February 16, 2018
A few times this session, I smiled warmly when Democratic lawmakers were able to shift the proverbial tide towards a fairer and more just Commonwealth. Some progress on Medicaid Expansion and the inclusion of better consumer protection elements in the Dominion Energy bill were two such examples. More details on these topics follow.
However, the shooting at a Florida high school this week demonstrated how backward the country is on addressing gun safety issues and the need for states to take more of a role in keeping us safe. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had links on his Facebook page to a white supremacist group and he reportedly commented on YouTube that he would be a professional “school shooter.”
How did Nikolas get access to a firearm when school administrators, his fellow students, and the FBI all had reason to believe he was dangerous? Democrats reminded the Senate that bills to implement a true universal background check and ban bump stocks, among other bills, had been universally defeated by the Republican majority and called for a bi-partisan approach to coming up with a solution. Unfortunately, I am not hopeful that Virginia will make any progress on this issue this session. To get better policies, we have to change the decision-makers. I think we can agree that 2019 cannot come soon enough!
Regarding my education bills, I am particularly pleased that my bills to create an option for a shorter teacher preparation program, to provide more flexibility in addressing truancy issues, and to specify policies to prohibit “shaming children” when lunch fees are unpaid, seem to be surviving the deliberation process in the House.
A bill raising $150 million for the Metropolitan Washington Transit System (METRO) passed the Senate this past week. The bill enables Virginia to honor its share of the regional commitment necessary to draw down Federal funding and, most importantly, to provide an ongoing, dedicated source of revenue to METRO. Some state dollars are part of the $150M, along with slight increases in specific taxes associated with the Transient Occupancy Tax, Grantors Tax, and Real-Estate recordation tax. Fortunately, a gasoline floor proposal is part of the METRO funding and local leaders will be asked to dedicate some NVTC dollars to METRO. A House bill passed that falls short of the $150M; some experts expect the House version to raise only $100M. There will be more to discuss on this topic as the proposal grinds through the legislative process.
Unfortunately, my bill that would have allowed Fairfax County to issue permits to residents who are now prohibited from turning into their neighborhood streets during certain times failed on a 20-20 vote in the Senate. However, Delegate Murphy had a companion bill (HB295) in the House and it passed that body overwhelmingly. With help from Supervisor Foust and constituents in Great Falls and McLean, I am hopeful that Delegate Murphy’s bill will pass the Senate.
The Senate adopted an aspirational bill with bi-partisan support, but no funding mechanism was included, which moves us closer to agreement on an outline for a Medicaid Expansion proposal.
The bill (SB915) increases the income eligibility from 100 to 138 percent of the federal poverty level for uninsured Virginians. It extends program eligibility to individuals with a diagnosis of mental illness, substance use disorder, or a life-threatening or complex chronic medical condition. The benefit package would include inpatient hospital and emergency room services and requires that enrollees participate in the Commonwealth Coordinated Care Plus pilot program. Although not perfect, I voted for this bill in the Senate.
I did mention on the floor that SB915 was a step in the right direction, but we also need to provide on-going primary and preventive health services. We know that individuals and families have a much better chance of staying healthy if they have medical homes.
Short-Term Health Plans:
I am proud to say that the Senate passed a bill, commonly called the Gap Insurance Plan, that will enable individuals to purchase catastrophic health insurance for a period not to exceed 364 consecutive days. The Federal Affordable Care Act permits states to adopt such an option and data suggests that younger, healthier individuals might be inclined to select this plan. The deductible will be no more than $7,200 dollars and expensive, acute care services would be covered. We expect premiums for such a plan to be more reasonable than other insurance plans on the market. Any progress we can make to get more folks to purchase health insurance is a good thing!
Supporting our Hospitals & the Uninsured:
We must not limit access to care by causing harm to hospitals. The Senate debated reversing some Certificate of Public Need Requirements (COPN) to enable low-cost profit-making services, now provided by hospitals, to enjoy stand-alone status with little or no obligation to provide charity care. Imaging services, colonoscopy procedures and other services were debated within the COPN context, but it became clear that low overhead procedures bring in revenue and allow hospitals to off-set some of the costs associated with serving those who need care but are uninsured. Although a small COPN repeal bill passed the Senate, the House has not viewed this topic favorably. I expect the topic to take more twists and turns as the General Assembly moves to a broader discussion about access to health care.
Reinvestment in our Power Grid–Energy Security:
A bill passed the Senate (SB 966) that repeals Dominion Energy’s 2015 rate freeze review and restores full regulatory oversight over Dominion (Hurray)! The bill also empowers the SCC to consider reducing rates in 2021 with no possibility of a rate increase for consumers. Additionally, Dominion is required to issue $200M in rate credits to consumers who were overcharged during the rate freeze period and to reduce power rates by an additional $125M. Another big benefit to the bill is the requirement that Dominion make $1.45B in investments in energy efficiency projects and low-income energy assistance over the next 10 years.
The Energy Security bill got even better in the House. The Democrats added a provision to prohibit the utility company from charging ratepayers twice for expensive projects to upgrade the grid and for investments in renewable energy. There will be more back and forth on this issue as the legislative session continues.
Once again, many groups visited the Capitol during the past week. I met with the Virginia Realtors Association, the Auto Dealers Association, local government leaders, advocates for local control over the school start date, the Dominion Equine Welfare group, the Virginia League of Women Voters, and the Girl Scouts, to name just a few of the organizations that made their voices heard in Richmond.
It is an honor and privilege to represent you in Richmond. Rest assured, I will always fight for our Democratic values.