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GA convenes with focus on budget, mental health reform

1/8/2014, 4:19 p.m.
Gov. Bob McDonnell gives his final State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday

McAuliffe said he’s aiming for a more conciliatory than confrontational approach. There should be a Virginia way of expanding coverage, he said, echoing a term some GOP leaders use to describe their hopes for reforming Medicaid.

Other McAuliffe priorities include expanding and diversifying the economy, reforming school standardized tests and tightening lax ethics laws .

Reforms to K-12 education and the state’s patchwork efforts on training Virginians for the technical jobs businesses struggle to fill are also priorities of the governor-elect and leaders of both the House and Senate. On education, they agree on a need to focus more on how students learn.

Mental health reform will also be a focus during the session. Partially spurred by the November events that led to the stabbing of State Sen. Creigh Deeds by his son Gus before the younger Deeds committed suicide, legislators have expressed interest in the way the mental patients access treatment.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), has listed among its 2014 legislative priorities, crisis response services, that provide non-hospital based crisis intervention and stabilization services which can reduce admissions to hospitals and minimize trauma that an individual and family experiences when a mental health problem becomes a full scale crisis.

“Amazingly, many population centers in Virginia still do not have access to these critical services for adults and children.

Virginia's new governor, Terry McAuliffe, and legislators on both sides of the aisle will have to compromise on key issues for the 2014 General Assembly session to be successful.

In FY13, three pilot programs funded by the General Assembly reduced admissions to the state children’s psychiatric hospital by 10 percent and reduced bed day utilization by 21 percent as a result of the new services being available in their communities,” noted NAMI. “Having proven successful, these and other crisis response programs need to be expanded.”

Medicaid expansion also ties into mental health reform. NAMI notes that it continues to support the expansion of Medicaid up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. This will ensure that an additional 40,000-80,000 adults with mental health disorders will be able to receive mental health and other medical services if Medicaid is expanded to this population.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who note that they work to improve the economic, educational, political and social conditions of African Americans as well as other underrepresented groups in Virginia, have also put forth an agenda for the 2014 session. The agenda covers the criminal justice system, economic development, voting rights, education health care and women's rights.

The caucus is supporting a constitutional amendment allowing for automatic restoration of rights for non-violent offenders, a statewide “ban the box” initiative that removes the question of past felony convictions from job applications, and restrictions on celebratory gunfire in cities.

In economic development, the caucus notes that it supports increasing access to capital and leveraging of financial resources for small, women and minority owned businesses. It is also supporting enterprise zone designations that are citywide and attached to census track data as well as capping interest rates for payday and car title lenders.

The caucus also supports early voting and other voting legislation that opens and eases citizen access to participation in elections. Several bills have been introduced on the subject, including House Bill 37 by Del. Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church) with support from co-patron Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church), that adds those 65 or older to the list of people entitled to vote by absentee ballot. The bill requires the application for absentee ballot from such persons to include proof of age in a form specified by the State Board of Elections.

“Members of the caucus have submitted legislation that support this agenda and will be monitoring other legislation that supports stated legislative objectives,” noted the VLBC, who members include Richmond area legislators like Sen. Henry Marsh and Del. Jennifer McClellan. “Likewise, the Caucus will also monitor legislation that is in opposition to its mission and objectives.”

Several important dates for this session include the Friday, Jan. 17 bill cut-off day, the last day to introduce bills and certain joint resolutions. Feb. 11 is cross-over day, the last day for each chamber to act on its own legislation, excluding revenue bills and budget bills.