Gaveled into session on January 10th, the 2018 General Assembly Session is now in full swing. As always on even years, the General Assembly meets for 60 rather than 45 days to consider legislation. Although longer, the even-year session moves just as fast, as legislators plow through many bills and budget amendments. The 2018 Session is considerably different from previous years as the past election cycle has dramatically shifted the dynamic. With a more even balance of power, there are high hopes that the General Assembly will be able to work together in a bipartisan fashion to address some critical issues. Along with a change in the composition of the House of Delegates, last year’s election also brought a change in our executive branch. Our new Governor, Ralph Northam, has been busy organizing his administration and setting his agenda for the next four years. Although a lot has changed, we still must work to ensure that Northern Virginia gets its fair share. This session, I am focusing on securing funding for WMATA to get Metrorail back on track, improving our elections’ systems, expanding paid family leave benefits for our hard-working State employees, and most importantly passing Medicaid Expansion for the poor uninsured.
Since 2014, Virginia has elected not to accept new federal funds, preventing up to 400,000 Virginians from receiving quality, routine and preventative health care. In the 43rd District, more than 1,600 people would gain health care coverage if my bill, HB 348 to expand Medicaid becomes law.
A prime beneficiary of the new funds would be individuals, including veterans, suffering from mental illnesses, opioid addiction. Over the biennium, accepting the funds provides a plus $138 million net to our bottom line because some services now provided on a 50-50 basis are services that are eligible for the 90-plus federal funds.
Currently, our uninsured neighbors show up at the emergency room, and the hospital is required to serve them. Providing care in this manner is expensive and inefficient. The resulting cost is baked into insurance premiums paid by society-at-large. If we are ever to get control of rising health care costs—the number one concern of Virginians—we need to start unpacking cross-subsidies in the health care system. The first step is to ensure that every single low-income Virginian has a way to pay for routine preventative care, or secure a health care home. Opposition to expansion is based on the fear that states would eventually be left holding the bag because Congress could not keep its commitment to fund 90 percent of the expansion population over the long term.
What Congress does in the future is a reasonable concern, but the direction Congress wants to take is now crystal clear. This past fall, Congress came within a single vote of block-granting the entire Medicaid program—NOT just the expansion population, but the entire existing program, to the states. With a base per capita expenditure level that is 46th in the Nation, Virginia would have been a colossal loser. By enacting HB 348, Virginia will be better prepared for the far-reaching change Congress may continue to pursue.
According to a study done by Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican political and public affairs survey research firms, 83 percent of Virginians favor a plan to help uninsured people access health care. Every day we refuse to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth we turn away $6.6 million of our very own tax dollars and that cannot continue. I will be working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that we enact the will of a supermajority of Virginians and deploy our own federal tax money to close the coverage gap now.
A major problem facing 43rd District residents is the declining use of Metrorail and the consequent increase in single passenger cars on the road. For all those who depend on Metro for their daily commute, and for those like myself who use Metro several times a week, we have a lot at stake in turning WMATA around.
Metro is the backbone of the DMV transit system and was once the envy of cities across the country. Under the leadership of Paul Wiedefeld for the last year, WMATA is making progress.
WMATA, however, must give riders more compelling reasons to return. With ridesharing companies offering competitive rates and arguably more reliable service, management, state and local elected officials, and rank-and-file employees must work together to draw commuters back.
The system needs dedicated funding sources from all participating jurisdictions. Creative solutions are needed. Recently, D.C. adopted legislation that requires employers to offer “pre-tax or subsidized commuter benefits” in order to cut employee commuting costs and incentivizing public transit usage. This saves employers up to nine percent on payroll taxes. We should explore similar win-win solutions here in Virginia.
Before leaving office, Governor McAuliffe included funding in his outgoing biennial budget to cover Virginia’s $154 million share of WMATA’S $500 million annual capital needs. This helped start the conversation about potential long-term funding options for Metro and alternative formulas to cover the Virginia share.
I have introduced a budget amendment, Item 454 #2h that proposes an alternative formula for funding. My main concern about the Governor’s proposed formula is the amount taken from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA). My proposal would considerably reduce NVTA funds by supplanting them with other revenue sources.
We will be working on this issue throughout Session. It is one of the Northern Virginia delegation’s top priorities and hopefully can garner some bipartisan support, considering that Metro is a critical economic driver for the entire Commonwealth.
Over the past 14 years, I have served on the Privileges and Elections Committee and am now the senior Democrat. I have tried to help move Virginia toward a fairer and more transparent election system in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
In pursuit of this goal and in response to recent problems and revelations by the Washington Post about the shocking deficiencies in our election administration, I introduced a series of non-partisan bills with input from the Department of Elections and with the support of Governor Northam’s administration. The legislation would bolster state oversight of the general registrars and the local electoral boards in the Commonwealth. One of my bills, HB 1250 provides the State Board of Elections, through the Department and the Commissioner of Elections, authority to ensure the retraining of local electoral boards and general registrars who have not complied with all applicable state and federal, laws and regulations.
I also introduced HB 1216, which establishes a review process for the Department of Elections to ensure that whenever changes are made to local election districts or precincts, all voters have been assigned correctly. This should help address the issues raised by the Washington Post article. The fact that over 6,000 registered voters could have been disenfranchised this past cycle because they were assigned to the wrong district is unacceptable.
Paid Family Leave
One of my long-term goals is to expand paid family leave benefits for all of our hard-working Virginians to help ensure that having a new child is a celebrated milestone and not a financial burden. Before the State can require the private sector to provide these benefits, we must hold ourselves to the same standard and provide them for our own employees.
The workforce is drastically changing in the Commonwealth, including the growing number of working families. In over 70 percent of Virginia households with children, both parents are working to make ends meet. Virginia women now compose up to 48 percent of our workforce and our policies need to reflect these changes.
Hard-working state employees must use their limited vacation and sick days for parental leave. They are faced with the impossible decision of returning to work too early or dealing with potential financial insecurity. By granting family leave for Virginia’s employees, HB 1529 is the first step to expanding these benefits for all Virginians. HB 1529 would allow full-time state employees to be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave and up to 30 days of medical leave. This is a long overdue measure to help the State become more competitive in attracting new talent.
This issue has bipartisan support and there are many other versions of this legislation. The newly elected Republican Speaker, Kirk Cox has already indicated his support to expand parental leave benefits for employees of the House of Delegates. There is a good chance we will make some progress on this issue.