Virginia General Assembly begins complicated search for consensus


Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), at a news conference last month, will need to woo the GOP to get his priorities through the Assembly. (Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia’s General Assembly convenes Wednesday determined to erase the stain of an unprecedented ethics scandal while bracing for a sweeping shift in party power and a wrestling match over Medicaid expansion.

The state’s 100 delegates and 40 senators will get back to work three days before Democrats take control of Virginia’s three statewide offices for the first time in more than two decades.

With the House of Delegates still dominated by Republicans and control of the Senate in flux, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) will have to continue wooing the GOP if he wants to get his priorities through the Assembly. House Republicans remain opposed to the Democrat’s top goal, expanding Medicaid, but said they looked forward to a productive session.

“I think it’s going to be interesting working with Governor-elect McAuliffe,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. “I’m hopeful for Virginia that we’ll be able to work together and get some good things done.”

The outgoing governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), inadvertently inspired one of the session’s top issues: ethics reform. He leaves office Saturday and remains under the threat of federal indictment related to more than $165,000 in gifts and loans that a Virginia businessman provided to him and his family. Legislators are largely united in their desire to strengthen the state’s unusually lax gift laws.

McDonnell’s legal and political woes are sure to loom on opening day, which the onetime Republican rising star will launch with a prayer breakfast and cap in the evening with his final State of the Commonwealth address.

Also tempering the festive atmosphere that usually animates the start of the session will be the reemergence of Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who suffered a personal tragedy in November. Deeds’s 24-year-old son stabbed the senator and fatally shot himself one day after local mental health officials said they could not find a psychiatric hospital bed for him.

Deeds’s presence is expected to be emotionally wrenching for colleagues, who have signaled their desire to reform the mental health system in response to the incident. McDonnell, who defeated Deeds in the 2009 governor’s race, has proposed spending $38 million to improve services. Deeds has submitted two bills intended to fix the systemic flaws that he blames for his son’s death.

There will be divisive issues as well, including one of McAuliffe’s top priorities: expanding Medicaid under the federal health-care law known informally as Obamacare. McAuliffe says expansion would provide 400,000 uninsured Virginians with access to health care, with the federal government picking up most of the cost. House Republicans say Washington cannot afford to pay and eventually would stick the state with the bill.

McAuliffe ran as a bipartisan dealmaker, and since the election, he has reached out to every Republican in the General Assembly, beginning the process of trying to sell them on expansion. But so far, opponents have showed no signs of budging. Howell reiterated his opposition in an op-ed article Sunday in the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, saying it would be unwise to broaden “a broken program.”

Legislators will also have to tackle the state’s two-year budget. Their starting point will be a $96 billion proposal that McDonnell leaves behind for the General Assembly and McAuliffe. The spending plan is based on tepid economic projections — assuming revenue growth of 1.7 percent in the budget’s first year and 4.2 percent in the second — as the defense-heavy state continues to absorb federal cutbacks.

So far, at least, there has been a notable dearth of Republican-sponsored legislation on abortion. There were just two abortion-related bills as the session opened, both filed by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William). One would defund Planned Parenthood. The other would ban so-called sex-selective abortions, imposing criminal penalties on doctors who perform abortions based on the fetus’s sex.

But Marshall said Tuesday that he is working on other bills concerning abortion.

“I’m not laying down my arms in the least,” he said. “I’m just still drafting.”

Legislators have until Jan. 17 to file bills.

GOP leaders are making a push to tone down divisive social legislation. House Republican leaders ensured that the first bill filed in the House this session, House Bill 1, would have widespread appeal to women. The bill, sponsored by Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax), calls for creating a fund for domestic and sexual violence prevention, intervention and prosecution.

Marshall, one of the House’s most conservative members and a prolific bill-writer, snagged that symbolic HB1 designation last year for a bill that would have establishing that life begins at conception.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said he expects ethics reform and Medicaid expansion to generate most of the attention during the 60-day session.

“Those are going to be the two issues that dominate the session,” he said.

The state’s ethics laws are among the most lax in the nation. They allow officeholders to accept gifts of any size as long as they disclose any gift worth more than $50. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members proposed a reform package that includes a $250 cap on gifts to officeholders and their immediate family members from people with business before the state. Other legislators have proposed bills of their own that go further.

The incoming governor is expected to keep a low profile on opening day. He will address a joint session of the General Assembly with a speech next week, following his swearing-in Saturday. Also taking office that day will be Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph S. Northam (D) and Attorney General-elect Mark R. Herring (D), both state senators, whose successful runs for higher office give Republicans a chance to win a majority in the chamber, which has been evenly split since 2012.

Control of the Senate will remain uncertain Wednesday, a day after a Democrat won a razor-thin victory — by just 22 votes out of more than 19,000 cast — to replace Northam. If Linwood W. Lewis’s victory stands in the Norfolk-based district, the Senate would remain evenly divided and Northam would provide a tie-breaking vote for Democrats.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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