RICHMOND — Virginia’s General Assembly plowed through hundreds of bills Tuesday, reaching broad consensus on ethics, school testing and mental health reforms while also picking new partisan fights and bracing for a Medicaid battle that will test Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s ability to work across the aisle.
Racing against a deadline to get bills out of one chamber and into the other, legislators put the final touches on measures aimed at limiting gifts to public officials, reducing standardized tests in public schools and improving the handling of psychiatric emergencies — all priorities that enjoy bipartisan support.
The Senate and House also found time to push through partisan zingers, passed with the hope of creating political fodder but little expectation that they will clear the other chamber.
Senate Democrats voted to repeal a 2012 law requiring women to get an ultrasound, and be offered a view of the fetus, before an abortion. They also passed a bill to raise the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage to $8.25 this year and $9.25 next. Neither measure is expected to succeed in the Republican-controlled House.
House Republicans, for their part, sent the Senate a bill that would give the legislature the power to defend state laws if the attorney general will not, a measure aimed at protecting the state’s ban on same-sex marriages. And they approved a bill, inspired by a scarcity of lethal-injection drugs, that would change the state’s default method of execution to the electric chair.
Those skirmishes will soon give way to what is expected to be an outright brawl over whether to expand Medicaid under the federal health-care law known informally as Obamacare. The issue will make its belated debut as part of the Senate budget bill to be unveiled Sunday.
The Democratic governor and a majority of the Senate are pushing for expansion, saying it will provide health coverage to 400,000 needy Virginians and create more than 30,000 new jobs. Republicans in the House are flatly opposed, contending that the federal government cannot afford to make good on its promise to pick up most of the $2 billion-a-year tab.
Resolution of that weighty issue seems destined for the frenzied behind-the-scenes budget negotiations typical of the final days of a session. That’s a prospect that gives little comfort to people on either side.
“This threatens once again to put our budget in jeopardy,” said House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who opposes expansion. “I think that’s extremely dangerous.”
Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, which advocates for expansion, was no happier.
“It’s unfortunate that these decisions — that have huge repercussions for Virginia families and their ability to access affordable care — that they . . . really come down to a couple of days behind closed doors.”
Tuesday was “crossover,” the psychic midpoint of the session, though not technically the numerical middle. (It was Day 35 of a legislative sprint that began Jan. 8 and ends March 8.) It was the last day for non-budget legislation to make it out the chamber where it originated so it could move to the other house for its consideration. Bills that didn’t emerge were dead.
The mood was decidedly more partisan than when McAuliffe was sworn in, amid much Republican and Democratic good cheer, on the fourth day of session.
A special election won last month by the narrowest of margins allowed Democrats to seize a working majority in the evenly divided Senate, where Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) has the power to cast tie-breaking votes.
Initially wooed by his moderate cabinet picks and personal outreach to Republicans, some GOP legislators were soon put off by McAuliffe’s hard push for Medicaid expansion and his support for a decision by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) not to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage in a federal court case.
When McAuliffe found himself caught between a major trading partner, Japan, and a campaign promise to the Korean community, the GOP made sure the bill at the center of it all did not die quietly in committee, as McAuliffe had hoped. House Republican leaders have openly criticized McAuliffe’s governing style as too hands off and too short on specifics.
“It does appear that the era of bipartisanship and good feelings lasted a few weeks and then dissipated,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political observer. “People are laying down pretty firm positions on Medicaid expansion.”
McAuliffe, who continues to energetically court Republicans with one-on-one meetings and nightly receptions at the Executive Mansion, seemed eager Tuesday to rekindle the bipartisan vibe with statements giving both parties credit for some of the day’s accomplishments.
Partisanship did not bleed into every bill churned out by the House and Senate. The GOP-dominated House imposed a one-year delay on plans to give public schools A-through-F rankings — one of former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell’s signature education reforms.
One of the most heartfelt House debates Tuesday surrounded a bill on reckless driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Christopher T. Head (R-Botetourt), makes it a felony to cause someone’s death while driving on a suspended license, no matter the reason for the suspension. Under current law, it’s a felony only if the license was suspended for a moving violation.
Head shared the story of two women killed in Lynchburg in 2012 when a motorcyclist driving on a suspended license ran through a stop sign.
“They swerved, they hit a tree, and they were both killed,” Head said, adding: “They worked for me.”
Prosecutors said that, given the facts of the case, the man could be charged only with a misdemeanor. “Under current law, you can kill someone, and it only costs you $250,” Head said.
The bill passed 88 to 11.
For some people, dead bills represented victories; for others, they were defeats.
Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) said the most significant action thus far has been “the non-passage of the Dream Act,” his shorthand for a House bill that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to be eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia colleges.
The measure eventually stalled. “It was never allowed to have a full vote or a full hearing,” Lopez said.
A similar bill died in the Senate.