Delegate Mark Cole
P. O. Box 41965
Fredericksburg, VA 22404
(540) 786-3402

Paid for and authorized by Mark Cole for Delegate

Delegate Mark Cole
It is my honor to represent the citizens of the 88th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. The House of Delegates is one half of the Virginia General Assembly, the other half being the Virginia Senate. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or concerns about legislation or issues before the General Assembly. If you would like to visit the Capitol in Richmond, please call my office so that we may set-up a tour and assist with your visit. I look forward to hearing from you!

I want to invite you and your family to a town hall meeting and Holiday Reception. I will be holding a Christmas Reception and Town Hall meeting on Saturday, 13 December (2-4pm), at Colonial Circuits Building, 1026 Warrenton Road Fredericksburg (Route 17 in south Stafford across the street from GEICO).

You and your family and friends are welcome to attend. If you plan to attend, please send me an email or call so that we will know how many people to prepare for.

I look forward to seeing you on 13 December!

December 4, 2014

The new I-95 Express Lanes will be opening soon. This project has been in the works for years and is extending and expanding the old HOV lanes while converting them High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

The 95 Express Lanes are 29 miles of HOT lanes spanning from Edsall Road in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The lanes should provide some traffic relief for I95 commuters and carpoolers. It will cause changes to current I95 HOV travel.

When opened, the HOV lanes will become HOT lanes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Carpoolers with at least 3 passengers will be able to drive on the lanes toll free, however, you will still need an E-ZPass Flex (which can be set to HOV mode). Cars with fewer than 3 people may still use the lanes; however, they will be charged a variable toll. An E-ZPass will still be required to charge the toll.

An E-Z Pass will be REQUIRED to use the I-95 Express Lanes. You can find more information at the following website: I95 Express Lanes Information

Winter is approaching, and that usually means the start of "pothole season". Potholes occur when the pavement is weakened by moisture seeping into the pavement, freezing, expanding and then thawing. Traffic driving over the roads loosens the pavement further, and it eventually crumbles and pops out, causing a pothole.

If you see a pothole, or any other problem with the roadway, you may report the problem to VDOT online here: Report Road Problems

VDOT will investigate each report and will schedule repairs as soon as possible.

November 11, 2014

The Virginia General Assembly convened last Monday and passed legislation to allow insurance companies to renew in 2015 health insurance plans that were cancelled under the Affordable Care Act. House Bill 5011, which I co-sponsored, “authorizes health carriers to offer to renew any health benefit plan that would otherwise be required to be canceled, discontinued, or terminated because it does not meet the requirements of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

President Barack Obama promised at least 37 times that “if you like your plan, you could keep your plan.” Despite that promise, as many as 250,000 Virginia insurance policies were cancelled under Obamacare. This commonsense legislation will allow insurance companies to renew plans prohibited by the Affordable Care Act.

This is the second time the House of Delegates has passed this legislation. Last January the House of Delegates passed similar legislation, HB 1147 (which I also co-sponsored). The first bill was killed by the then-Democratic controlled Senate. Because of this unnecessary delay, not all insurance companies will reauthorize plans that were cancelled under Obamacare. However, I believe strongly they should have the opportunity to do so, and hope they make those plans available to customers.

The General Assembly also passed an amendments to the current budget to restore previously delayed funds for transportation and to require the Governor to submit a plan for an additional $ 50 million in budget reductions to be considered by the General Assembly next January. Previously, we had made $2.4 billion in cuts to the state budget. State tax revenues are still down primarily due to the weak economy. I am concerned that as the provisions of the Federal Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) kick-in next year, they may push our struggling economy into a recession.

Virginia’s gas tax may be increasing by about 4 or 5 cents in January; the tax is based on a percentage of the wholesale price of gas, so the exact amount will depend on the price of gas. Part of the transportation tax increase that was passed in 2013 (for the record, I opposed it) included a provision that said if the US Congress did not pass the Marketplace Fairness Act, the gas tax would increase on 1 January. It appears unlikely that Congress will pass the act, so be sure to fill up on 31 December.

