Virginia’s 2017 elections left the commonwealth with divided government once again. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam faces his first legislative session with Republicans in control of both the House of Delegates and the Senate. Republicans only have a thin majority in both houses, however, which gives the governor leverage. On some issues, such as gun control, the governor and legislators have clashed. On other issues, such as electricity rates and criminal justice reform, there has been bipartisan compromise.
Here are some of the big issues at play in the 2018 Virginia legislative session:
Democratic legislators have introduced a variety of gun control bills, some at the request of the governor. These bills include bills to ban bump stocks, expand background checks, and ease the process of seizing guns from those whom family members consider a threat. Republican legislators have defeated all of these proposals. This issue became a flashpoint in the House of Delegates after the recent school shooting in Florida, with legislators making impassioned speeches on both sides of the issue. However, no legislative action resulted.
Whether or not to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program in line with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is a major point of dispute between the governor and Republicans. Gov. Northam wants to see the state expand its Medicaid eligibility to include childless, able-bodied adults who live in households with income up to 138% of the federal poverty level. Legislative Republicans resisted a similar Medicaid expansion under Gov. McAuliffe, but Gov. Northam has said that he would support work requirements and other conditions on beneficiaries. This concession has won him some support in the House of Delegates, but senators are so far standing firm against expansion.
Criminal justice reform
While Gov. Northam and legislative Republicans have differing views on how to reform Virginia’s criminal justice system, they were able to agree on a compromise in this area. Gov. Northam made it a priority to raise the $200 threshold for felony theft, which was the lowest in the nation. Republicans agreed to raise the level to $500 in exchange for the governor’s support of strengthening the state’s efforts to collect restitution for victims of crimes.
The governor and Republicans also agreed on a legislative package that would reduce state business regulations. This would initially involve a pilot program that targets the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Department of Professional and Occupational Licensing. The end result of this pilot program could be to lessen state mandates on individuals seeking work in certain occupations, such as private investigators or tow truck drivers. The overall goal of this bipartisan reform is to reduce state regulations by 25% over three years. Legislative Republicans are also working to advance an amendment to the state constitution that would give the legislature power to approve or disapprove regulations. If this proposal passes the General Assembly, it will be on November’s ballot.
In the wake of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, Virginia lawmakers froze the electricity rates for Dominion Energy customers for the past three years. That will change under legislation agreed to by the governor and legislators. This bill will allow rate increases and encourage the utility company to invest in infrastructure and renewable energy. Critics call this a giveaway to an energy company that enjoys a near-monopoly in the commonwealth.
The Trump Administration has released a plan that would eventually allow oil and natural gas exploration off of Virginia’s coastline. Governor Northam has spoken out against this proposal, asking that the federal government exempt Virginia waters from any offshore drilling plan.
Do you think that Virginia legislators should pass more restrictions on gun ownership? Is Governor Northam right to push for a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare? Do you support exploring for oil and natural gas in Virginia’s coastal waters?