Put on ice: The General Assembly is in session

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David Toscano says gun safety bills are likely to be stalled in the House of Delegates. Photo: File photo David Toscano says gun safety bills are likely to be stalled in the House of Delegates. Photo: File photo

State Senator Creigh Deeds compares the 2016 General Assembly session, which starts January 13, to a Talking Heads lyric: “Same as it ever was.” Says Charlottesville’s senior legislator, “It’ll be about money and health care.”

Virginia’s part-time legislature passes a balanced budget every two years, and the 60-day session has been known to drag into June, as happened in 2014. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe unveiled a $109 billion budget in December, the largest in Virginia’s history, notes Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County.

The budget also includes Medicaid expansion, an option the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Delegates have repeatedly said is a no-go.

“The biggest thing this year is this is Governor McAuliffe’s first two-year budget,” says House Minority Leader David Toscano. “He’s trying to secure his legacy as a governor. The No. 1 lift for me is to try to protect what he has in his budget.”

Atypical this year: Virginia has a surplus rather than a deficit. “This is only the second time in 12 years we actually have some additional dollars to work with,” says Delegate Steve Landes, a Republican representing the 25th District, which includes western Albemarle.

Despite strong partisanship in the Capitol, local legislators agree there are a lot of issues that have support on both sides of the aisle.

McAuliffe has made education funding a top priority and proposes a 2 percent raise for state employees. “Raises for teachers and public employees have a lot of support,” says Toscano.

Bioscience research, development and cybersecurity funding tied to universities and community colleges “have a very strong chance of passage,” says Toscano. So do the job creation elements in the budget, he says.

Federal sequestration in 2013 hit Virginia hard. “The days of federal government largesse are coming to an end,” says Toscano. “A lot of things in the budget have strong bipartisan support.”

Landes likes that McAuliffe put money—more than $600 million—into the state’s rainy day fund. And he says he agrees with relaxing the accelerated sales tax for 90 percent of retailers who have had to pay it in advance.

Republican Senator Bryce Reeves, who represents eastern Albemarle in the 17th district, wants a smaller budget and state income tax cuts. “The budget seems to grow every year,” he says. “The governor has put so many political things in it it’s going to be a beast.”

While previous budget years have had scorched-earth debates, Landes says, “I don’t think it will be necessarily contentious. I think it will be an active and robust discussion. I know we’ll be working with the governor and agree when we can—and won’t when we can’t.”

Medicaid expansion

Since he took office in 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe has attempted to expand Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians who don't have health insurance by using federal dollars in the Affordable Care Act. Photo: John Robinson
Since he took office in 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe has attempted to expand Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians who don’t have health insurance by using federal dollars in the Affordable Care Act. Photo: John Robinson

Since he took office in 2014, McAuliffe has tried to take advantage of federal dollars in the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians who don’t have health insurance.

“It’s not going to fly,” says Landes. “We’ve got to back that portion out of the budget.

“We’ve repeatedly made it clear that’s not going to happen,” echoes Republican Delegate Rob Bell, who will be running for attorney general in 2017. “The final budget will not look like what the governor sent down.”

The Dems remain hopeful but realistic. “There are a lot of moving parts,” says Toscano. “The economics are such that without expansion, we’re taking away millions a day, not to mention the human cost of people who can’t get insurance.”

Says Toscano, “If anything passes, because Republicans have their feet in cement, it won’t be called Medicaid expansion.”

Deeds points out that McAuliffe has tied expansion to some modest tax cuts as an incentive to Republicans. “The good news is we still have the option to do the right thing for 400,000 Virginians,” he says. “They’re the working poor and we already provide health care for them in the emergency rooms.”

Geoffrey Skelley with UVA’s Center for Politics says any Republicans supporting Medicaid expansion would open themselves to attack in the 2017 primary. “Their opponents could suggest they’re essentially going along with Obamacare.”

And if McAuliffe holds firm, it could put him in a difficult position and make it harder to get support for other projects, Skelley says. “The Republican legislature could send him a budget and if he doesn’t sign it, [it could] say he’s holding up the budget.”

