Northern Virginia lawmakers recap transportation, Medicaid expansion
Ten members of the state legislature were in attendance this morning at Belmont Country Club in Ashburn – Sens. Dick Black (R-13th), Mark Herring (D-33rd) and Barbara Favola (D-31st) and Dels. David Ramadan (R-87th), Jim LeMunyon (R-67th), Tag Greason (R-32nd), Randy Minchew (R-10th), Barbara Comstock (R-34th), Tom Rust (R-86th) and Joe May (R-33rd) – to recap highlights from the 2013 session and explain their stances on key votes.
For the first time in 27 years, the General Assembly in February voted to designate new revenues specifically for the state's congested and crumbling transportation network.
The bipartisan plan, estimated to raise nearly $900 a year into the state's roads and rails, will scrap the state's 17.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax; impose a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel; increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent; up the titling tax on car sales; impose a fee on hybrid vehicles; and make various adjustments to several other taxes and fees, including bumping sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Herring, Favola, Greason, Minchew, LeMunyon, Rust and May supported the transportation legislation, which had strong support from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, while Comstock, Ramadan and Black opposed.
Even those who supported the transit bill agreed it was far from a perfect solution, but doing nothing simply wasn't an option. Both Favola and Minchew quoted Voltaire, saying “Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Detractors of the bill slammed the string of tax increases, including on homes, sales and vehicle taxes.
A regional component of the historic legislation slightly increases the sales tax in gridlocked Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Revenues from the tax bump are designated strictly for transportation projects in the region, a provision LeMunyon praised.
“There's some teeth in that bill to make sure the money is being spent in the way it's intended,” LeMunyon said.
Several legislators noted various studies that list Northern Virginia as the most congested transportation network in the country and the impact that has on economic development.
“Our business ratings continue to slip as a result of us not being able to address transportation funding,” Herring said.
The Republican Rust said passing the transportation bill was absolutely the right thing to do and that “history will prove us correct.”
As part of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, states this year had the option to expand Medicaid coverage by opening up looser eligibility requirements. In Virginia the expansion is estimated to grow the pool of beneficiaries by more than 400,000.
Democrats Herring and Favola were joined by the GOP's May, Rust and Greason in supporting the expansion, while Ramadan, Minchew, LeMunyon, Comstock and Black said reform must come first and questioned whether the feds will follow through with their funding promise.
The General Assembly didn't fully endorse the Medicaid enhancement, but rather voted to set up a bipartisan commissions of five delegates and five senators to study the expansion, its costs and reforms, and then make a recommendation to Gov. Bob McDonnell whether to expand coverage.
Those opposed noted the growing costs of the program, as well as the constitutionality of the commission approach. Del. Greason addressed those concerns by saying as it currently stands, McDonnell has sole power to sign on for the Medicaid expansion.
“I think a commission of five senators, five delegates is a better compromise than one single individual sitting in the mansion deciding we're going to expand or not going to expand,” Greason said. “ … we have to reform before we expand.”
Greason also pointed out the Medicaid vote was tied in with an overall the overall budget proposal that included teacher pay raises and countless other line items.
Minchew voiced his concern over the rising cost of health care coverage.
“Medicaid is the fastest-growing segment of our budget,” Minchew said. “It's 26 percent and climbing … I supported the concept of reform first followed by possible expansion later. I didn't think these two things should be done concurrently.”
Minchew did note, however, that if Virginia doesn't opt in, it will lose out on funds designated for the states.
Within the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is expected to cover 100 percent of the expansion costs for the first few years and 90 percent beyond that.
Del. Rust, speaking in support of the bill, said Virginia businesses will pay nearly $10 billion into Medicaid coffers in the next decade, and if the commonwealth doesn't opt in, the state won't see any return on those funds.
“If we expand Medicaid, we will get $10.2 billion back,” Rust said. “To me it's a very simple cash-flow. Setting aside the human element, it's cash flow, it's the right thing to do, it's the right thing to do for 400,000 Virginians.”