Now that the Virginia General Assembly passed a budget that expands Medicaid in Virginia, and the Governor has signed it, what will be the next defining battle between partisans in an extremely narrowly divided General Assembly?
That’s the question I’ve been getting most lately.
The conversation usually starts with a “thank you” for all my hard work these last five sessions working to close the coverage gap and provide health care for 400,000 Virginians. Or sometimes a simple “congratulations.”
When I hear that one, I sometimes have to remind myself we just accomplished something really, really consequential this year. It took years of grassroots activists and organizations lobbying General Assembly members with thousands upon thousands of phone calls, emails, and letters plus rallies, parades, and “die-ins” to make this happen. Passing Medicaid expansion was huge.
So, what is next?
Gun reform? Not likely. Not with the current makeup of the General Assembly, where Republicans still do hold the majority (albeit by the narrowest of margins) in both houses. This year they made a point of hearing every single piece of common sense gun violence prevention legislation on the new Governor’s first day in office. The promptly killed every last one before he could even give his first address to the joint assembly of the House and Senate.
Redistricting reform? Perhaps, although the devil continues to be in the details. I think partisans on both sides probably want to see what the outcome of the 2019 elections look like before they commit to a particular approach.
Campaign finance reform? Also a possibility. I reintroduce a version of my bill to prohibit using campaign funds for personal use every year. This past session was the closest we ever got to forming a compromise version of the bill. In the end, my conservative colleagues chose to abandon the effort, but there is hope for next year.
There were other areas of compromise, in addition to Medicaid Expansion, though, that give me reason for hope that more can be accomplished in the area of criminal justice reform.
We raised the felony threshold for larceny, for instance, from $200 where it had languished for decades, to $500 in 2018. While not as far as some would have liked, we did more than double it.
We also passed legislation to limit long term suspensions and began to address issues that lead to a “school to prison pipeline” in some parts of Virginia. The legislation is a good first step, and also an acknowledgement of the problem and the need for solutions.
Some issues can be addressed without any legislative involvement. One such issue is the prevalent use of cash bail, which results in a dual track justice system for rich and poor. The result is that those who are poor are incarcerated without being convicted of any crime at an alarming rate.
Last month, the newly minted Prince William Delegation sent a letter to Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney (and fellow Democrat elected official), Paul Ebert, asking him to create a pretrial release system that is based on the defendant’s perceived public safety and flight risk rather than the defendant’s ability to pay.
Our Fairfax County and Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorneys were both also elected after campaigning and running as Democrats. Perhaps activists looking for the next good fight to engage in should reach out to their elected CAs and ask them to address this issue in the same manner.
So, really the question of what’s next could be many things and isn’t necessarily relegated to the General Assembly passing specific legislation. This is partly why it is so important that the grassroots advocacy groups that came about in the past few years remain active. Your voices were heard on Medicaid expansion. And I have no doubt that your voices will be heard on a few more critical issues in the years to come.
Have another idea on what we should tackle next? I’d love to hear from you. My office can be reached at 571-327-0053 or [email protected]
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]