|Virginia General Assembly|
For the Democratic legislators that represent the Annandale/Mason area in the Virginia General Assembly, it’s been nearly impossible to get anything passed by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
Nevertheless, Del. Kaye Kory, Sen. Dave Marsden, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw have been able to make some limited progress, they told constituents at a Legislative Town Hall Feb. 22 at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School.
Two of the biggest issues this term are mental health and Medicaid expansion, Saslaw said. The need to improve mental health got attention following a tragic incident: Sen. Creigh Deeds was viciously attacked by his disturbed son, who then killed himself. The family had been unable to place the man in a mental health facility.
The other big issue is the expansion of Medicaid. Virginia is entitled to $2.3 billion in federal funds, which would provide healthcare to some 350,000 to 400,000 working people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level, including about 30,000 veterans.
The federal government would provide 100 percent of this funding through 2016. Federal funding would then gradually drop off to 90 percent in 2020.
Saslaw called the Republicans who oppose expanding Medicaid “hypocrites” for refusing to take these federal funds when 23 percent of Virginia’s total budget is from federal funding, and “they’re not turning down money to build an aircraft carrier.” Legislators “are getting pretty good insurance for themselves but they’re not willing to give it to other people,” he said.
Every major chamber of commerce in the state, every hospital CEO, and medical provider supports Medicaid expansion, he noted, and governors in 25 states, including very conservative ones, have already taken this money. By not accepting the funds, the House had to take money away from core services like education, Kory added.
People will still get medical care if this is not approved—they will just show up in emergency rooms which will cost 10 times as much. “That goes into hospital overhead, which is passed on to insurance companies, and ultimately to you in your health plans,” Saslaw said. “That’s why [opposing Medicaid expansion] doesn’t make a shred of sense.”
When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, hospitals agreed to support it with the expectation that Medicaid would be expanded, he said. If that doesn’t happen, some hospitals won’t be able to afford to stay open. One hospital in southwest Virginia has already closed.
The legislature is expected to adjourn March 8 and will be reconvened by the governor to work on this issue. “I’m hopeful we can get it done,” Saslaw said.
“The House has been especially partisan and bitter this year—more than ever before,” Kory said. “A lot of this political posturing is to show the new governor who is in charge. This is sad because we are playing with people’s lives.”
Kory’s efforts to help low-income women receive healthcare were rejected, including bills to keep health centers open and allow low-income women access to abortions if they’re expecting a deformed baby likely to die. The House refused to even hear a bill calling for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Republican members of the House also killed a bill that would have required the police to approve the transfer of a machine gun or bazooka to another person, Saslaw added.
“It’s hard to get something big done when the opposition fundamentally disagrees with you,” said Marsden, but he’s found other ways to move things forward. “You have to think long term,” he said.”
For example, when his effort to pass a bill to prevent brain injury by limiting the amount of contact in high school football failed to get anywhere, he formed a task force with football coaches to develop a statewide policy on this.
And when he failed to get legislation through the House to reform the juvenile criminal justice system—aimed at keeping youths out of large, locked, razor-wire facilities—he started working with a private foundation to help get some language in the budget to address the issue.
Another example has to do with his efforts to shut down the cruel practice of fox penning—where as many as 800 dogs are put into an enclosed area to hunt down and kill foxes for “sport.” While the House refused to pass a bill on this, it now appears that the attorney general will rule that fox penning proprietors are violating a Virginia law that bans the buying and selling of wild animals.
Kory said she expects a couple of her bills will pass, including measures to provide training to educators to help them better serve students who’ve had concussions, ban electronic devices in schools, and make it illegal for anyone under 18 from purchasing those devices.
Here’s a sample of some of the questions brought up by the audience:
Q – What are the chances of allowing undocumented youths to attend college at the in-state tuition rate?
A – Saslaw said this legislation is dead for the year. Kory, who’s been working on this for three years, said it was supported by all necessary subcommittees and committees, but then the Speaker of the House sent it to appropriations—even though it doesn’t cost anything—and that committee killed it.