Guns and legislators

Gun violence is another national issue that will play out in Virginia. A week before the General Assembly session started, President Barack Obama issued executive orders strengthening background checks. In October, McAuliffe banned guns in state buildings. And right before Christmas, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring said Virginia will revoke its reciprocity agreements with other states on concealed gun permits.

Meanwhile, following the San Bernardino slayings, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students and faculty to obtain concealed carry permits.

A week before the session began, there were around two dozen bills filed on guns, both tightening background checks and expanding concealed carry.

Toscano predicts a series of bills to loosen where guns can be carried: in schools, by teachers, in airports. “I do not think any of those bills will pass,” he says. And on wedge issues such as guns, says Toscano,  “The governor doesn’t have a lot of patience with that. And we can sustain a veto.”

He adds, “I don’t think any gun safety bills will pass. They won’t get through the House.”

Toscano carried a bill last year that allowed private gun sellers to have voluntary background checks at gun shows done instantaneously by the Virginia State Police as it does for licensed dealers. “Even that couldn’t get passed,” he says.

Landes has heard a lot of concerns about Herring’s action on concealed carry reciprocity. “We’re trying to figure out what precipitated that,” he says. “There’s a suspicion it was politically motivated. It’s not coming from the state police.”

“I think we’ll see legislation on that,” says Bell.

And indeed, Reeves is carrying a bill to reinstitute concealed carry, and says there will be four other bills doing so.

Following McAuliffe’s executive order banning guns in state buildings and Herring’s decision on concealed carry, Senator Bill Carrico threatened to defund the governor’s security detail if he doesn’t want guns in government buildings. “That’s very much a stunt,” says Skelley.

But Reeves thinks such reactions are less about guns and the Second Amendment and more about the use of executive power to bypass the legislature. “I think there’s going to be pushback,” he says.

Presidential politics

About the same time the General Assembly will be debating the budget, the 2016 presidential primary season will be in full swing. Virginia’s is March 1, and, of course, the national election is in November.

“Virginia is a very important swing state,” says Skelley, “perhaps the most watched state because of its proximity to Washington. There will be a lot of maneuvering with the presidential elections in mind.”

And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, is “Terry McAuliffe’s good friend,” says Skelley.

However, Republicans Reeves and Bell don’t see the presidential race having much impact on the General Assembly. “Frankly, people pay less attention to us because the presidential election is so exciting,” says Bell.

Toscano predicts more bills to make it more difficult for people to vote. “That’s part of the Republican strategy to discourage turnout of the Democratic base that doesn’t vote in every election,” he says.

With Herring’s action on concealed carry and if McAuliffe holds fast on Medicaid, says Skelley, “These are all opportunities to make a splash politically, while not necessarily from a good government standpoint.”

One thing local Dem and GOP legislators share is the desire the session not drag on.

“I’d like to see us get out early,” says Reeves. “I think everyone’s a little tired after reelection. Now it’s time to get down to governing.”

The bills that bind us

Along with producing a budget, Virginia legislators have been known to file thousands of bills to consider during their 60-day session. At press time, fewer than 1,400 had been filed—but there were still a couple of days left to do so.

Waldo Jaquith, creator of Richmond Sunlight, which tracks legislation, says he’s seeing an uptick in gun bills. “I guess it reflects the national debate.” And he notes “the usual rate” of Democrats trying to expand voting rights.

“What I haven’t yet seen is the one that’s going to humiliate Virginia,” he says, although there’s a strong contender: Delegate Dave LaRock’s gender discrimination bill, which seems to target the transgender community, calls for “analysis of the individual’s gonadal, internal and external morphologic, chromosomal and hormonal characteristics.” Explains Jaquith, “If you want to accuse someone of discrimination on the basis of sex, you’ve got to prove your gender first.”

Here’s a smattering of legislation the General Assembly will be considering.

