power.
I was also proud to support the Hanger/Deeds bills that gave Virginia’s DEQ more authority to protect our waterways and require permits during the construction of natural gas pipelines. Finally, it should not be lost on us that there were several other environmental victories this session, such as successful bills encouraging tree preservation, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, and making it easier to put in electric vehicle charging stations and place solar panels on schools.
We head back to Richmond on May 14. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, leave the rhetoric at the door and get back to the business voters sent us to do – carefully craft a biennial budget that includes Medicaid expansion and keeps the needs of Virginians as a top priority.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]