Legislation

Legislative Update
May 21, 2018

Senator Jill H. Vogel

With the wrap up of regular session in March, we had considered 3,700 bills and resolutions and reached agreement on all but the most important bill of session—the two-year budget. We adjourned sine die with no budget, a giant gap between the House and Senate proposed budgets and a disagreement over healthcare.

The two most recent budget impasses lasted until June, but new budgets were adopted days before the old budgets expired and Virginia avoided a shutdown. To keep the process moving this time, the Senate passed a resolution calling for a special session to continue work. In the meantime we have worked through the spring, including meeting for the Veto Session and regular Finance meetings.

Since so much time has passed, a quick recap of session before the full budget update is probably warranted. While most of the attention during the 60-day session focused on where leadership in the House and Senate were in disagreement over healthcare, far more of our time was spent working hard on issues where we agree. Many of us face difficult challenges in our Senate districts and my willingness to support my colleagues and their willingness to support me makes all of the difference in session being productive. In this session we saw headway on matters related to agriculture, transportation, energy, the environment, jobs and education.

Bills that I patroned or co-patroned dealt with health insurance reform, I-81 improvements, CBD oil, health insurance coverage for autism, a ban on improper personal use of campaign funds, industrial hemp, post-election audits, redistricting reform, securing part of Camp 7 Property for Clarke County and addressing a tax issue for Middleburg. Another major priority for me was the hard fought bill that allows for historic horse racing in Virginia. I have long supported this as a way to restore Virginia’s great history of racing and to re-open Colonial Downs. It is important to agriculture, as it pumps life and money back into our equine industry which has slowly seen investment bleed out to Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky along with the loss of millions of dollars in jobs.

This week I was in Richmond for our Senate Finance Committee meetings where we seemed to have reached an intractable position on the budget. The issue is healthcare. Currently, the House budget includes Medicaid expansion and the Senate budget does not.

During this legislative session and in previous sessions, I have voted against Medicaid expansion. I have always held that it was exceptionally treacherous to expand if there was any chance that Congress would repeal and replace the program and leave Virginia on the hook for billions of dollars that we could not replace in our budget. In past years, the full Senate has likewise rejected expanding Medicaid because ongoing spending commitments threatened funding for other priorities, like roads, schools, and public safety. Currently, without expansion, Medicaid takes almost one-fourth of our general fund budget and it is growing at 8.9% annually. Opponents of expansion cite costs in other states that are 157% higher than originally projected. Our focus should be on addressing current costs and issues with the system.

That said, if we move forward it should be our highest priority to engage conservatives in this discussion and push for reforms in Medicaid. A plan to expand Medicaid has passed in the House and certainly as we debate this in the Senate I am making every effort to ask for reforms, limits and constraints on the program that would make a big difference in the impact on the state and in some cases, put us in a better posture than we are with the current program. If we crack open Medicaid this session, then we certainly should take the opportunity to do the things that we know the system desperately needs and that reform groups have asked for around the country — like limits on how much it can consume of the overall budget, monitoring systems to protect against fraud, accountability, a framework to help the most needy and real work requirements—none of which we have now in Virginia. Stay tuned. The Senate meets again next week and hopefully we will make headway on a final budget that we can vote on before our deadline.

I appreciate your visits and feedback during the session. I hope that you will contact our office any time that you have questions or concerns. I can be reached at 540-662-4551 or by email at district27@senate.virginia.gov. Our office appreciates the opportunity to serve and we are very grateful for your continued support.


Crossover Week Update from Richmond
February 19, 2018

Last Tuesday was crossover in the General Assembly. It marks the halfway point of the legislative session when each chamber is required to complete work on its own bills. At the conclusion of crossover, the Senate had passed 591 Senate bills and resolutions and defeated 410.  
 

The time leading up to crossover is consumed by long sessions and lengthy debates, with the most controversial votes left until the end when details are finally refined. This time those bills were healthcare, energy, and infrastructure bills.

