General Assembly Roundup

Feb 25, 2019

This year’s General Assembly adjourned Sunday.  Our partner station WCVE in Richmond has been covering the session.  In this roundtable discussion with reporters, WCVE's Craig Carper reviews what lawmakers accomplished, and what they failed to achieve.

From the State Capitol in Richmond, I’m Craig Carper.

The General Assembly adjourned and went back to their districts yesterday after completing all their work one day late in a marathon 47-day session. Lawmakers kept working with the cloud of several high profile scandals hovering overhead and the eyes of the nation fixed on the state capitol.

In spite of these distractions, lawmakers managed to pass nearly 2,000 pieces of legislation and approved a budget.

Today we’re going to discuss the high points of that budget and major changes to state law that Virginians should be aware of.

I’m joined today by our State Capitol team who’ve all put in long hours and produced some outstanding coverage over the past 6 weeks.

Megan Pauly was tracking legislation and budget amendments related to education. K-12 Teacher pay – and funding for school counselors – were big-ticket items in the budget this year.

MEGHAN PAULY: Yes, that’s right. Lawmakers did approve a 5% pay raise for teachers…but the House and Senate disagreed on when it would kick in.  Their compromise was September 1st  of this year. There’s also some money in the budget for more school counselors and for schools with high levels of concentrated poverty, like Richmond and Petersburg. But - not nearly as much as was originally included in Northam’s budget. Some Democratic lawmakers say they’ll continue to push for more funding for these things next year.

In higher ed….lawmakers approved funding to essentially subsidize a tuition hike for next year….and “freeze” it  for universities that opt to do that. They also approved funding to create a tech-talent investment fund. That was part of negotiations to bring Amazon to Virginia...and will be used to help universities produce more computer science graduates.

CRAIG CARPER: Thanks Megan.

The spending plan passed by the General Assembly also includes a 1 percent pay raise for all state workers as well as college faculty and state supported local employees. This is on top of a 2 percent raise they were already scheduled to get. Finally the budget includes $168 million for Virginia Tech’s billion dollar innovation campus in Alexandria that was ALSO part of the state’s incentive plan for Amazon’s HQ2.

We’re joined next by Ben Paviour who, among other things this session, was tracking redistricting reform. Ben, the legislature inched closer to turning over redistricting to a commission. How would this new system differ from the existing one?

BEN PAVIOUR: Right now lawmakers from the majority party draw their own legislative maps every ten years, right after the census. There’s another census coming up in 2020, but the last elections were so close that no one knows who will have that power. Some say that dynamic helped move the needle on this redistricting commission. It’s got 16 members--half lawmakers, half citizens, with an equal split between both parties. The citizens would be chosen by judges,. Their meetings would have to be public.

No one says this plan is perfect. Black lawmakers in the House voted against it because they said it didn’t do enough to protect minority interests. Some Democrats say the process is still too politicized, saying lawmakers still have too much sway over the process. Meanwhile, some Republicans would rather not have a commission at all. They’d prefer to keep the current process.

But there is still a bipartisan consensus that the commission will help prevent partisan gerrymandering. It still has a long way to go--it needs to be passed again in next year’s session, and then by voters after that.

CARPER:  Thanks Ben. Roberto Roldan also covered a lot of different  issues including an industry-backed push to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

ROBERTO ROLDAN:  Yeah, and you said it right there - the key part of the new law is that it applies to all tobacco products, not just cigarettes. The justification for raising the minimum age was that e-cigarette products like JUUL have become really popular among teenagers. What helped this bill the most was that it had the backing of Altria, which, coincidentally owns 35 percent of Juul.

CARPER: Megan followed some other healthcare-related issues, especially mental health.

PAULY: Yep. So to the surprise of many advocates there is some funding in the final budget to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate for primary care doctors and mental health professionals. That’ll help doctors accept more Medicaid patients, a need in light of Medicaid expansion last year to low-income Virginians.

There was also an emphasis on addressing shortages of mental health services in state psychiatric hospitals and jails. Senator Creigh Deeds got approval to continue his mental health commission’s work for at least another two years. So these issues won’t be going away.

CARPER: Thanks Megan. This session was also notable for some of the legislation that failed. At one point it looked like lawmakers were on the fast track to banning holding your cell phone in your hand while driving.

Roberto what happened there?

ROLDAN: The bill would have basically forced drivers to use hands-free technology. lt had bipartisan support, but in the end it was watered down by a conference committee and was rejected by the House.

CARPER: And Ben, there was also a big fight over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. How did that end?

PAVIOUR: Well as you know, Virginia would have been the 38th state to ratify the ERA. And that would push it over the threshold nationally for ratification. So there was a huge push by activists to get it through this year. They said there were enough votes to pass it in both chambers. And it did pass in the Senate, as it has for the past few years.

But Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox basically tucked it away in committee, meaning it didn’t come up for a full floor vote. Democrats tried some procedural maneuvers to bring it up, but it didn’t happen.

ERA activists say they’re going to focus their energy now on voting out the politicians who didn’t get behind it.

CARPER: Thanks Ben and thanks to our entire state capitol team for all your hard work this year.  

You can take a look back at our coverage from this session at ideastations.org/assembly19.