The best way I can describe the 2017 session of the General Assembly is to call it a mixed bag. Some good work was done for sure, but if not for the governor’s veto pen, it would have been marred by some backward legislation. Most disappointing are the missed opportunities that were not addressed in the 46-day short session.
Although budget matters are supposed to be dealt with only in the long, even-year session, there are budget adjustments that creep into the short session as well. The good news is that the Assembly passed amendments to the biennium budget to bring it back into balance from a $1.2 billion shortfall in revenue. There were reductions, but the governor proposed and the Assembly agreed to keeping 3 percent salary increases for state employees who have been without a raise for many years. Funds were provided for the state share of a 2 percent raise for teachers. Additional funds were provided to deal with the critical needs in mental health care.
Four bills were passed to deal with the opioid epidemic. They established needle exchange programs, increased access to the overdose drug naloxone, increased services to infants exposed to opioids in utero, and strengthened opioid prescription policies. Five million dollars was appropriated for permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless because of mental illness. A bill to require insurance companies to cover a 12-month supply of prescription birth control also passed.
Of the bills I opposed, most will be vetoed by the governor. Not only did a committee in the House defeat my bill to require universal background checks for gun purchases, but it passed several bills to make access to guns easier. The Republicans do not have the supermajority that is needed to overturn the governor’s veto of these bills. Likewise, the governor is expected to veto a bill that would prevent localities from becoming “sanctuary” zones. He has already vetoed a bill that would have denied funding to Planned Parenthood, and the House was not able to override his veto.
Despite public support for establishing an independent system to draw legislative boundary lines, my bill and several others with that goal were defeated in a House committee. Bills that passed the Senate on this issue were defeated in the same House committee. The public support for legislation that would prevent legislators from being able to pick their own voters was as strong as I have seen on an issue in recent years.
Beware that a new law passed that creates a fine of $100 for failing to drive on the right side of the road. The intent of this new law is to prevent slow drivers from driving in the left lane. Legislation that would have created a bill of rights for college student loan borrowers did not pass.