December is a particularly busy month that is packed with holiday celebrations and a number of meetings for members of the General Assembly. Engaged constituents reach out to share their concerns and/or support for potential legislation and funding matters. Many of the interim study groups and commissions are wrapping up their work along with legislative briefings from various agencies and advocacy groups presenting their legislative priorities for the upcoming session.
There are two benchmarks of note in December addressing access to healthcare. Since becoming law, the Affordable Care Act has provided coverage for millions of people across the nation. Now through Dec. 15, you can sign up for health insurance and/or change your current plan through the federal marketplace. Visit www.healthcare.gov to take advantage of the remaining days for enrollment and changes.
Virginia launched its program for Medicaid Expansion on Nov. 1. Expanding Medicaid provides hope and access to medical care for hundreds of thousands of people in our community in need of assistance. The enrollment period concludes Dec. 15. Throughout our region, information sessions and assistance with enrollment have been taking place. Visit coverva.org/expansion for enrollment and additional assistance.
Virginia’s biennial budget was built and adopted during the 2018 session. However, we annually revisit the budget in what is known as the “caboose bill.” As a result of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018, the legislature will be working on tax reform conformity to seamlessly synchronize with federal law. In the meantime, there is a bit of a windfall that will be hotly sought-after come January. Many advocacy groups currently operating at pre-recession funding will be seeking to build up their funding. Mental health, fighting the opioid epidemic, and appropriating funds for education that could close the learning equality gap are just a few issues competing for funding from this one-time windfall. The Governor is likely to propose using it for the Earned Income Tax Credit for those living below the poverty level.
A few years ago, then First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe launched a program to ensure our students are “nutritionally ready” for learning. I applauded her efforts and worked for funding for the program. While we live in one of the wealthiest regions in the nation, we have an inordinately high number of children qualifying for free and reduced lunch in our schools. With funds from the General Assembly, we now have served millions of breakfasts to children throughout the Commonwealth. The good news is the initiative has reduced truancy, improved classroom behavior, and ultimately enhanced learning outcomes.
As we approach the close of the decade, a new population census will be taken in 2020. This will be the basis for the size of legislative districts at the state and federal level. Virginia has 11 Congressional seats, 40 State Senate districts, and 100 House of Delegates districts. The number of the districts is fixed and will not change. Looking ahead to 2021, redistricting comes into play. Several organizations are advocating for changing the process by removing it from the legislature. Since redistricting is addressed in our state constitution, legislation must be passed in 2019, an election held for statehouse offices, and then be revisited by the next General Assembly before the proposal can be put to referendum. It should come as no surprise that the issue of redistricting will be another hotly debated matter before the legislature in 2019.
Parsing out representative districts is a very complex matter. It is likely to also be very partisan. With the previous redistricting process nearly nine years passed, litigation is ongoing. As of this writing, the courts have been asked to redraw some of the more gerrymandered districts in the House of Delegates. Speaker Kirk Cox has asked that this order by held off until after the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the appeal by the Republican majority. We are waiting for a decision on that proposal.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]