Fight over AG Power Fizzles
Earlier this week, the Senate narrowly defeated House legislation that would have required Virginia's Attorney General to defend the constitutionality of any state law when legally challenged. The genesis of the bill stemmed from Attorney General Mark Herring's decision last year to not defend the Commonwealth's ban on same-sex marriage. Herring angered conservatives by declaring that the state ban conflicted with the U.S. Constitution. Retiring Republican Senator John Watkins (R-10) voted with the Democrats on the bill and Lt. Governor Ralph Northam cast the tie-breaking vote.
Let the Courts Speak First
On Monday, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia moved an April 1st deadline for the General Assembly to redraw the state's congressional districts to September 1 or 60 days after the Supreme Court rules on an appeal from congressional Republicans, whichever comes first. Last week, Speaker of the House Bill Howell announced the General Assembly would not redraw the district lines until the appeal was decided. Virginia's GOP congressional delegation is appealing a lower court ruling that found Virginia's 3rd congressional district to be unconstitutional because the district included too many African-American voters, diluting the minority vote in surrounding districts.The U.S. District Court ruling expressed concern about the General Assembly devising a new redistricting plan with a Supreme Court decision pending on a similar issue in Alabama. Last fall, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Alabama's redistricting plan where the plaintiffs claimed that the state relied too much on race in drawing the districts. Like Virginia's Republicans, Alabama Solicitor General defended the redistricting plan, noting the lines were drawn in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and on the principle of "One Man, One Vote."
Unlike their track record in previous years, House and Senate budget negotiators forged an agreement on the budget framework quickly this year and released the budget conference report several days prior to the scheduled adjournment of the session. House Democrats continued to criticize the budget agreement for not going far enough to fund K-12 and higher education or create a path forward to collect nearly $1.8 billion in federal dollars through the expansion of Medicaid. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Chris Jones, attempted to stay above the political fray, stating that the General Assembly could renew the debate on Medicaid expansion next year. Governor McAuliffe praised the bipartisan nature of the budget negotiations and stated that he received
"everything I asked for."
Below are some highlights from the conference report:
- With an improved revenue outlook, the conference amendments include net resource increases of $532.2 million over the biennium. Revenue is forecast to grow 4.7% in FY2015 and 3.3% in FY 2016.
Economic Development - Restores $650,000 over the biennium to the Enterprise Zone Grant Program. Removed Senate proposal to reduce Governor's Opportunity Fund or as its now known, the Commonwealth's Development Opportunity Fund.
Fee Increases - Adds $3.7 million in FY2016 to rollback the Governor's proposed restaurant inspection fees, $947,000 (GF) in FY2016 to eliminate proposed licensing fee for providers of adult behavioral health and developmental services, $221,568.00 to eliminate a proposed increase in the tobacco stamp tax, and $117,000 to eliminate proposed fees for Community Services Boards.
Higher Education - Adds $41.5 million in higher education to restore prior cuts and pay for enrollment growth in schools with graduation rates above 60% and incentives to remaining schools to increase transfers from the community colleges and increase financial aid.
Includes $1.25 million for brain injury research at VT Carilion Research
Health Care - Provides $105.4 for mental health services and $27.7 million (GF) and $36.3 million (NGF) for health care safety net programs, including $18.4 for the Virginia's children's health insurance programs, Medicaid, and FAMIS, $4.1 million for free clinics and community health centers.
Medicaid - Eliminates language authorizing Medicaid expansion
Hospital Provider Tax- Eliminates language authorizing a hospital provider tax
but adds language to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to
conduct an analysis and present a plan with options for General Assembly
consideration next year.
Certificate of Public Need- Adds language requiring the Secretary to convene a work group on the COPN process with a report due prior to the 2016 session.
Local Government - Eliminates the Local Aid Reversion Account of $30 million in FY 2016. Local Governments have termed this practice "Aid to the Commonwealth"
Raises for State Employees - Includes 2% across the board increase for all state employees and state-supported local employees and 2% increase for college faculty.
Rainy Day Fund
- Sets aside $129.5 million as an advance deposit to the Rainy Day Fund.
- Provides $52.9 million for state's share of a 1.5% salary incentive for all SOQ instructional and support positions. Participation is optional and requires a local match of at least 1.5% by January 1, 2016.
VRS Contributions - Includes $32.3 million in FY2016 to fund 90% of the VRS Board certified rates for four state employee plans.