Last week Democrats in the House of Delegates were able largely to sit on the sidelines as Republicans debated among themselves whether Virginia should expand access to medical care through the federal Medicaid program. Arguments that had been used by Democrats to support Medicaid in the past were now being used by Republicans to support their newly found support for expansion.
The news is good since Medicaid expansion could only come about with bipartisan support. When the final vote was taken on the issue, only 31 Republicans voted “nay” and all Democrats voting “aye” with 20 Republicans making the total for passage 69 votes. There was a sense of relief as a goal for which we had been working for more than a half dozen years moved closer to realization.
The news was not so good on the other side of the Capitol. The Senate passed a budget that did not include further Medicaid expansion. While there was an effort to amend the Senate bill to include the expansion of access to health care, it failed along a straight party line vote. Final passage of a budget for the next two years requires that the bills passed in each house be identical. A conference committee made up of House and Senate members must resolve the largest imbalance in the budget that I have ever seen before its final adoption.
If I had predicted before the session where we would be at this point I would have said that the Senate would have passed a version of Medicaid expansion but the Republicans in the House were maintaining their opposition. At least that’s what the public pronouncements and the rumor mill suggested.
How could we have been so wrong? I believe that the predictions on the outcome of the session left out one very important consideration: the results of the 2016 elections. The House’s 66 to 34 Republican control was diminished to a close margin of 51 to 49. For weeks it appeared that Democrats might take control. Among the losses were senior members and committee chairs who were opponents of Medicaid expansion and were expected to win re-election easily. The Speaker who opposed expansion retired.
The voters in 2016 sent a clear message that they supported Medicaid expansion. For most it simply did not make sense to leave more than ten billion federal dollars on the table when there were so many people without access to health care. Many more people went to the polls than usual to send the message to legislators. Whether it was public opinion polling or common sense that showed the Republican majority they were in trouble and needed to change the stance on issues, the public speaking through the ballot box brought about this very important change for Virginia.
How to explain the Senate vote? Senators with four-year terms have not been before the voters since 2014. They have not had a recent message from the electorate and could be in for a big surprise if they do not re-evaluate their positions. The real heroes in all this are the Indivisibles and other groups that mobilized voters in 2016 to elect responsive candidates. These new members are bringing balance to public policy as well as to the budget.
One of the first tasks in a new session of the Virginia General Assembly is to decide who is going to run the show. In the Senate of Virginia, the decision is made by the voters of the Commonwealth when they elect the Lieutenant Governor whose principal duty is to preside over the Senate. In the House, the Speaker of the House is the presiding officer who is elected by the members of the House.
The political party with the most members has control of the House and elects the Speaker. Republicans control of the House is 51 to 49 this session, a sharp drop in the 66-34 control of recent years. The closeness of the balance of power led to some meaningful discussions that should result in more transparency in the operation of the House.
My interest in becoming the presiding officer of the House by being elected Speaker was well known. Once the two disputed delegate elections where decided in favor of the Republicans there was no way I could reasonably expect to win. Only the Republican who had worked in his party and in the legislature for decades was nominated, and he was elected unanimously. That helped the session get underway in a cooperative spirit. There will be ample opportunity for debate when the many bills that reflect the issues before the General Assembly are considered.
What does a Speaker wannabe do when his party does not gain control of the legislative body? I have decided for myself that if I cannot be the formal Mr. Speaker of the House of Delegates then I can return to my role as Mr. speaker (small “s”) speaking out on tough issues that some may want to duck, and I can speak out on institutional practices that are not transparent or fair.
In this way, I can best serve my constituents and the long-term interest of the Commonwealth. I can also serve as a mentor to the many new exciting members that are joining the House of Delegates, and I can help to reduce any feelings of intimidation they might be experiencing. Certainly the legislature provides experiences that are not replicated in any other role in life.
The techniques of mass communication through phone calls, postcards, rallies, opinion writings, and other practices that were so successful in helping to get candidates elected can be utilized in the legislative process to help influence the outcome of legislation. I have already been seeing groups shifting from advocacy for individual candidates to advocacy for issues. On issues like expansion of health care and independent redistricting, a strong public voice and advocacy are necessary for success.
