"More necessary than I thought..."Mar 14, 2016
Lawmakers in Virginia left town Friday evening after completing the 2016 session, but only after finishing work on a biennial budget and dispensing with well over 2000 pieces of legislation.
For us, the most fascinating and disturbing debates of this year's session surrounded efforts to protect the conscience rights of Virginians. In a Commonwealth built on religious freedom, it became abundantly that the secular left has no room for the public exercise of faith, and little tolerance even for the practice of faith within the church itself. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than the debate over a bill that would simply have removed the requirement that those who solemnize marriages take an oath to the state; an oath some feared made clergy “agents” of the state whereby they could be compelled to participate in marriages that violate their faith principles.
One state Senator even seemed to imply that those who won’t solemnize same-sex marriages should be jailed.
Enter Democrat state Senator Chap Petersen, who stood up during the debate over HB 19 and said exactly what many of us felt – the rhetoric by many in his party on religious freedom was downright chilling.
You can watch the Senate debate over HB 19 by clicking the image below; to see Senator Petersen’s remarks, fast-forward to the 8:15 second mark.
Medicaid Expansion delayed...for now
Medicaid Expansion delayed...for now
The already-chaotic budget process at this year’s General Assembly has become even more uncertain. Yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked a motion to extend the session 30 days, and then blocked another motion for a shorter extension. Meanwhile, House leaders apparently thought they had a deal with the Senate as its lead negotiator, Delegate Chris Jones (R-76, Suffolk), announced on the floor that there would likely be a 30-day extension.
But exceptions to the Senate's rules require a two-thirds approval and, despite two 21-19 party-line votes to extend the session, the motions failed. Each chamber went into recess late in the afternoon in an apparent attempt to bring down the temperature and resolve the issue. Not only can they not agree on a budget, they can’t agree when to talk about the budget. This is interesting territory since, unlike Washington, Virginia is actually required by our constitution to pass a balanced budget before adjourning for the year.
Eventually, they will have to come to an agreement to extend the session or otherwise go into a "special session." The important point is that there will be no imminent budget agreement, which means no Obamacare Medicaid expansion – for now. Whether this overtime budget negotiation favors its ultimate exclusion from the budget remains to be seen. But we do know it means Senate Republicans have not backed down. They are listening to concerned Virginians all across the Commonwealth who understand that Obamacare Medicaid expansion is an ill-conceived, high-risk policy for many reasons.
For starters, the Trump administration is saying it plans to eliminate the federal funds for the matching grants, without which Virginians would have to make up the billions of dollars themselves. That will necessarily lead to higher taxes and/or massive cuts to core services such as education, public safety, and transportation. With the Obamacare "individual mandate" now eliminated as a result of Congress' tax reform bill, it seems likely a recent legal challenge by nearly 20 states to the entire law's constitutionality may be successful. Moreover, the so-called work requirement is meaningless because the expansion covers people who already work, not to mention there is no verification provision to ensure people are actually working. And as for the "taxpayer safety switch," which would stop the program if the federal government doesn't send the money, can you name one government entitlement program that has ever ended once it began? (because we can't)
Once lawmakers decide on their new timetable, we will let you know what actions you can take to help prevent this terribly misguided policy from happening.
Legislature moves Heaven and Earth to pass casino-gambling
Legislature moves Heaven and Earth to pass casino-gambling
Unfortunately, gambling in Virginia just got a whole lot more expansive, but only after the House and Senate practically moved heaven and earth – and exploited nearly every procedural loophole – to pull it off. “Unconventional” hardly begins to describe what transpired over the past few weeks. It started to feel more like we were “north of the Beltway” than in Richmond.
It all started when “historical horse racing” on casino-style slot-machines was quietly slid into the outgoing Governor’s introduced budget. It was a bold move, given the legislature’s well-abided unwritten rule of not making substantive policy changes through the budget, instead of pieces of legislation. The RTD was first to point out that this major gambling expansion was in the budget, but that there was no corresponding bill in either the House or Senate through which to vet the issue on its merits and with the standard public hearing process. To Speaker Cox’s credit, nearly three weeks into the start of the Session and after the normal deadline for introducing bills had passed, he responded by allowing Delegate Webert (R-Warren) to introduce HB 1609 on the House floor, which required unanimous consent. But the introduced bill was essentially a “place holder” bill with no policy content, with the intention of it being significantly amended later. The final version, if signed by the Governor, will dump over 3,000 electronic slot-machine devices at locations all across the state.
The process continued from there to be anything but standard. Instead of assigning the bill to the House General Laws committee, where historical racing had always previously been sent (2010, 2011, and 2015) and each time defeated, the Speaker sent it straight to the Appropriations Committee, where it lacked the benefit of being heard on its merits to weigh whether it was a good policy idea for Virginia. Once assigned, the bill took off like a race horse through the House as if having been injected with a shot of pure adrenalin.
