With a budget fight looming, the legislative session comes to a close

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Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo. Virginia's Capitol Building in Richmond. File photo.

Virginia’s whirlwind regular legislative session has ended, but with a budget left to pass, lawmakers have yet to put Richmond in their rear-view mirror. All eyes are on March 24 and the start of a special session and an expected showdown over Medicaid expansion.

But it hasn’t been all deadlock and drama. Now awaiting the pen of Governor Terry McAuliffe are a number of reforms championed by local legislators, many of which enjoyed bipartisan support.

State lawmakers followed through on their promise of major mental health care reform in the wake of the November 19 attack on State Senator Creigh Deeds by his mentally ill son, who later killed himself. Albemarle Delegate Rob Bell’s “bed of last resort” bill requires state-run mental hospitals to take involuntarily committed people if clinicians can’t find another place for them to go. The bill, a direct effort to prevent what allegedly happened in the Deeds case—Gus Deeds was released from emergency custody after officials said they couldn’t find a psychiatric bed for him—will steer $5 million to institutions like Western State Hospital in Staunton to create capacity.

The state still doesn’t have a complete report from the Office of the Inspector General on the breakdowns that led to Gus Deeds’ release, and the much-publicized resignation of the report’s initial author, G. Douglas Bevelacqua, over claims of forced revisions has only highlighted the system’s failings further. Bell acknowledged there’s more work to do.

“Once you have the emergency piece fixed, the next step would be to look at upstream factors,” he said. “Is there a way to catch people before they get that far?”

“My personal goals with respect to mental health reform were met,” Deeds wrote in his end-of-session missive to constituents. The new law “changes the paradigm,” he said, effectively ending “streeting,” where patients like his son were released because of a lack of resources. “These changes in the law will give the state enormous tools in mental health crisis situations,” Deeds said, including the extension of emergency custody hold times from 48 hours to 72 hours.

Also key was the approval of a four-year legislative study commission tasked with developing a comprehensive mental health care delivery system that Deeds hopes will be a model for other states.

“I will not settle for less,” he said.

Another bipartisan effort led in part by a local: Changes to Virginia’s famously lax ethics laws. House Minority Leader and Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano joined his Republican counterpart, Kirk Cox, in pushing a package that caps the value of gifts elected officials can receive at $250, requires more disclosure, and sets up a State Ethics Advisory Commission.

There’s been criticism that the changes don’t go far enough. A Washington Post editorial characterized it as “so slack it would be disingenuous to refer to it as ‘reform.’” But Toscano said the bill “represents a modest step forward toward restoring some faith that citizens have lost” as the result of the corruption scandal that ensnared former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, who both face federal charges stemming from allegations that they traded influence for money and gifts.

Albemarle Delegate Steve Landes joined Deeds in successfully moving legislation to cut the number of Standards of Learning tests Virginia students take during their elementary and middle school years by 20 percent, though there are no changes to high school testing. It’s a reform schools have been asking for for years, and it’s expected to save the state $3 million.

Another Bell-sponsored bill that adds to the offenses for which voters can petition to remove an elected official from office passed unanimously in both houses. The legislation, inspired by a failed attempt to cut loose former Albemarle County Supervisor Christopher Dumler after his conviction on a sexual battery charge, adds that offense and several others—consensual intercourse with a child 15 years of age or older, indecent exposure, and peeping—to a list that was previously focused primarily on drug offenses.

Bell also backed a bill that requires Commonwealth’s attorneys to review and hold hearings on name-change requests by sex offenders—an issue that resonated locally, as C-VILLE had investigated the name-change request of so-called “Graduation Day rapist” Jeffrey Theodore Kitze ahead of the session. Also uncontroversial was Bell’s “revenge porn” bill, which will make it a class one misdemeanor to maliciously distribute sexual photographs.

Some perennial pet bills again fell short. Bell’s “Tebow Bill,” which would make Virginia one of 30 states to allow home-schooled students to play on public school sports teams, passed in the House but died in a Senate committee dominated by Democrats, though Bell said he planned to try to get it passed again in 2015. Another effort to pass a law making drug testing for welfare applicants and recipients mandatory also fizzled, as it did last year; the measure never made it out of the House Appropriations Committee.

And what of the chances for harmony in the looming budget session as the two parties battle it out over Medicaid expansion? All you have to do is look to local delegates’ comments as the session came to a close to get a sense of how far apart the parties remain.

“It is impossible to separate a major program like Medicaid from the budget deliberations,” Toscano said in a prepared statement last week.

“It’s dangerous to tie it to the budget in a way that imperils all the other items in the budget,” Bell said. “It’s hostage taking.”