Key issues unresolved, midway through legislative session
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers hit the halfway point of this year’s legislative session Tuesday with some of their biggest issues still unsettled.
It’s unclear whether the GOP-controlled General Assembly will act to expand Medicaid, a top priority of Gov. Ralph Northam. Budget negotiations are still in the early stages, and a major rewrite of Virginia’s oversight of electric monopolies has passed each chamber in different forms which will have to be reconciled.
Tuesday was the deadline for all legislation, except for budget bills, to pass in the chambers where they originated. Hundreds more bills have already died.
“As we look back on the legislation that has not made it through crossover, it is clear that Virginians’ voices are not being heard on many key issues, including preventing gun violence, increasing access to the voting booth and protecting all Virginians from discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation,” Northam, a Democrat, said in a statement. He also touted compromises reached with Republicans on regulatory reform and increasing the threshold for felony larceny.
Here is a look at what’s gotten done and what’s still to come:
Republican leaders in both chambers have signaled willingness to work with Northam on expanding Medicaid to provide health care coverage to more low-income Virginians.
But it’s unclear whether a deal will come together or what form it might take.
Most observers expect the state budget will be the mechanism for any expansion. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed a spending plan in December that projects a savings of $421.7 million over two years, due to expanding Medicaid.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment said recently that lawmakers are still wrestling with whether to include all of that money, part of it, or none of it in their own version of the budget.
The status of a major rewrite of the state’s electric utility regulation is unclear after a last-minute amendment passed the House, despite assurances from Dominion Energy and the Northam administration that it wasn’t needed.
Dominion, Virginia’s biggest electric monopoly, wants to limit state regulators’ ability to lower rates as part of an overhaul it says is needed to increase spending on grid upgrades and renewable energy. The House passed an amendment Monday that would prevent the company from effectively charging customers’ twice for some capital spending, a significant change to the legislation that passed the Senate and was agreed to between Northam and Dominion.
The governor and the electric company have yet to comment directly on the amendment, and it’s unclear what the final legislation will look like.
Lawmakers must tackle Virginia’s biennial $100 billion-plus state budget this session while facing pressure to increase teacher pay and help shore up the Washington-area’s struggling subway system.
McAuliffe’s proposal, which would pad the state’s rainy day fund and give state workers a 2 percent raise, will serve as a starting point.
Republicans will soon release their own version.
Virginia senators have advanced a bill that would block for at least another year Dominion’s controversial plans to bury coal ash in place at four power plants across the state.
The bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell and Republican Sen. Amanda Chase would extend an existing moratorium on coal ash pond closures, except for ponds that have already had the ash excavated.
The measure, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, 37-3, would also require Dominion to request bids from coal ash recycling companies and turn that information over to the General Assembly, which will study the issue further.
Coal ash is a heavy metal-laden byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. Environmentalists say it should not be left in the ground because of its potential to pollute groundwater.
Democratic lawmakers hoped they could gain some ground this year on gun control, but their hopes so far have largely been dashed.
GOP-controlled committees have defeated bills that would allow cities and counties to restrict firearms at certain public events like the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, where many attendees were heavily armed. A measure that would mandate background checks on all guns bought at gun shows has been defeated. So have measures intended to ban bump stocks, the device used by a gunman who opened fire in Las Vegas, killing 58 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The House voted down a proposal that would have banned guns in the chamber’s gallery while lawmakers are on the floor.
In one bright spot for gun-control advocates, a measure to repeal a state law prohibiting weapons in a place of worship during a religious service failed to advance out of the House.