During the Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the actual policy was revealed and approved 8-0 with only The Family Foundation speaking against the bill language that had not been seen prior to the start of the meeting. Two days later, the full Appropriations Committee voted 21-1 to send the bill to the House floor, but allowed for no public testimony. We quickly realized there were numerous powerful and wealthy interests involved and that this iceberg we saw on the surface was buttressed by a significantly larger underbelly. So we doubled down to take them on, managing with very short notice to peel off 24 “no” votes on the House floor.
At “crossover,” we got a second bite at the apple in the Senate, but so did the deep bench of highly-paid corporate lobbyists representing the other side. The Senate, meanwhile, had already approved Historical Racing four times (2008, 2010, 2011 & 2013). At least policy testimony was heard in the General Laws and Technology Committee. The Family Foundation took our best shots, but the bill passed 13-1 and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The Family Foundation prepared to testify there regarding some anomalies, but the Senate Finance leadership did not take public testimony before approving the bill 12-4.
Amazingly, the bill allocates just 1.5% to the localities and leaves the remaining 98.5% to be allocated by the five-member Virginia Racing Commission appointed by the Governor. In denying the interested groups the opportunity to speak, the Finance committee suggested that the various interested parties still needed to work out some differences that would necessitate the bill being put into “conference” for the House and Senate conferees to work out. So they put a technical amendment on the bill supposedly for that purpose. They did this apparently without the foreknowledge of the patron of the bill, or most of the interested parties. Whatever they were up to, it certainly seemed strange.
Interestingly, on the morning of the Senate Finance Committee vote, the RTD reported about this initiative, quoting Senator Louise Lucas, who has long-carried casino gambling bills nearly every year. She spoke maybe too much truth about the historical racing machines at issue. "That's kind of the camel's nose under the tent," she said, adding that she saw little difference between machines that allow historical horse race betting and slots. "They can say whatever they want, I like what they did," she said, adding that she hopes the legislation opens the door to more types of gambling being approved "not in the too distant future."
The following day when the bill went to the Senate floor, they just so happened to be able to work everything out overnight, and the Senate leadership immediately had the Senate reject the committee amendment, bypassing any need for the House to get another vote on the bill and for a House/Senate conference on the bill. Then, bypassing the usual three-day process for bills that make it to the floor, the Senate sped up the process and passed the bill 31-9. Now it’s on to the Governor for signature and the Racing Commission for regulations to be produced and for Virginians to be hit with the impact of even more gambling to come.
With few exceptions, everyone piled on the gambling train, swooning over the shiny slot-machine scheme that promises to garner some $349 million from unsuspecting future gambling addicts that we’re told will revitalize the equine industry and usher in the renewal of live horse racing in Virginia, the industry that already failed miserably, despite the state’s earlier attempts to save it. Unfortunately, we anticipate in a few years from now having to tell the General Assembly “We told you so” – again.
With the amount of determination we saw in making this happen, there will no doubt be more attempts at expansion next year in a variety of forms. And we will be there again to meet them head on, continuing the stand against attempts to expand gambling for the sake of Virginia communities and families.
The Budget Votes are in...
The Budget Votes are in...
The votes are in, and as of a few hours ago, the Virginia House and Senate now have two very different budgets to meld together into one. There are a few notable things for you to know.
House of Delegates:
Unfortunately, the House voted 68-32 for a budget that included a massive expansion of an already unsustainable Medicaid program. Several Republican members spoke against Medicaid expansion, emphasizing that it will most certainly entail higher healthcare costs, more taxes on Virginians, and diminished access and quality of care for the 1.1 million Virginians already enrolled in the program. We commend the 32 members who stood firmly against it. You can see who voted for and against it HERE.
On a positive note, the House did vote to keep the “Hyde Amendment” language in its budget (put in by Delegate LaRock) – language that would restrict taxpayer funding of abortions to only the narrow cases involving rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. Virginia law currently also allows for state funding of abortions in the cases of “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency,” but we believe this phrase is being interpreted extremely broadly by the McAuliffe/Northam Department of Health officials. You can see who voted for and against the amendment HERE.
The House also stood strong in rejecting attempts to add special statuses of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state budget through amendments offered up on the floor (by Delegate Simon). This was one of the items we have been most concerned about, and we are thrilled that the House held the line on this. Few things so threaten religious liberty in Virginia as these efforts. You can see who voted for and against the amendment HERE.
These protections for life and religious liberty are no small matters, and we are mindful that they could not have been possible but for God’s direct provisions.
We are very pleased that the Senate held strong in rejecting Medicaid expansion in their budget. The Senate budget is also around $600 million smaller than the House’s. You can see who voted for and against the final Senate budget HERE. We also want to commend the Senate for rejecting a floor amendment from Senator Cosgrove that would have expanded gambling in Virginia.
We will continue to keep you in the loop on the critical steps going forward. The budget battle still has a ways to go. In the meantime, please reach out to your legislators to express to them both your concerns and your gratitude.