 

Addressing Health Care Costs
 
Among the most significant measures that passed last week were a series of health care bills providing relief to Virginians facing exorbitant premiums and staggering out of pocket expenses. SB935 creates small business pools, leveraging combined buying power to negotiate lower rates for coverage. SB844 increases private market participation and choice by requiring insurers doing business with Virginia to also offer plans on the private market. This is intended to prevent scenarios like in Charlottesville, where insurers left the area and then reentered the marketplace with premiums more than 300% higher than before. The bill also extends short-term health insurance coverage limits from 90 days to 364 days with potential option for renewal. 
 
SB964 also passed, permitting patients to choose catastrophic coverage policies which contain essential benefits with affordable premiums. It helps young professionals, entrepreneurs and those on tight budgets obtain coverage. Finally, we approved SB 915 which expands funding for mental health services, addiction treatment, and additional Priority One ID/DD wavers to help clear our backlog of those waiting for services, who now number more than 3,400. 
 

Expanding Utility Regulation
 
Another of the hotly debated subjects dealt with protecting customers of certain regulated utilities like Dominion. The primary bill would reinstitute periodic rate reviews by state regulators which are not happening now. Rates had been frozen in 2015 in anticipation of higher costs imposed by federal regulations. Those higher costs did not materialize, so it was important to pass legislation allowing for rate reviews which protect consumers.
 

We passed such a bill and while the review schedule and rebates are not as aggressive as I might have hoped, the bill sent to us from committee was a compromise and a step forward. The bill is still a work in progress and has wide support in concept, since virtually everyone believes that the status quo is terrible policy and unfair for ratepayers. The full Senate passed a version of the bill that had a broad coalition of supporters which included consumer advocates, business groups, the Governor, and conservation groups like the League of Conservation Voters. In addition to addressing rates, the bill directs surplus profits to needed grid modernization, improving energy security and incorporating more clean, renewable sources into our energy mix. The bill provides for a major expansion of investment in solar production. According to the Sierra Club, in 2016, Virginia had 238 megawatts of installed solar capacity and this bill would provide for expansion to 4,000 megawatts.

 

Our Budget
 
The most significant event came Sunday evening when the Senate Finance Committee on which I serve voted to pass the Senate budget. This balanced budget ensures Virginia will remain one of the nation’s most fiscally responsible states while protecting our coveted AAA bond rating. By setting clear priorities, we have been able to increase funding for public education by $565.8 million over the last biennium, all without raising taxes. This budget also increases need-based aid for higher education, as well as makes significant investments in much-needed rural broadband expansion. Additionally, it sets a high priority on directing money to improve mental health care, fight opioid abuse, and help students with special needs. While this bill substantially increases funding for health care services using existing revenues, it did not include full Medicaid expansion or the proposed “hospital tax” used to pay for it.

 
Other Measures
 
Some important measures which passed the Senate with my support and are now before the House include:
  • Measures to strengthen our prescription monitoring programs as part of our fight against opioid abuse.
  • Legislation developing a plan of action to reduce congestion on I-81.
  • A bill reducing fees for credit report freezes.
  • A restriction on using state funds in animal research on dogs and cats.
  • A measure increasing the grand larceny threshold as part of a bipartisan compromise on criminal justice reform and strengthened restitution requirements.
  • Legislation requiring compactness in Congressional and state legislative districts, as part of my fight against gerrymandering.
  • A measure to protect children by strengthening reporting of abuse and neglect.
  • A bill to train school bus drivers to better serve students with autism.
  • Legislation expanding Virginia’s production of industrial hemp.
  • New protections for taxpayers whose personal information is compromised while in the care of their tax preparer.
  • A bill legalizing non-psychoactive CBD oil when recommended by a patient’s doctor.
  • Several measures to fight voter fraud through better electronic verification of new registrations.
  • Legislation requiring student loan servicers to be licensed and subject to oversight.
  • A measure helping better coordinate the deployment of fiber optic infrastructure in public rights-of-way, as part of my commitment to expand broadband access.
  • Measures eliminating the possibility of jail time for first-time personal-use marijuana possession.
  • Legislation to strengthen our fair housing laws and protect tenant rights.
  • A bill increasing open space conservation in conversion transactions.
  • Legislation to fight human trafficking through heightened awareness of victim support resources.
 