There will be more opportunities for the public to follow the legislature in real-time this year than ever before. Video streams of meetings of House Full Committees can be accessed online. Download an instruction sheet at Live Stream Instructions.
The elected representatives will hold their annual pre-legislative session town hall at the Jo Ann Rose Gallery in Reston Community Center at Lake Anne (1609 Washington Plaza) on Tuesday, Dec. 19 from 7:30 – 9 p.m.
Plum, 76, is in his 37th year representing the 36th district in Virginia’s House of Delegates. The retired teacher and school administrator recently told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he is eyeing the top position in the House, posing a challenge to current House Minority Leader David Toscano, a Democrat of Charlottesville.
Howell has been a state senator since 1992, prior to which she was a PTA president, community association president and chair of the State Board of Social Services.
For more information about the town hall, call 703-758-9733.
I am sure I will have some commentary on the outcome of the November 7 election in future columns, but as I write this column results are not yet known. No matter the outcome, I share the frustration experienced by many with the negativity that seems to inevitably overtake campaigns with high stakes. Political operatives who provide the advice upon which campaigns are planned continue to insist that negative advertising wins elections as it gets people’s attention and creates a fear or anger that moves voters to take part. I am not sure if anyone has measured how many people get turned off and decide not to vote because of the vicious ads.
Even more concerning to me than the half-truths and falsehoods that have slipped into campaigning is the cruelty that has moved into the operation of government. After years of complaining about the Affordable Care Act while in complete control of the Congress and now also the presidency, the Republicans have not been able to repeal and replace what they came to call Obamacare. The reason might simply be that provision of health care to all with coverage for pre-existing conditions in a developed nation is the right thing to do. Failing to achieve legislative success, the administration has set about trying to kill the program through administrative actions and neglect. That is where the cruelty sets in.
The first effort at killing the program came with an executive order to withhold subsidies which allowed insurance companies to keep premium increases to a minimum. With the loss of the subsidies, Anthem pulled out of Virginia in August leaving 60 jurisdictions with no insurer offering coverage; they reversed their action after intense efforts by Governor McAuliffe. The loss of federal support will be devastating in Virginia where 240,000 Virginians rely on subsidies to be able to afford insurance. There clearly must not be a lack of money in Washington with the huge tax cuts now being proposed for the very wealthy.
The cruelty does not end there. To reduce the program further the advertising budget to remind persons about open enrollment was slashed by 90 percent, and the time to enroll was reduced from 12 weeks to 6 weeks. The open enrollment started November 1 and will close on December 15. Tell anyone you know who might be eligible and spread the information through social media programs in which you participate that open enrollment ends on December 15.
A final crippling blow could be the administration announcement that it will not enforce the individual mandate that has been critical to keeping costs down by spreading the risk across a wide pool of participants. As though this is not enough, the Republican Congress and administration failed to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that provided care to 65,000 children and 1,100 pregnant mothers in Virginia. We have a new insurance program in place in this country; it is called Trumpcare. It is a very cruel system!
Despite the downpour of rain on Tuesday, a steady stream of voters cast their votes at Armstrong Elementary School in Reston. As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 209,223 residents of Fairfax County voted in Virginia’s election.
The state is only of of two in the United States with statewide elections this year. Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam are vying for governor in what is expected to be a narrow contest, according to The New York Times. Libertarian Cliff Hyra is also running.
In the last election in 2013, turnout rested at 46.8 percent. With a little more than four hours before polls close, turnout this year sits at 30.6 percent, according to the county.
A record number of absentee ballots were cast this year, according to Fairfax County officials. More than 41,000 Virginians participated in early voting, up by roughly 61 percent from voting in 2013. Absentee voting was up in every jurisdictions in Virginia, except three, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit organization that provides information about local politics.