Pass a stopped school bus and you can get a summons in the mail. (HB243)

Punching out the referee would be a Class 1 misdemeanor. (HB295)

Restaurants can sell more booze with the food-alcohol ratio lowered from 45 percent food to 25 percent. (HB219)

Registered sex offenders can’t have special license plates that say “Kids first.” (HB305)

Transportation of turkey toes and feathers allowed. (HB360)

Legislators can still have free lunch from lobbyists. (SB213)

Pretending your pooch is a service dog will be a Class 4 misdemeanor. (HB270)

No tanning booths for the underage. (HB356)

Electronic communications service providers can be secretly subpoenaed. (HB326)

You must be convicted of a crime before assets can be seized. (SB108)

Prosecutors have a duty to provide evidence to the defense. (HB246)

Justifiable police homicides must be reported in the annual Crime in Virginia report. (HB301)

Localities can ban plastic bags. “First time I’ve seen it carried by a Republican,” says Jaquith. (HB288)

FOIA focus

Every year Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is the subject of bills that provide citizens more access to what their government is doing—and bills that attempt to gut it.

“There’s a higher number of pro-access bills so far,” says Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “Several bring us important concepts, such as access to closed criminal investigation files.” Another undoes actions taken in improperly closed meetings, she says.

“So far the most troubling” bill filed limits government employee salary disclosure, says Rhyne. Currently salaries under $10,000 are exempt from disclosure. SB202 would up that to $30,000, and prohibit names from being disclosed in a database, something the Cavalier Daily does annually on UVA employees. “It doesn’t define database,” says Rhyne. Conceivably, posting a name and salary on a blog could be illegal. “It’s a very troubling law for us,” she says.

Although it may appear Hillary Clinton is the inspiration for HB398, which requires elected officials and public employees to use government e-mail accounts to conduct government business, it’s been
a concern for years, says Rhyne. Private e-mails are “not practical from a government records standpoint,” she says.

Last year, Albemarle County amended the comprehensive plan for an undisclosed brewery, refusing to reveal the name of the business for which it was changing the county’s land use. A couple of FOIA bills tighten up nondisclosure agreements, requiring them to be approved in an open meeting and nixing a nondisclosure exemption before a building permit or site plan can be approved.

They’ve got issues

Photo: File photo
Photo: File photo

Charlottesville and Albemarle have six legislators (hello, gerrymandering) headed to Richmond. The ones closest to Charlottesville talked to us about some of the bills they’ll be carrying.

Senator Creigh Deeds (D)

25th District, Millboro

Bath County native Deeds, who’s served in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, will be heading to the General Assembly for the 25th time.

In 2013, his son, Gus, was denied a hospital bed during a mental health crisis, attacked Deeds and then committed suicide. Needless to say, mental health care reform is a major issue for Deeds, and in November he filed a $6 million lawsuit against the state. He and Delegate Rob Bell have been working on a four-year study of the state’s mental health care system, and when it’s done in 2017, “We hope to make a bold initiative,” says Deeds. This session, he’s carrying a bill that would allow family input when faced with an emergency custody situation.

Redistricting reform has been a perennial for Deeds for almost as long as he’s been in the legislature. “There’s no more fundamental change we can make than to reform the redistricting process with a constitutional amendment,” he says.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has roiled Nelson County. “I’m not for or against the pipeline,” he says, but “I don’t think it’s right for gas companies to go on people’s property.”

Lawyers locally have asked for another circuit court judge for the 16th Judicial Circuit, and Deeds says he’s looking for a less partisan way to pick judges.

Deeds is working with distillers in Nelson to “put them on a more level playing field with beer and wine,” he says. The loss of pollinators—bees, bats and butterflies—is “foundational” to the economy, and he says he’s working with the apiary and agricultural community to come up with a long-term approach.

He admits he used to think carrying bills for a state insect or state beverage was kind of silly, but when a group of Piedmont Virginia Community College students asked that Nelsonite become the Virginia state rock, Deeds thought, if this helps get young people interested in state government, why not?

Senator Bryce Reeves (R)

17th District, Spotsylvania

What Reeves likes about the revenue surplus is that it’s a chance to reduce the state income tax by returning around $135 million to taxpayers. “Everyone would get about a $1,000 tax break,” he says.

He’s carrying a bill that would give teachers a tax credit up to $500 for the unreimbursed spending they do in the classroom.

