As the General Assembly passes the halfway mark of the 2018 session, Loudoun’s democrats in Richmond fielded questions from the public at town hall meetings in Leesburg and Brambleton over the weekend.
Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-10) took questions at the Leesburg Town Hall Saturday morning, and Dels. David A. Reid (D-32) and John J. Bell (D-87) took questions in Brambleton in the afternoon. Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33) attended both sessions.
Much of the conversation circled around gun safety legislation and a new willingness among some Republican members of the House of Delegates to consider expanding Medicaid in Virginia.
Members of Moms Demand Action attended both meetings, and teachers and parents pressed the delegates on what they’ve been doing on gun control and keeping guns out of schools.
Wexton said the National Rifle Association’s influence in Richmond, particularly among Republicans, has in the past been impossible to overcome.
“The NRA is so powerful in Richmond. They have spent so much money and just ramped up the rhetoric on this issue so much,” Wexton said. “But I think people are becoming aware.”
She said after years of inaction—even in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting—she has seen more advocacy for more gun safety legislation than before.
Each legislator told stories of gun control legislation failing to gain support in the General Assembly, sometimes as mass shooting survivors and families of victims watched on.
“The paradigm we’ve seen in the past 20 years, that the solution is more guns, is not helping,” Bell said. “I’m not against the 2nd Amendment, but I don’t think you need AR-15s and military weapons in the civilian population.”
But despite dramatic changes in the House of Delegates in the 2017 elections, as Reid pointed out, Republicans still control slim majorities in each house.
On the debate over Medicaid expansion, Bell and Reid advocated the House’s Medicaid expansion at the town halls, pointing to the increase in state revenues, the number of people it would cover—and the number of hospitals that may not have to operate at a loss if it passes.
“There are about 16 hospitals in the state that are currently operating in the red that should now be able to operate in the black because of the Medicaid expansion,” Reid said.
Accepting more federal funding for Medicaid would pump more than $3 billion dollars into the state budget, expanding health coverage to more than 300,000 uninsured Virginians and freeing up revenues for other expenses. The House bill also includes some work requirements for Medicaid recipients.
That also frees up funding the House has put toward, among other things, 2 percent raises for teachers.
But the Republican majority in the Senate still resists expanding Medicaid. As a result, the two houses’ version of the state budget are mismatched to the tune of more than $600 million, in large part attributable to differences over Medicaid expansion.
Wexton attacked her own house’s version of the budget.
“To say that it is a fiscally conservative document is giving it a little bit too much credit, because it has deep cuts everywhere,” Wexton said.
The legislators also talked about the General Assembly’s attempts to rein in Dominion Energy, which as a result of a rate freeze in 2015 has seen millions in extra profits. As a regulated monopoly, the state is meant to keep oversight over Dominion’s rates, but gave up that authority until 2020.
Dominion is estimated to have overcharged Virginians by hundreds of millions, but the precise figure is known only to the company. Legislators pointed to their work to stop double-dipping—reinvesting extra profits back into the company to make yet more profit—and toward work to get the utility to return some of that money to ratepayers and build more renewable energy generation.
Now past the halfway point of this year’s General Assembly session, each house will now take up the bills passed by the other. Those bills that are passed or reconciled with their counterparts from the other house will go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn March 10, and new laws go into effect July 1.