I urge you to contact our office any time that you have questions or concerns. I can be reached during the General Assembly session at 804-698-7527 or by email at district27@senate.virginia.gov. Our office appreciates the opportunity to serve and we are very grateful for your continued support.

 

Sincerely,

Senator Jill H. Vogel



Session Update from Richmond
February 09, 2018

 

Business in the Virginia Senate continues at a diligent pace with two months to complete this year’s business. So far, we have acted on 775 bills, passing 313 and laying the groundwork for many important proposals we will study over the summer and fall.



My Bills

Autism Insurance Coverage: Last week, my bill extending health insurance coverage for children with autism passed unanimously out of its final committee. When I first started working on this issue in 2009, it seemed as if the weight of opposition made this insurmountable. Finally, after years of work we secured coverage for diagnosis and treatment of autism through age 10. This year, I am hopeful that we finally extend this life changing coverage to age 18.

Fighting Opioid Abuse: Tackling Virginia’s opioid epidemic is one of my priorities this session. My first bill on the subject required pharmacies to take back unused prescription medications, while the other helped crack down on “pill mills” through better wholesale supply chain tracking. Just this week, it was reported that 20.8 million opioid pills were shipped to one town of 2900 people in West Virginia. We have to do more to address this issue and I am proud that we made progress on both bills and look forward to further study in the year ahead, as we work with all stakeholders on getting both life-saving bills passed into law. This will help curb misuse while also protecting legitimate patients who need their medication.

Strengthening Ethics: Last week I also presented my bill prohibiting candidates from spending campaign funds on personal expenses. Unfortunately, it did not pass in committee. I am sorry to see this ethics measure fail but I will continue working until we join the 47 other states which prohibit the practice. Read News 8's coverage of this issue here.

A New Addiction Treatment Facility: This week I successfully advanced legislation which would transfer surplus state property to Clarke County. Among the priorities in Clarke County has been to support a growing need in the region for addiction treatment and recovery services and the hope is to use a portion of the property to support that project.

Working to Lower Health Care Costs: Also this week I presented a bill to increase competition and choice in health care by expanding options for MRI and CT scans in our community. As health plan changes classify fewer imaging centers as in-network and healthcare options generally become less affordable, my constituents continue to request measures to create more competition and better choices. The bill was carried over for the year for further study.

Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits: I advanced a bill out of committee this week to provide for post-election audits which verify the accuracy of reported vote totals and proper functioning of election equipment. After working with registrars, technical experts and non-partisan advocacy groups, I am pleased that we have agreement on legislation creating a panel of experts to develop the policies and statistical procedures we need for this important goal.

 

Virginia's Budget & Other Issues

Our work continues on other important issues, from relieving congestion and improving safety on I-81, to ensuring we protect agriculture and our environment. In response to your concerns, we have also debated legislation addressing the exorbitant tolls on I-66.

In the Senate Finance Committee on which I serve, we continue to work to construct a balanced and fiscally responsible budget without tax hikes. Billions of dollars are at stake and there are 508 separate budget amendments to be heard. We will examine every dollar in the budget to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely and on our highest priorities.

For our district, I am working hard to secure funding for a new career and technical education center, a new local barracks for our state police, and additional resources to protect survivors of domestic violence among other measures.

While public attention often focuses on high profile issues which generate the most headlines, we work on bills dealing with everything from occupational licensing, to tourism promotion, to fire safety. Whether considering big issues like our budget or transportation funding, to lesser-known issues like adoption leave benefits, we have two months to get these bills right. That’s why we spend most of our time hearing bills in committee and meeting with stakeholders and representatives from home wishing to share their input.

I urge you to contact our office any time that you have questions or concerns. I can be reached during the General Assembly session at 804-698-7527 or by email at district27@senate.virginia.gov. Our office appreciates the opportunity to serve and we are very grateful for your continued support.

 

Sincerely,

Senator Jill H. Vogel