If you've driven on I-95 lately, you've likely seen construction crews working to convert the existing HOV system to an Express Lanes system.

The 95 Express Lanes – expected to open in December – are 29 miles of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes spanning from Edsall Road in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The lanes should provide some traffic relief to I95 commuters and carpoolers. It will cause changes to current 95 HOV travel.

Once complete, the HOV lanes will become HOT lanes. Carpoolers with at least 3 passengers will be able to drive on the lanes toll free, however, you will still need an E-ZPass Flex (which can be set to HOV mode). Cars with fewer than 3 people may still use the lanes; however, they will be charged a variable toll. An E-ZPass will still be required to charge the toll.

You can find more information at the following web site: I95 Express Lanes Information

October 1, 2014

Every year is an election year in Virginia. This year federal congressional elections will be held on November 4th.

If you are not already registered to vote, the last day to register to vote in this election is October 14th.

The State Board of Elections has been purging the voter rolls of people who are registered in more than one state. They send out letters to the voters’ last known address to give the voter an opportunity to say that they want to remain registered in Virginia, and not the other state, before removing them from the rolls. So if you get a letter from the State Board of Elections or your local General Registrar, you should open and read it right away to make sure you are not inadvertently removed from the voter rolls.

The polls will be open on November 4th from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

If you are unable to make it to the polls on Election Day or will be out of town, you may cast an Absentee Ballot. You may request and cast an absentee ballot by mail or in person at your local Registrar’s office. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is October 28th and the last day to vote absentee in person is November 1st. If you are voting absentee, I would encourage you to do so as soon as possible to avoid any possible problems with mail delivery. You may also cast your absentee vote in person at the Registrar’s office now. Contact your local Registrar’s office to find out when they are open to cast your vote.

You may contact your local Registrar at:

Spotsylvania County
Phone: (540) 507-7380
Web Page: Spotsylvania Voter Registrar web page

Stafford County
Phone: (540) 658-4000
Web Page: Stafford Voter Registrar web page

E-Mail: email via web page
Phone: (540) 372-1030
Web Page: Fredericksburg Voter Registrar web page

Fauquier County
Phone: (540) 422-8290
Web Page: Fauquier Voter Registrar web page

The State Board of Elections also has a lot of information at their web page:
State Board of Elections web page

This will be the first general election conducted in Virginia that requires voters to present photo identification before voting. Any valid government issued ID with your photo is acceptable such as a driver’s license, DMV ID card, passport, or military ID. Additionally, employer issued ID’s are acceptable as long as they have your photo.

If you do not have a photo ID, you may obtain a voter photo ID from your local Registrar’s office. Please contact them if you need to obtain a voter ID card. Your old voter registration card that does not include a photo, will no longer be accepted. Please do not wait until the last minute if you do not have an acceptable photo ID; get it taken care of now if you need one!

A list of acceptable photo ID’s is available at the State Board of Elections web site:Photo ID Information

This year we will be electing a US Senator and our US Congressional representatives. There is also an amendment to the Virginia state Constitution on the ballot. Additionally, there may be some local questions on the ballot depending on what locality you live in (for example, in Spotsylvania there will be 5 bond questions on the ballot).

The Virginia Constitutional amendment on the ballot would give localities the option of providing a tax exemption for surviving spouses of soldiers killed in action. You can find more information on the proposed amendment, including the actual language of the amendment at:Proposed Constitutional Amendment Information

For what it is worth, below are the candidates, whose districts are near the 88th House District, that I am supporting this election and a link to their web page if you would like more information:

US Senate: Ed Gillespie, Ed Gillespie for Senate web page
US Congress 1st District: Rob Wittman, Rob Wittman for Congress web page
US Congress 5th District: Robert Hurt, Robert Hurt for Congress web page
US Congress 7th District: Dave Brat, Dave Brat for Congress web page
US Congress 10th District: Barbara Comstock, Barbara Comstock for Congress web page

Those of you who live in the 7th Congressional District will have two elections in one on Election Day. Because Congressman Eric Cantor resigned, there is currently no one serving as the representative of the 7th district. Because of this, a special election has been called to fill the seat. To save money, the special election is being held at the same time as the General Election on November 4th.

