GA convenes with focus on budget, mental health reform

1/8/2014, 4:19 p.m.
McAuliffe is focused on policy goals that include expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama's signature health care law, the Affordable ...
Gov. Bob McDonnell gives his final State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday

Virginia lawmakers have descended upon Richmond for the 60-day 2014 General Assembly session set to run from Jan. 8 to March 8.

While budget issues — adopting a new two-year budget — are expected to dominate the session, other key issues expected to take center stage include Medicaid expansion, mental health reform and ethics reform following outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s and outgoing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s gift scandals.

The Republican House Caucus convenes with a large majority — 67 out of 100 House seats — and the state Senate also convenes with a slight Republican majority, pending special elections to fill the seats of Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring, both Democrats. The elections could swing the Senate back to a 20-20 split or confirm a GOP edge and for the first time in several sessions, the top three state offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — are held by Democrats.

McDonnell, last month unveiled a two-year, $96 billion proposed budget that is $10 billion larger than the current budget. It adds spending directed to Medicaid, K-12 education and state employee retirement and insurance programs. The state’s contingency fund also gets a boost, reflecting tepid economic growth and cuts to military spending that have defense-heavy Virginia bracing for a downturn.

The budget provides $583 million in additional K-12 funding, $300 million for the “rainy day” fund and a $183 million boost for state colleges and universities. The plan provides a one-time, 3 percent bonus for state employees and a 2 percent raise for state workers in jobs prone to high turnover, such as for certain court clerks and university housekeepers.

“I think it’s going to be a productive, civil session,” said state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, who sees a lot of continuity between McDonnell, a Republican, and incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, on issues involving the jobs and economy.

Del. Mamye E. BaCote, D-Newport News, also sees signs of cooperation.

“We’re going to do things right, compared to what's going on in Washington,” she said.

McAuliffe is focused on policy goals that include expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama's signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act. The expansion that McAuliffe has said would provide 400,000 Virginians with health care coverage and pump $5 million a day into the state’s economy, faces fierce opposition from House Republicans. The federal government has promised to pay the full cost initially and 90 percent after that but Republicans doubt that Washington can afford to make good on that deal.

McAuliffe aims to frame the issue as a matter of business that will use federal tax dollars to keep hospitals from going under and make sure the cost of caring for the indigent isn’t passed on in the form of higher insurance premiums for all Virginians.

According to the McAuliffe team, Virginia hospitals could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if care for the indigent and Medicaid is not expanded. The Affordable Care Act cuts federal funding on the theory that an expanded Medicaid would pick up the slack realized over the years when the state has cut payments for indigent care. The two hardest-hit hospitals would be Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, according to published reports.