There are more than 684,041 active registered voters in Fairfax County. Throughout the day, voters trickled in at various polling sites throughout Reston and Fairfax County. By 10 a.m., nearly 16 percent or roughly 109,000 of registered voters already casted their ballot.
All 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are up for election. Fifty-five of those seats are contested.
Reston’s current Delegate, Democrat Ken Plum, is running without opposition in this election. Plum is currently serving his 36th year as the local Delegate for the 36th District, which includes Reston. Prior to his political appointment, he served for roughly 20 years as a public school teacher and administrator. Plum recently commented on his unopposed race for re-election in his weekly commentary.
Two candidates, Republican Jill Vogel and Justin Fairfax are running to replace Ralph Northam as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, a role which often presides over the State Senate, and has the power to break tie votes. The race for attorney general is between the current attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, and his opponent, Republican John Adams.
The Board of Supervisors has asked residents to approve the sale of $315 million in bonds. If approved, the county has published a list of school improvement projects they would use the money to pay for.
The American Civil Liberties Union received multiple reports from Virginia voters who said that they received calls falsely saying their polling place had changed. The civil liberties organization advised voters to confirm polling locations at elections.virginia.gov and report any issues by calling the organization at 804-644-8080.
Photo by Fatimah Waseem
Nearly two hours of the eight-and-a-half-hour reconvened session of the House of Delegates of the General Assembly were taken up last week by speeches from retiring members and acknowledgement speeches by others about their service and achievement.
The length of the tribute time was driven in large part by the fact that eight members, all of whom are Republicans, are retiring. Heading the list is the Speaker of the House, followed by a senior member who chairs the important Courts Committee. For some, like the Speaker, the longevity of service was a key factor. Others cited family and financial concerns. Another one or two may re-appear running for another office. Legislative service that is considered part-time with a low level of remuneration but takes full-time commitment always has some turnover, but the number this year is significant.
Another factor that may have influenced some decisions is the sense of changing political winds in the Commonwealth. Never in my years of service have I gotten as many phone calls, postcards and emails as I have this year. Traditional groups have gotten re-energized, and many new groups have formed. Activism is in the air.
For me, it has been reassuring. As a progressive, I feel less like I am speaking into the wind and more like there is a force of people behind me. For years I worked on the redistricting issue almost alone and now thousands of people are contacting their legislators asking that they support redistricting reform. The public has become keenly aware of the adverse impact that gerrymandering has had on the Legislature.
The signs of change were evident in the reconvened session last week. While the House of Delegates did not respond favorably to my plea that we approve an amendment by the Governor to expand Medicaid, there was discussion by majority party leaders in the House and Senate that a new group is going to be looking at how medical services can be expanded to the poorest in our state. I continue to be amazed at the argument that leaving $40 billion on the table in federal dollars could somehow be considered “fiscally responsible.”
The majority party may have felt somewhat humbled by the fact that the Legislature upheld 40 vetoes of bills by the Governor, extending the record of his administration to 111 with none being over-ridden. Of course, a two-thirds vote is required, but in the House only a couple of deflections by Democrats would have made an over-ride possible. The vetoes by Gov. Terry McAuliffe have kept Virginia out of the news with crazy legislation that has passed in other states.
Certainly there is also an eye to November, with 77 Democrats lining up to challenge 49 Republican incumbents. As that number is reduced by primaries and conventions, it leaves hotly contested races that could dramatically change who is in charge in the House, and/or the attitude of those left in charge. Democrats have challengers to incumbents in the 17 districts held by Republicans that were won by Hillary Clinton. For those who continue to ask what they can do, there is a clear sense emerging that much can be done this year to put Virginia on a more progressive track.
The National Conference of State Legislatures sponsors a “Legislators Back to School Day” each year as a way to promote the idea that more legislators should visit their local schools to see the good work they are doing, as well as to understand the challenges that school administrators and teachers face.
I take advantage of that opportunity, and other times I am invited to visit schools in my district, and sometimes to visit schools in other areas to learn about special programs.
