Medicaid expansion, not social issues, expected to dominate Va. legislative session


Lt. Governor-elect Ralph Northam, left, and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring get ready for the start of the Virginia Senate session as Virginia's General Assembly re-convened at the Virginia State Capitol on Wednesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

One issue will dominate Virginia’s legislature this year above most others: the proposed expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The measure carries huge financial implications for hospitals and other health-care providers. But it is also a deeply divisive issue, and its success or failure will signal how effectively incoming governor Terry McAuliffe can work with a Republican-dominated legislature.

Republicans, meanwhile, are more interested in discussing just about anything else with the governor, whom they have praised for his outreach generally.

“We’ve talked about areas where I thought there was common ground,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “If I were governor, those are the issues I’d focus on in my first year.”

Those issues include education reform, in which Dels. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun) and K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D-Alexandria) are both working on overhauling and paring back the state’s Standards of Learning tests.

There’s more disagreement over a law passed last year creating a state district to take over failing schools; some lawmakers hope to repeal it, while Greason thinks the first order of business should be to make it work.

“Let’s make sure we’re not saddling the commonwealth with an inoperable law,” he said.

Howell is planning a special committee to deal with mental health, an issue given new urgency after the suicide of the son of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). A bipartisan ethics bill, crafted before the session began and stemming from the gifts scandal that has engulfed outgoing governor Robert F. McDonnell, will be filed next week.

Following a path set by McDonnell (R), lawmakers from both parties have filed measures to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons.

The social issues that have dominated past sessions are largely absent from the agenda this year. There are multiple bills from Democrats hoping to repeal the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and roll back the mandatory ultrasound bill that passed amid great controversy two years ago, but these measures stand little chance in a House dominated by conservatives.

At the same time, Republicans aren’t on the offensive. Only one Republican has filed any bills related to abortion or birth control this session: Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), an aggressive and reliable conservative on social issues. And he’s only got a few in the hopper. While Marshall says he’s not backing down “in the least,” he acknowledged that his party leadership is not interested in joining the fight.

“Maybe they think they’re mother hens, protecting their Republicans from I don’t know what,” he said. “Laying down and playing dead; I find that disgusting and obsequious.”

One Republican House bill would allow religious expression in public schools, and a bipartisan measure would compensate people who were involuntarily sterilized by the state — both top priorities of the influential Family Foundation. The latter initiative failed last year, with opponents citing a lack of funds.

Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Goochland) has taken flak from liberal blogs for a bill that would clarify the state’s anti-sodomy “Crimes Against Nature” law, ruled unconstitutional in 2013 by a federal appeals court. His original bill said only that the law did not apply to consenting adults; he has since amended it to include consenting teenagers. However, Garrett said, “I draw the line at grown-ups having sex with kids.” A former prosecutor, he said he had seen a 37-year-old convicted under that law for propositioning a 13-year-old and did not want that man to be able to appeal on the grounds of constitutionality.

A bill from freshman Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) would make illegal “revenge porn,” the distribution of revealing photographs of another person without consent and with intent to cause distress. California and New Jersey are the only states in the country with laws targeting the practice.

Another bill from state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) would ban the celebratory shooting of guns in the air, a dangerous tradition that killed a 7-year-old in Chesterfield County last July Fourth. And a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate is underway to make sure Virginia textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea, the title Koreans prefer.

“It is not an attempt to change U.S. policy or the name of the ocean, that’s above my pay grade,” said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax). He just wants the textbooks to reflect the controversy, he said, which is taught on state tests. Similar legislation has died before, but he plans to put a major push behind it this time, along with legislation to help teenagers given sentences of life without parole for crimes that were not deadly.

Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Westmoreland) wants to ban drilling for oil and gas on the coastal plain east of Interstate 95, saying it’s necessary to protect the state’s groundwater — an environmental bill that will probably attract Democratic support. Lobbyists and lawmakers say legislation to regulate fracking in the state’s Northern Neck is likely to come up as well.

But any amount of bipartisan cooperation will be overshadowed by Medicaid, especially if McAuliffe holds to a campaign promise to ignore any budget that does not include the expansion.

“I’ve dismissed what he said as being a freshman mistake,” said Sen. Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City).

Lobbyists in the health-care industry hold out hope that a deal with Republicans can be made.

“The hurdle that we have to get over is the willingness to accept the federal funds,” said Katharine M. Webb, senior vice president at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association. As for whether that’s possible, she says, “It’s much too early to tell. These things require a lot of fermenting.”

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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