Almost every legislator has a pet issue they keep bringing back every year, and, for Reeves, it’s raising the threshold for grand larceny, which is a felony, from $200 to $500. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” he says. He believes it hasn’t gotten traction in the past because some Republicans see it as being “soft on crime.” But he says it would save the state more than $22 million over six years, not to mention the human cost and lives affected.

He points out that even the Koch brothers support criminal justice reform. And Reeves won’t be alone. Several other bills have been filed that do the same thing.

Delegate Rob Bell (R)

58th District, Albemarle

After the session, Bell, an attorney, will be making his second run for attorney general. He’s been working with Deeds on the mental health commission, and has a couple of bills in mind for this year.

“There’s no required notification of family at commitment hearings,” he says. And, like Deeds, he has a family input bill. “Now, if a clinician decides a person shouldn’t be committed, there’s no recourse for family.” For adults over 18, the family has both an interest and may have additional info not available to the clinician, he says.

Quite often in writing legislation it’s about coming up with the right language, and Bell has been working to define what constitutes stalking, including looking at a 50-state survey. The answer on when behavior becomes threatening was surprisingly simple: “If you tell them to stop,” he says, comparing it to trespassing, where one has to give a warning before it’s illegal to come onto private property. “It was a eureka moment,” says Bell.

Bell’s perennial since 2010 is the Tebow bill, which would allow students not enrolled in public schools to participate in sports.

Another perennial is a constitutional amendment for charter schools that would bypass localities, which now hold the authority to establish those schools. “Local input has become a local veto,” he says. Constitutional amendments have to pass the General Assembly twice before they go on the ballot, and this will be the second round for Bell. “I’ve got a son who has needed a different approach, and lots of families have that situation,” he says.

Delegate Steve Landes (R)

25th District, Weyers Cave

Tenth-termer Landes is chair of the education committee, and it’s no surprise that he has ed-centric legislation. He’s looking for a two-year study on the standards of quality, including what impact technology has on current standards of learning. “It’s a top-to-bottom review,” he says, “not piecemeal.”

He also wants institutions of higher education to report to the General Assembly what activities they’re involved in that affect local and regional economies. “Now there’s no requirement,” he says. “A lot of government money is going to universities. A lot of activities are going on”—he cites bioscience as an example—“we don’t always know about. This would help us make better decisions in funding.”

Landes is looking at economic development in agriculture, too. The Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund provides $50,000 to $100,000 grants to start-ups, and Kelly free-range turkeys in Crozet received one, he says. Landes wants to expand its definition of ag activities to include aquaculture, such as oyster and trout farming.

Delegate David Toscano (D)

57th District, Charlottesville

Toscano, a family law attorney, usually carries bills pertaining to his field, and this year he’s working on something called Fostering Futures. “A lot of kids age out of foster care at 18 and have no plans for where they’re going,” he says. This measure would extend support for 18- to 21-year-olds who choose to opt in, he says.

Another bill would allow those 65 and older “to vote early without an excuse,” says Toscano. Currently to get an absentee ballot in Virginia, one must have an approved reason for not showing up at the polls. “Let’s make it easier for anyone over 65 to vote,” he urges.

A couple of Toscano bills deal with energy. One would allow localities to give homeowners loans for installing solar energy that would be paid back in property tax bills. Another lets electric car owners send energy back to the grid when the vehicle isn’t in use.

And Toscano wants to give students for whom English is a second language a break and not have to immediately pass SOLs. “They may be perfectly smart but don’t know English well,” he says.

Delegate Matt Fariss (R)

59th District, Rustburg

Fariss, who runs a livestock auction in Lynchburg and lives 70 miles from some of his southern Albemarle constituents, can be difficult to catch up with, although he told C-VILLE a couple of years ago he does meet with those he represents—in Lovingston. This year was no exception, and the delegate from Rustburg did not respond to multiple requests from C-VILLE, although an aide did e-mail two bills he’d be carrying.

One allows property owners to sue those who fly picture-taking drones over their property. Another requires animal control officers and humane investigators to include a description of their animal intake policy in annual reports to the state veterinarian.

“I think it will be an active and robust discussion,” says Republican Delegate Steve Landes. “I know we’ll be working with the governor and agree when we can—and won’t when we can’t.”