For me, the visits are very positive experiences. I continue to be impressed with the outstanding work that our schools are doing, especially considering the thousands of children–more than 180,000 in Fairfax County–they have to educate. Ensuring that every child reaches his or her full potential is a continual challenge, but I find administrators and teachers at every level working earnestly and diligently to make sure it happens. The children in our community are amazing! They are, for the most part, eager learners who are full of questions and curiosity. And they are good citizens.
One question that I get from children that may be a curiosity of some adults as well is, just what is a delegate? I discuss with the students the meaning of “to delegate” and explain that I am given a delegation of responsibility by the voters of my district to go to the state capitol each year to represent their interests.
In most states, and at the federal level, members of one house of the legislature are called “representatives;” they represent their constituents in the legislature just as I am delegated to do by the people who live in my legislative district.
Their follow-up question is a key one that must be answered appropriately if our representative form of government or republic is to be successful: How do I know the interests of my constituents? I give several explanations.
My term of office is for two years. When I stand for re-election every two years, I tell the voters in my district what I stand for and believe in. Their vote for me is an affirmation that I stand for the kind of things that they want in their government. If I do not represent the interests of my voters, they have an opportunity every two years to take back the delegation of responsibility they have given to me and give it to someone else.
Secondly, I know many of the interests of my constituents because I am out and about in the community all the time. I listen to a lot of people. I encourage people to call or write to me. I try to stay very active in the community to understand my constituents and their needs. I encourage people to respond to my annual constituent survey, which you can do at my website.
Along with Senator Janet Howell, I also hold public meetings; the next one is Monday, Dec. 19, 7:30 to 9 p.m., at the Reston Community Center at Lake Anne. Please come and participate.
Being a delegate is supposed to be a part-time job in Virginia; for me it is a full-time job and a half, but I am very honored to have been entrusted with this delegation of responsibility.
Photo of Del. Ken Plum at 2016 Legislators Back to School Day, courtesy Del. Ken Plum.
At this time in the calendar,the House of Delegates and the Senate have completed work on the bills that were introduced into the respective houses. Any bills that were passed are now sent to the other body for consideration. In order for a bill to become a law it must pass through both houses in identical form and be signed by the governor.
When a bill is passed in different form in the two houses, a conference committee with representatives from both legislative bodies is appointed to work out differences in a compromise that must then be approved by both houses.
While final action is still pending on most measures, there is some good news to mention in this halftime report. Significant legislation reforming the mental health system has passed both houses in different form and now must be reconciled.
In response to the tragic events in Sen. Creigh Deeds’ family, the length of time that a person who is undergoing a mental health episode can be held without their consent through a temporary detention order will be increased from the current six hours that clearly was not adequate for Senator Deed’s son to eight hours proposed in the House or to 24 hours approved in the Senate.
The final length of time to be worked out in a conference committee must balance individual civil liberties with the need to protect the person and the community from harm. Beyond the procedural issues to be resolved is the question of the level of funding for mental health programs that clearly needs to be increased.
Bipartisanship broke out in the House with representation from both parties working together to craft new ethics legislation that will increase transparency and accountability within the context of a part-time citizen legislature. Twice per year disclosures of economic interests will be required with all reports available for review electronically by the public. Ethics training will be mandatory for all public officials, and an ethics commission will be established to provide oversight for the process.
There is consensus among parents and educators that the current Standards of Learning (SOL) system needs reform. A bipartisan group of delegates developed reforms that were unanimously approved in the House and are likely to be agreed to by the Senate. There will be fewer SOL tests, opportunities for alternative assessments, and a commission to consider additional reforms.
Repeal of the tax on hybrid vehicles will be approved.
The remaining key issue about which there continues to be major differences among the political parties and the two houses of the legislature is the expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance for as many as 400,000 Virginians.
All the other successes at the half pale in comparison to resolving this big issue in time for the legislature to adjourn as scheduled on March 8. Reaching the goal line on Medicaid expansion will determine if this session is a winner.
Del. Ken Plum has represented Reston in the Virginia House of Delegates since 1982.