NEW IN TOWN: With a new Democratic governor, president of the Senate, and attorney general in town, here’s what to watch for in the 2014 General Assembly session.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — It’s a big week in Virginia politics, with one scandal-scarred governor leaving office and an incoming governor linked to two federal investigations taking his place.
Still, amid the farewell and inaugural speeches, the members of Virginia’s General Assembly have been busy gearing up for the 60-day legislative session that begins Wednesday.
Lawmakers have a $95 billion-plus, two-year budget to settle. And with hundreds of bills already filed, prohibiting everything from driving under the speed limit in the fast lane to having a firearm on the floor of the House of Delegates, they have their work cut out for them.
But there are a few issues likely to dominate the 2014 session. And with Democrats more powerful than in the previous four years, there could be some significant changes.
Here are the issues to keep tabs on in 2014.
Definition of marriage, LGBT issues
With many states trending towards allowing same-sex marriages, the purple state of Virginia is reconsidering it, too.
Because of a 2006 constitutional amendment approved by a majority of Virginia voters, the Virginia Constitution officially defines marriage as between one man and one woman. But, there’s a push from Democrats in the state to change that definition.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin, Sen. Janet Howell, and Delegate Scott Surovell have filed resolutions that, if approved, would begin the constitutional amendment process to repeal that law. Of course, the resolution would have to pass both houses of the General Assembly — two years in a row — before going back to the people for a vote. It’s a long process that could take years.
When it comes to LGBT issues, Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe has pledged that his first day in office will include issuing an executive order protecting gay, lesbian and transgender state workers from discrimination.
With Democrats controlling the executive branch — and potentially, the Senate, depending how special Senate elections play out — they’re issues that won’t be going away soon.
Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act
McAuliffe is pushing for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act — especially since his spending plan relies on dollars he believes will come with that increased reliance on the federal government.
Virginia’s Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission, tasked with assessing reforms of the Medicaid program and considering a path to expansion, isn’t close to coming up with a plan. But Virginians still can expect lots of heat from both pro- and anti-expansion lawmakers on this one.
And while Medicaid expansion will be the biggest fight over the Affordable Care Act in 2014, it isn’t the only one.
Republican Delegate Bob Marshall has filed a bill saying no health plan or employer is required to include contraception coverage.
Amending the U.S. Constitution
Think the federal government is out of control?
There’s a growing push nationally to call a convention of the states to limit federal power through constitutional amendments, a provision the Founding Fathers gave states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.
And a handful of Virginia legislators are leading the charge locally against what they perceive as an overreach by the president and lack of effectiveness in Congress.
In December, several of Virginia’s Republican legislators gathered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home in Northern Virginia to lay the ground rules for an Article V convention process — something that’s never been carried out successfully in American history.
And state Sen. Frank Ruff, Delegate Steve Landes, Delegate James LeMunyon, and Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, all Republicans, have filed bills supporting a convention of the states in some form.
“I think that most everybody is united around the issue of the burgeoning debt and spending that’s gone on in the country and how it’s had a tremendously negative impact on the country as a whole,” Lingamfelter, who attended the Mount Vernon meeting, told Watchdog.org last month.
Push for stricter ethics laws
Ethics reform — it’s perhaps the only major issue this year both Republicans and Democrats are rushing to put their names behind.
After Gov. Bob McDonnell’s tricky financial relationship with wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams exposed holes in Virginia’s gift and disclosure system, ethics reform became a popular topic for lawmakers around the state. McAuliffe pledged to put a cap on gifts of more than $100 to himself and his family as an executive order on his first day in office. And many lawmakers are pushing for an ethics commission to consider ethics laws and specific cases.
But in 2014, the rubber meets the road. With handfuls of bills to either combine or kill, lawmakers will have to decide which reforms should stick.
Challenges to the 2013 transportation law
Even advocates of Virginia’s historic 2013 transportation law, which raises taxes for roads, admitted it wasn’t perfect.
But the number of bills filed trying to alter parts of the law shows just how unpopular it is.
Republican Delegate Ben Cline has filed a bill that would expire the law’s provisions entirely on July 1.
Less drastic changes to the transportation law include delaying a scheduled increase in the sales tax and repealing the $64 annual license tax on hybrid electric cars.
Mental health reforms
When the mentally ill son of Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds stabbed and wounded the senator before killing himself in November, Virginia leaders jumped to action.
Gov. Bob McDonnell pledged to dedicate more funding to mental health. State lawmakers filed a handful of bills to strengthen protections for the mentally ill and those around them.
Deeds is leading the way. He’s bills that would do three things:
- Create a real-time registry for available psychiatric beds.
- Make it a felony to provide someone with a firearm who is prohibited from owning one.
- Increase the time authorities can hold someone under an emergency custody order, like the one issued to Deeds’ son before the incident at Deeds’ home.
Gun access and ownership
With the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., the 2013 Navy Yard shootings in nearby Washington, D.C., the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, and the suicide of Deeds’ son lingering in Virginians’ memories, state lawmakers are continuing to try to limit access to guns — and, conversely, to protect access to guns.
One bill introduced by Democratic state Sen. David Marsden would require criminal background checks for firearm transfers at gun shows.
Another bill filled by Republican Delegate Bob Marshall prohibits state employees from helping enforce any new federal restrictions imposed after Dec. 1, 2013, that limit the “right to keep and bear arms.”
It’s an annual fight in the Old Dominion. But with Democrats controlling the executive branch and potentially the Senate, stricter policies could have more pull.
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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