So you will be able to vote twice for the 7th District Congressman on Election Day. I would encourage you to vote both times for Dave Brat. By the way, I plan to submit legislation during the next General Assembly session to fix this, so that in cases when the seat is vacant, whoever wins the General Election will assume the office as soon as the election results are certified, so that we will not have to hold simultaneous General and Special elections in the future.

September 19, 2014

The Virginia General Assembly convened yesterday and passed a bipartisan budget agreement that closes the remainder of Virginia’s $2.4 billion budget shortfall for fiscal years 2015 and 2016. Previously, we had made some cuts to the proposed budget; however, the projected deficit appears to widening primarily due to the weak economy. The legislation closes the shortfall by appropriating approximately $705 million of the rainy day fund, requiring nearly across-the-board spending cuts to state agencies totaling $342 million and capturing approximately $269 million in savings from unspent agency balances and other technical financing actions.

Acting now rather than later to address the budget shortfall creates certainty for our economy, gives state agencies flexibility to cut spending while protecting core functions of government, and ensures that Virginia will maintain its Triple-A bond rating.

Under this legislation, state agencies will have to cut spending across-the-board by approximately three percent. K-12 education is exempted from this requirement and the three percent reduction is approximately half of what Governor McAuliffe originally requested from Virginia’s institutions of higher education. Utilizing the rainy day fund may prevent or at-least delay potential cuts to K-12 education, reductions to local governments, sheriffs, police, and fire departments, and mitigate potential layoffs for state employees.

The legislation also requires Governor McAuliffe to submit in December a plan to address approximately $270 million in additional budget cuts for fiscal year 2016 to be considered by the General Assembly next January.

To resolve the budget standoff between the House and the Senate, we made a commitment to hold a separate special session in order to have a full and fair debate on Medicaid expansion. The House of Delegates met on September 18th to consider any and all legislation before it related to Medicaid expansion. This was part of our effort to keep our commitment both to proponents of expansion and the people of Virginia.

For the third time this year, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth. We look forward to discussing additional ideas to reform Medicaid and strengthen the existing health care safety net in the future, but firmly believe that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would be the wrong decision for Virginia, especially given our current budget shortfall.

The Senate also did not pass any Medicaid expansion plan.

During the session the House of Delegates passed House Resolution 566 by a 65 to 32 vote. The resolution authorizes the Speaker to employ legal counsel to defend the laws and Constitution of the Commonwealth, should the Attorney General and Governor fail to do so, as well as protect the responsibilities, authority and prerogatives of the House of Delegates.

Speaker Howell made the following statement regarding the resolution and the need for its passage:

“I am deeply concerned by Attorney General Herring’s refusal to defend the laws and Constitution of the Commonwealth. His actions represent a dangerous threat to separation of powers and the rule of law. I am also concerned by indications that the Governor may be willing to circumvent the law, legislature, and Constitution.

“This resolution will allow me to defend the laws and Constitution of the Commonwealth, including the marriage amendment, and to guard against potential abuses of executive power.

“As with all of the powers and responsibilities of the Speaker’s office, I will exercise this authority judiciously. I intend to use this authority to defend the law and the Constitution, and preserve the legislature’s status and authority as a coequal branch of government whenever necessary.”

The General Assembly also appointed several judges during the session. The House and Senate are still negotiating to fill any vacancies on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. I expect the General Assembly will be called back later in the fall to take action on additional pending judgeships.

July 1, 2014

Most new laws passed by the General Assembly go into effect on July 1 of each year; exceptions being legislation passed with an emergency clause (which requires a 4/5’s majority to pass and goes into effect as soon as it is signed by the Governor) or legislation that is passed with a delayed effective date.

