TRY, TRY AGAIN?
General Assembly preview: While budget matters are sure to dominate the 45-day session gaveling in this week in Richmond, local lawmakers weigh whether to revive previously failed measures on their priority issues.
Sometimes, success in the General Assembly is a matter of try, try again. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor.
In a short, 45-day session where battle lines are already drawn over what to do with an expected $1.2 billion windfall from changes in federal tax law, deciding whether to keep pushing an issue after a defeat isn’t always an easy call.
With just 450 of an expected 3,000 bills filed so far, many legislators are still mulling which battles they’ll fight when the legislature convenes Jan. 9.
Del. Brenda Pogge, R-Norge, has decided to try again with a measure allowing Virginians to itemize deductions on state tax returns even if they take the standard deduction on their federal return. But she’s not going to reintroduce a proposal on an issue she cares about deeply: services for children with hearing impairments.
Her bill last year aimed to help deaf children who enter kindergarten with no formal language skills become literate in English by third grade. She also wanted to make it easier for parents to choose between having children learn American Sign Language or get cochlear implants that help them pick up sounds.
Both options stir strong passions. Those feelings erupted during a state Senate committee hearing, leading the panel to put Pogge’s measure on ice.
And that’s where it can remain, as far as Pogge is concerned, after her continued efforts to bring both sides together.
“Maybe someone else can try,” she said.
The tax challenge that Pogge wants to tackle is the big issue overhanging the 2019 session, and it is making state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Newport News, rethink strategy for one of his most heartfelt initiatives of recent years.
Taxes are an issue because of the rise in the federal standard deduction.
If Virginians who’ve been itemizing their deductions opt to take big savings on their federal taxes by taking that bigger standard deduction, they would see state income taxes rise — bringing about $950 million extra into state coffers this year and next, the state tax department estimates.
And tax policy will be the central theme of this year’s session, Mason told a recent town hall at Kiln Creek Elementary School in Newport News.
The issue is who should get what kind of relief. Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic legislators want to target a break for lowto moderate-income Virginians by making the earned income tax credit fully refundable. Currently, it is used to cut or completely offset a taxpayer’s bill — but if that bill is less than the credit, the taxpayer doesn’t get that difference.
House Republicans favor Pogge’s idea about itemizing, as well as a higher standard deduction, both of which they say will help middle-class Virginians. Senate Republicans haven’t weighed in yet, except to say they don’t like Northam’s idea.
The battle over taxes matters for one of Mason’s priorities, his five-year campaign to make the neighborhood assistance tax credit more widely available.
The idea, which Mason first heard about from Williamsburg’s Child Development Resources, is to cut the percentage of a charitable donation that can be claimed as a tax credit from 65 to 50. That would allow charities to spread their limited credits around to more people, in theory helping them woo more donors. The United Way of the Virginia Peninsula supports the idea.
But Mason isn’t sure this is the year to push the issue, given the billion-dollar tax debate the legislature faces — and the risk that federal tax changes might make it harder to itemize donations, which could put a damper on giving.
“Sometimes, the hardest thing here is to be patient,” Mason said.
Still, they persist
Hampton Roads legislators, though, often set a standard for persistence as well as patience.
Which is why Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, plans to introduce a measure to tighten regulation of high interest rate loans, as he has every year since his first election in 2011 — and continuing a tradition set by his predecessor, Glen Oder.
The late state Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, tried for each of his eight years in office to crack down on high interest rate loans, without success. It took him five years of campaigning to do something about childhood obesity to convince the General Assembly to require a minimum amount of activity a day for elementary school pupils.
Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, DNewport News, will try again with legislation establishing a new criminal offense of domestic terrorism, but with narrower definitions and clearer standards about who could be charged. She’s also working with Gov. Ralph Northam on a bill to set clear standards for drawing legislative districts, after a similar effort died last year.
So Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, is trying again to make it a felony for a bail bondsman or employee to have sex with a defendant or offender. The issue here is that a bail agent can revoke the defendant’s bond, so the sex may not really be consensual. (HB 1845)
And while Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, struck out last year with a measure directing school officials to try other means of discipline for assaults when nobody is injured before calling police, he still thinks too many minor offenses in school end up with the police called and a youth in court or behind bars.
This year, the former prose- cutor, who specialized in juvenile and domestic abuse cases, wants to tackle the issue by declaring that disorderly conduct — disrupting school operations — is not a crime when it occurs in school or on a school bus (HB 1688)
Local issues will drive plenty of legislation, too.
The death of 11-year-old Heaven Watkins, beaten to death in her new home in Norfolk, led Mullin to propose requiring social workers to check out of state records when investigating child abuse allegations. Minnesota officials had removed Heaven from her mother’s home before the family moved to Virginia. Her mother has pleaded guilty to felony homicide and felony child abuse.
Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, wants to cap the legal fees soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines pay in cases in which the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act requires a lawyer be appointed.
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, wants to make a tax credit for landlords who accept Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers available in Hampton Roads. It is now available only in the Richmond metro area.
Menhaden, the oily fish used for food supplements and animal feed, will once again be an issue for Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach.
They are the only species where the General Assembly, rather than the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, sets catch limits. Last year, Knight tried, but failed, to have the legislature adopt a sharp cut in the cap. This year, he’s trying again, with a bill that repeals the current cap and directs the state to adopt the limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. (HB1769)
Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, has a bill aimed at a longstanding dispute over Sentara’s interest in setting up an emergency department 2.5 miles from Chesapeake Regional Medical Center. His measure, similar to one he introduced last year, would make it harder for Sentara to do so by requiring state regulatory approval for an emergency department within 35 miles of an affiliated hospital.
At the same time, the whole system of state approval for new medical facilities will likely be challenged by other bills.
Senate Republicans also have promised a series of measures, vetoed last year, aimed at allowing lower-cost individual health insurance coverage than the standard Affordable Care Act policies.
As part of that package, state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, plans a bill to ban the surprise bills patients get when they go to the E.R. and learn only after the fact that a hospital might be in their health plan’s network, but the doctors inside are not. Out-of-network doctors can bill patients for the difference between their charges and what insurers cover, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars
He also hopes better disclosure will help people avoid big bills for medical tests, when doctors send those to laboratories outside an insurer’s network.
“Sometimes, the hardest thing here is to be patient.”
— State Sen. Monty Mason