General Assembly concludes session, but work remains

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly gaveled the 2018 session to a close on Saturday but remained divided over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, forcing a special session to resolve its differences.

Gov. Ralph Northam said after adjournment that he plans on dealing with the issue “sooner rather than later” by calling a meeting to set the special session, which could take days or weeks. He did not give a specific time for setting the meeting or the special session.

“We’ve left one of our largest missions unfinished,” Northam said to legislative leaders. “As you all know, I want to be done with health-care expansion.”

Northam, who took office in January, ran on a campaign that included expanding Medicaid. But as the legislature wound to a conclusion in its final days, it became apparent that a special session would be needed.

Northam expressed pleasure over the resolution of a number of issues, including the increase of the grand larceny threshold, strengthening the Metro system that operates in Northern Virginia and reform on policy with Dominion Energy.

On Medicaid, while the Senate budget has no provisions for such expansion, the House spending plan allows for increased federal funding — which the administration of President Donald Trump opposed earlier this month. Republicans control both chambers by two-member margins, but there were bitter differences over Medicaid.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he is optimistic about the special session.

“We are all committed to completing work on a state budget long before July 1,” said Cox, completing his first session as speaker.

Senate Democratic leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and caucus chair Mamie Locke of Hampton blamed Senate Republicans for “holding up the entire budget process for political reasons.”

Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment Jr. of James City responded that his colleagues continued to oppose Medicaid expansion in the budget.

“Senate Republicans remain unanimously committed to passing a clean budget without Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we will continue to work towards that goal in the special session,” Norment said in a statement.

The House and Senate met from 9 a.m. until just before 2 p.m. on their final day, which included action on major legislation to assist the troubled Washington-area Metro system, which is critical to populous Northern Virginia.

Conference reports on Senate Bill 856, which was sponsored by Saslaw, and House Bill 1539, proposed by Del. Timothy Hugo, R-Fairfax, are both multifaceted, containing multiple provisions to improve Metro. These provisions include a dedicated funding stream of  $154 million a year from multiple existing sources, including transportation taxes and revenue from the North Virginia Transportation Authority. They also include the creation of a Metro Reform Commission, and a requirement to send a financial report on the performance of bus and Metro systems to the General Assembly. Neither bill will be enacted unless Maryland and the District of Columbia adopt similar provisions.

“From the start, my position was that a funding package for Metro had to go hand-in-hand with meaningful reforms without raising taxes,” Hugo said in a news release.

The legislature concluded its work the day after Northam signed one of the most-discussed bills of the session. Despite lingering opposition, the governor approved SB 966, which lifts a rate freeze that had been in effect for Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, but allows the utilities’ broad discretion in reinvesting customer revenue. Critics claimed the bill, developed with heavy involvement from Dominion, favors utility interests over those of consumers.

In another utility-related action earlier this session, lawmakers approved SB 807 by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which extended the moratorium on the closure of ponds where Dominion Energy stores its coal ash, allowing the state and utility another year on reaching agreement over how to address environmental concerns.

Legislators left Richmond without approving any of the numerous gun control bills that were submitted after recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas. Among the gun-related bills only one passed — SB 669, which restricts access of weapons to minors 14 and older who had received involuntary mental health treatment. Cox formed a select committee to study school safety, but said the panel would not take up gun issues, angering Democrats.

By Kirby Farineau/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.