The division of legislative services prepares a summary of new laws each year. Instead of reinventing the wheel and writing my own summary, I would invite you to visit the following web page to review their summary:

2014 Changes to Virginia Law

One bill that passed in 2013 with a delayed effective date is SB 1038 which goes into effect this year. The biggest impact of this bill is that mopeds will now be required to be titled and licensed by DMV. Previously, mopeds that cannot go faster than 35 mph were treated like bicycles and not licensed by DMV. If they were capable of going faster than 35 mph, they were treated like motorcycles and had to be licensed. Now all mopeds will have to be licensed. Below is a link to the summary for SB 1038:

Senate Bill 1038 from 2013 Session

If you have any questions or comments regarding any of these laws, please feel free to contact me.

June 23, 2014

Governor McAuliffe signed the state budget on June 21st, however, he also line-item vetoed eight of provisions of the budget. Two of those vetoes were ruled unconstitutional and out of order by House Speaker Bill Howell.

Governor McAuliffe attempted to veto language that unequivocally states the Governor does not have the authority to expand Medicaid unilaterally. This veto was ruled unconstitutional and therefore out of order, which effectively kills the veto. It will not be included in the final version of the budget, however, the Governor may challenge this ruling in court. This is unconstitutional for two reasons:

• First, the Supreme Court has defined an item as an “indivisible sum of money dedicated to a stated purpose.” This item does not contain an indivisible sum of money, and therefore does not constitute an item subject to the Governor’s veto authority.

• Secondly, rather than contain an indivisible sum of money, this is a condition placed on all appropriations in the budget, and the Supreme Court of Virginia has stated that a Governor cannot veto conditions without also vetoing the attached appropriation, in this case the entire budget.

Governor McAuliffe also attempted to veto funding for judges and the conditions attached to it. This veto was also ruled unconstitutional and therefore out of order. This veto was unconstitutional because the Governor failed to veto the entire item, as the Supreme Court requires.

Another veto was funding for a new Ethics advisory commission. The House voted to overturn this veto, but Senate Democrats were successful in sustaining the veto. The General Assembly passed a bipartisan ethics reform package with a near unanimous support. Governor McAuliffe signed the bill but vetoed the funding needed to make it work. This coupled with his previous veto of HB 1212, which would have prohibited the Governor from accepting campaign contributions from individuals seeking economic development grants from the Governor's Opportunity Fund, makes me question the Governor’s commitment to ethics reform.

Five other vetoes were not challenged by the House, which means the vetoes will stand. Those were:

• The Governor vetoed language that would allow Chesterfield County to help run Petersburg City Schools.
• Vetoed language related to the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC). This veto really does nothing since last year’s budget established the MIRC and this language is still part of the Code of Virginia.
• Vetoed a technical reversion of money from the Federal Action Contingency Fund to the General Fund.
• Vetoed language that sets up a process for spending Virginia’s portion of assets forfeiture suits. This House worked with the Attorney General’s office to write this language who then directed the Governor to veto the language they asked us to include in the budget.
• The Governor vetoed language requiring the Executive Branch to present more detailed reports to the General Assembly during the budget process.

Since the budget did not authorized Medicaid expansion, Governor McAuliffe has stated he will try to circumvent the General Assembly and state law to expand Medicaid unilaterally. The House is prepared to challenge this overreach of executive authority through all available avenues, including the Court system, if needed.

June 13, 2014

The Virginia General Assembly passed the state’s two-year budget last night, sending the budget to the desk of Governor Terry McAuliffe for his action. He will have 7 days to review the budget. He can sign the budget and it will become law, make amendments to it and return it to the General Assembly for action, and veto it. I expect him to make amendments which would then have to be approved by the General Assembly.

The budget addresses the $1.5 billion revenue shortfall by reducing spending increases and using some of the state’s rainy day fund. The budget does NOT include Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

The budget includes funds for critical programs including law enforcement, transportation, and education, as well as implementing improvements in mental health reforms.

The 3-month long budget deadlock was broken when a Democrat Senator resigned over the weekend. This put Republicans back in the majority in the Senate and they quickly took action on the budget. It is amazing what you can accomplish once you get Democrats out of the way.

Tax revenue collections were down by $394 million, or almost 20 percent, in the month of May. We expect revenues to be down about $550 million each of the next two years, meaning the total shortfall will be about $1.5 billion. We will not know the final numbers until July, but we have built a budget that anticipates a big shortfall.