“This is an economic development issue, as well as an equity and moral issue,” Kory said. “The opposition in the legislature comes from a lack of understanding of the problem.”
Q – Regarding Medicaid expansion, if the majority of businesses and chambers of commerce support it, why are the Republicans so opposed to it?
A – “This is a national issue now being played out on the state level,” Marsden said. “There are Republicans we can work with. What they’re terrified of is the primaries. Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t popular with the hardcore base of their party.”
In other words, if they get beat by a Tea Party candidate in a primary, they won’t make it to the general election. Saslaw vowed to help moderate Republicans who support Medicaid expansion win their primaries, especially in districts that Democrats couldn’t win anyway. “If they lose, they will be replaced by people who are just crazy,” he said.
Q – What’s the status of the bill aimed at voter suppression by requiring a photo ID and what about the attempt to restore voting rights for ex-offenders?
A – A bill to delay implementation of the photo ID law to 2014 was passed on a tie vote with former Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling voting with the Democrats, Saslaw said. He thinks the courts will strike it down.
Money was included in the budget to help people who don’t have drivers licenses get photo IDs, but it’s only enough to cover about half the people who need it, Kory added.
The governor has the authority to restore voting rights to ex-offenders on a case-by-case basis, and former Gov. Robert McDonnell restored voting rights to more felons than any previous governor, Saslaw said. It can’t be done on a mass basis by executive order.
Saslaw believes felons who serve their time should have their voting rights automatically restored, but the House of Delegates won’t support that.
Q – What are the chances for increasing education funding and raising teacher salaries?
A – Public education funding was only increased 1 percent this year, Saslaw said. “We ought to be able to do more for teachers. Whenever there’s a problem, we have to stop blaming the teachers. If you live in Great Falls, the kids are going to do better on SOLs than kids in Bailey’s Crossroads. Are the teachers any better? Absolutely not.”
Q – Any chance for redistricting? A new bipartisan group called One Virginia 2021, launched this week, is aimed at ensuring “voters choose legislators instead of legislators choosing voters.”
A – Redistricting isn’t likely to get through the House at this point, Saslaw said.
Q – What’s the status of ethics legislation?
A – The Senate and House passed nearly identical bills focusing on making campaign contributions more transparent, Saslaw said, although in every single ethics lapse he knows of since being elected in 1976, the issue with McDonnell was the only one that involved campaign contributions by a lobbyist.
Q – Why shouldn’t Dominion Power be required to purchase more energy from alternative sources in Virginia?
A – Dominion has already tried to develop wind facilities on two mountain tops but was voted down by local governments. Saslaw said he tried to get legislation passed to allow wind farms that generate at least 4 megawatts be exempt from local zoning regulations but the bill was opposed by environmental groups.
Q – Why doesn’t Dominion do tax credits in VA? Why give other states the incentive?
A – If we had to rely on renewable energy, “there would be no power 22 hours a day,” Saslaw said. People who don’t have access to solar or other alternative energy “would wind up subsidizing people who do.” Dominion is converting its coal facilities to natural gas, which is a lot cheaper.
Saslaw said he supports a wind farm offshore and told another audience member that local governments already have the authority to put solar panels on school roofs but “NIMBY overrides everything.”
Q – Will there be any attempts to crack down on car title lenders?
A – Saslaw maintained that title lenders are better than the alternative: People who can’t get credit or bank loans used to rely on street borrowing, with even higher interest and “when they didn’t pay off, they got the hell beaten out of them.”
Saslaw had a question for the audience: How many people would be in favor of casino gambling in Maryland? Only about a dozen of the 80 or so people there raised their hand.
Saslaw noted that the MGM casino approved for National Harbor will generate a huge windfall for Prince George’s County and that about 60 percent of its revenue will come from Northern Virginians.
Casinos actually improve people’s standard of living, he said, noting that the minimum wage for a casino worker is $22 an hour. “No study has ever proven that poor people gamble away all their money and lose their homes,” he said.