The shortfall is the result of President Obama’s 2012 tax hikes and the burdens placed on businesses by Obamacare. Because of President Obama’s tax hikes at the end of 2012, people cashed out their investments and stocks early. Two years later, tax collections in those areas are down significantly.

President Obama’s policies are hurting our economy. Even though unemployment is claimed to be down, we have fewer high-paying jobs and more low-paying ones. That means less economic growth and lower tax revenue.

June 9, 2014

I will warn you that this update will sound more partisan than my normal updates, but I see no other way to present the current situation. I usually try to keep mentions of party affiliation out of my updates, but the budget standoff appears to be a purely partisan standoff. Governor McAuliffe and General Assembly Democrats want to force Virginia to comply with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by expanding Medicaid, while General Assembly Republicans oppose expansion due to budgetary concerns.

There still is no agreement on the State Budget. Senate Democrats have refused to even restart budget negotiations unless the House agrees to expand Medicaid. In fact, some Senate leaders (Senators Dick Saslaw and Janet Howell) who would be key to negotiating a budget have already announced plans to go in vacation in June, despite the fact that the current budget expires at the end of June and we risk a state government shutdown on 1 July.

There was some movement by Senator Hanger, who previously supported the Senate budget, when he called for passing a clean budget without Medicaid expansion and considering Medicaid expansion separately. However, Senator Saslaw quickly responded that such a deal was unacceptable. Senator Edwards even said there was no great outcry to come up with a budget.

It appears to me that Democrats want to force a government shutdown. I believe they see what happened in Washington last year, where Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media were successful in blaming Republicans for the federal government shutdown, and got everything they wanted without compromising. They are hoping that the same thing will happen in Richmond.

A shutdown of Virginia state government has never happened before. Its impacts would be far greater than the partial shutdown of the Federal government, which has happened several times in the past. The state budget not only funds state government operations, but also a large part of local government operations including schools and law enforcement.

Regardless of how you feel about Medicaid expansion, the state budget is too important to use as a political bargaining chip to force passage of a program that could not pass on its own merits. If the Governor and Senate are successful in using the budget as a political hostage over Medicaid expansion, I believe you will see the budget taken hostage to force through other unpopular programs that could not pass on their own in the future.

There is some confusion about Medicare versus Medicaid, and what Medicaid expansion would include. Medicare and Medicaid are two different programs: Medicare is a Federal program to provide healthcare to senior citizens, while Medicaid is a joint Federal and state program to provide care to the poor. Medicare is funded by a Federal payroll tax that we all pay every payday, while Medicaid is funded by Federal and state budget appropriations.

The provisions of Obamacare included significant cuts to Medicare while offsetting those cuts by expanding Medicaid. This is really a transparent attempt to shift the costs of Obamacare to the states, since they are cutting a Federally funded program and expanding a joint Federal / state funded program.

When Obamacare was challenged in court, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal government could not compel states to expand Medicaid. The Federal government has said it would pay the initial costs of expansion with the states eventually being required to pay 10 percent of the costs.

Considering the huge budget deficits that Washington has and its record of underestimating the costs of government programs, I do not believe Washington will keep its word. Eventually the costs of expansion will be shifted to the states. Estimates of Virginia’s costs vary from a low of $ 300 million to more than $ 1 Billion.

Those covered by Medicaid expansion would be basically abled bodied, working age adults making less than 138 percent of the poverty level. It would not impact coverage for children, families, or the disabled; they are already covered by various programs. In fact, many of those who would be covered by Medicaid expansion can already sign up for Obamacare and receive subsidized or even free insurance that would provide better coverage, since roughly a third of medical providers in Virginia refuse to accept more Medicaid patients due to problems with the program.

The current Medicaid program needs significant reform and is plagued with waste, fraud and abuse. Medicaid has grown by 1600 percent over the last 30 years. It is growing at 8 percent per year and now consumes over 20 percent of the state general fund budget. Even without expansion, growth in the current Medicaid program will cost Virginia nearly $2.8 billion. It would be fiscally irresponsible to expand a program that is growing at an unsustainable rate and run so poorly.

We recently received news that tax revenues are coming in at less than the projected rate resulting in a budget shortfall of more than $ 300 million this year and possibly as much as $ 1.3 Billion for the next biennial budget.

This shortfall is not related to the current budget standoff; it is due to the weak economy. I think the negative impacts of Washington’s over-regulation, including the burdens imposed on businesses by Obamacare, are hurting the economy which has led to lower tax revenues.

While this is unrelated to the budget standoff, if a budget is not adopted before 1 July, the General Assembly will not be able to use the “Rainy Day” fund to minimize the negative impacts of the budget shortfall.

Senator Phil Puckett (D-Russell) has submitted his resignation from the State Senate. This is significant since there was a 20-20 tie between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate; Democrats held the majority due to Democrat Lt. Gov. Northam being able to break tie votes.

With the resignation, Republicans now hold a 20-19 majority. Senator Norment, the leader of the Senate Republicans has said he plans to call the Senate back into session to take up the budget. We will see if this will be decisive since 3 Republicans had voted to support the Senate Democrats’ budget.

Governor McAuliffe recently vetoed the bipartisan ethics reform bill that had passed the General Assembly. HB 1212 would have prohibited the Governor from accepting or soliciting campaign contributions from companies or individuals seeking economic development grants from the Governor's Opportunity Fund.

This was a bipartisan bill that passed both the House and Senate with no opposition.

Virginia House of Delegates Speaker and Chairman of the joint House-Senate Rules Committee William J. Howell (R-Stafford) announced Thursday $7,356,129 in legislative branch savings that will be returned to the general fund at the end of fiscal year 2014. This includes over $3.7 million in savings from legislative branch agencies and over $3.5 million in savings from legislative commissions and councils. Speaker Howell made the following statement on the announcement:

“These savings reflect the fiscally conservative and responsible approach to governing that Virginia taxpayers demand. The people of Virginia expect its leaders to set priorities, make tough decisions and ensure that government lives within its means.

“I want to thank the agency heads, legislative branch employees and the board and commission members who have been efficient and effective stewards of taxpayer resources over the last several years. Since 2010, the legislative branch has returned over $19 million in savings to the general fund. Since 2003, the House of Delegates alone has returned over $5 million in savings.

“The savings announced today are especially important given the potential budget shortfall for the current fiscal year and the next budget biennium. I am encouraging all legislative branch agencies to be very mindful of the resources and constraints due to this potential shortfall and will continue to demand nothing less than the utmost efficiency and effectiveness in the future.”

April 23, 2014

The Virginia General Assembly reconvened today to deal with legislation that Governor McAuliffe amended or vetoed. The Governor vetoed four bills: HB 1040, which would allow individuals who receive a ticket from a photo red light camera to appeal to the Circuit Court; SB 236, which was intended to protect the religious rights of students; SB 310, which made minor adjustments to Senate District boundaries in order to reduce the number of split precincts; and SB 555, which would prohibit censorship of sermons by National Guard and Virginia Defense Force chaplains. None of the vetoes were overridden, they were all supported or sustained by the Senate.

The Governor amended many bills. Most of the amendments were minor technical changes or corrections and passed the General Assembly. However, several bills were amended to make them dependent upon passage of the budget before they would be effective. There did not appear to be any logical basis for which bills received this amendment, some bills with minor fiscal impacts were amended while other bills with much larger fiscal impacts did not. It appears that the only thing that these bills have in common is that they were sponsored by Republicans. Also, the Governor made amendments to some bills, while signing other bills that were identical without making any amendments. In all my time serving in the legislature, I have never seen what appears to be such random action by a Governor.

One bill amended by Governor McAuliffe was SB 651, which seeks to limit what outside counsel can charge. The legislation would require that when the Attorney General has a conflict of interest in a matter, outside counsel may be retained, but the Attorney General would negotiate reasonable fees for the service. The bill was introduced because of concerns about the high costs of legal counsel required by the previous Governor during his ethics probe. Governor McAuliffe amended the bill to take the decision out of the hands of the Attorney General and give himself the authority to seek counsel whatever counsel he may feel he needs and pay whatever he thinks would be appropriate. The Senate passed the amendments on a straight party-line vote, with Democrats voting for the amendments; fortunately, the House defeated the amendments.

I would like to update you on the progress of negotiations to pass a state budget, but there really has been no progress. We were very close to agreeing on a state budget last month at the end of regular session when Governor McAuliffe decided to take the budget hostage until we agree to comply with Obamacare by expanding Medicaid. The House wanted to extend session so that negotiations could continue but the Senate and Governor decided to adjourn regular session without passing a budget. The Governor then called us back into special session a few weeks ago.

Once special session started, the House passed its budget proposal and sent it to the Senate, hoping to restart negotiations. The Senate took no action and immediately adjourned for two weeks. Normally, the Senate would reject the House budget, amend it to include their budget proposal, and send it back to the House to start negotiations on a compromise. Even now, the Senate still has not taken any action on the House budget, so negotiations have yet to even restart. We would have been better off if we had just extended regular session.

It appears that the Governor and Senate Democrats have decided to drag their feet and delay negotiations. I believe they have adopted the same strategy that Washington Democrats used last year during the Federal budget standoff, where the media and Democrats were successful in blaming Republicans for the shutdown and Democrats got what they wanted without compromising on anything.

It has become obvious why Governor McAuliffe did not want to extend session. During regular session the Governor and General Assembly are prohibited from political fundraising. There is no prohibition during a special session. Soon after adjourning, Governor McAuliffe began advertising $ 100,000 political fundraising luncheons.

March 25, 2014
The Virginia General Assembly convened into special session to complete work on the state budget. The House passed out a budget proposal, however, the Senate recessed until April 7th without taking any action on the budget. This is very unusual. Normally, both the House and Senate will pass budget proposals and send them to a conference committee to negotiate a compromise. The Senate appears to be in no hurry to do their job, and pass a budget.

Senate Democrats and Governor McAuliffe have refused to consider a budget that does not include expansion of Obamacare / Medicaid in Virginia. The House has taken the position that Medicaid expansion should not be considered until cost-saving reforms have been implemented. Medicaid is fraught with waste, fraud, and abuse; it simply does not make sense to expand a program that is so poorly run. Plus, expansion would create a significant future cost burden on the state budget.

Regardless of what your opinion may be of Obamacare / Medicaid expansion, the budget should not be held hostage in order to force expansion. Expansion should be considered separately, based on its own merits.

March 10, 2014
The Virginia General Assembly adjourned its regular session last Saturday. While many bills and resolutions were passed during the session, a state budget has yet to be passed. The House passed a resolution to extend the session to continue work on the budget; however the Senate and Governor McAuliffe declined to do so. We will go back into special session on March 24th, to restart budget negotiations.

Some legislation that did pass included innovative reforms to the Standards of Learning, a bipartisan bill to reform and modernize the state's ethics, transparency and disclosure laws, significant changes in the area of mental health, as well as a number of other key reforms in important areas like economic development, public safety and government reform.

Among the legislative priorities advanced is legislation to reform Virginia's Standards of Learning tests. House Bill 930 reduces the number of SOL tests in third through eighth grade from 22 to 17. The legislation also creates an innovation committee that will continue to monitor, evaluate and improve the state's standardized assessments.

The General Assembly also passed a comprehensive, bipartisan ethics reform bill. House Bill 1211, imposes a $250 gift cap, creates a statewide ethics advisory council, updates and modernizes several aspects of Virginia's financial disclosure system and implements mandatory training requirement for elected officials.

The General Assembly also passed significant improvements to Virginia's mental health system, including legislation to improve the emergency custody order and temporary detaining order processes, create an electronic bed registry and guarantee that a bed is always available to someone in need.

House Bill 293 states that when a special magistrate orders someone into care and a clinician cannot find an alternate bed, the person will be brought to the state mental hospital, which is required to admit him.

House Bill 2 requires the development of a prioritization process for projects funded by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Such prioritization shall weight factors such as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, and environmental quality and be applied within each highway construction district.

HB 793 requires the Department of Transportation, when reviewing proposed comprehensive plan amendments from localities in Northern Virginia, to recommend specific transportation improvements that are necessary to ameliorate congestion.

HB 296 and SB 58 requires localities to take into consideration how to align transportation infrastructure and facilities with housing and community services when developing the transportation component of the comprehensive plan.

House and Senate negotiators were very close to agreeing on a compromise state budget to fund critical services such as schools, law enforcement, and transportation with one hold-up being Medicaid expansion. Senate Democrats and the Governor have been unable to get Medicaid expansion through the General Assembly on its own, so they have decided to hold the state budget hostage until the House agrees to expand Medicaid.

Regardless of how you feel on this issue though, using Virginia's budget as a political bargaining chip is wrong. Governor McAuliffe is holding up funding for teachers, hospitals, law enforcement and colleges - in order to force Medicaid expansion in Virginia. I would encourage you to contact the Governor's office and tell him to stop holding Virginia's budget hostage and pass a clean budget to fund critical services that all Virginians depend on.

February 22, 2014

Last week the Virginia House of Delegates passed its budget proposal. The structurally-balanced budget sets aside over $300 million in state savings, including $240 million for the rainy-day fund, while increasing funding for K-12 and higher education, public safety and the health care safety net. The House budget includes over $500 million additional dollars for K-12 education, $20 million for college tuition mitigation, and $6 million to fund more in-state spots at Virginia universities. It includes nearly $50 million for our mental health system to help create new beds, response teams and intervention centers, and includes a total of over $200 million to help Virginia hospitals and nursing homes care for Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens.

The budget sets aside over $130 million for revenue adjustments. This is important since tax revenues have been coming in under projections due to the weak economy. Revenues for the current budget were recently adjusted downward by more than $ 100 million.

The House budget will now go to the Senate for their consideration. A compromise budget will be negotiated between the House and Senate in the coming weeks.

The state Senate has included a version of Medicaid expansion in their budget. During the debate on the House budget, an amendment to expand Medicaid was proposed and rejected by a 67-32 vote due to concerns about waste in the current program and its long term impact on the state budget. Hospitals and many healthcare providers are pushing hard to expand Medicaid. Part of the reason for this is to make up for the loss of Medicare funding.

Medicare is a federal program to pay for healthcare for senior citizens; Medicaid is a joint federal and state program to care for the poor. The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) made significant cuts to the Medicare program which has created financial problems for hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the state. Medicaid expansion is seen by some as a way to make-up for those cuts.

In my opinion, Medicaid expansion is just a way to shift part of the costs of ObamaCare to the states. The federal government cut a program that is funded entirely with federal funds (Medicare) and expanded a program that is funded with both state and federal funds (Medicaid). Of course the federal government promises to pay the costs of the expansion for a few years, then costs will start being shifted to the states.

February 15, 2014

Last week was “crossover” at the General Assembly; that is the day that the House must complete work on all House Bills and the Senate must complete work Senate Bills. Then each body sends the legislation that passed to the other for consideration. Here are some of the initiatives that have passed the House and now go to the Senate.

When Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests were first adopted in the 1990s, Virginia was a pioneer in assessments and accountability. The SOLs have set high standards and fostered a sense of accountability. As a consequence, Virginia students consistently score above the national average on standardized tests. Over the last several years, a growing consensus among parents, teachers and education leaders has developed to make reforms to the SOLs. Last fall, the House Republican Caucus came out with an outline of the most specific SOL reform plan, calling for fewer and better tests.

House Bill 930 begins the SOL reform process. In order to increase time available for classroom instruction, the bill reduces the number of tests in grades 3-8 from 22 to 17, while requiring an evaluation of the multiple-choice based SOL tests and moves the assessment system to problem-solving, critical thinking, and the application of knowledge. Additionally, HB 930 will allow teachers in subjects that do not require an SOL to utilize performance assessments to locally evaluate and assess how their children are learning and retaining the content. Lastly, the bill establishes the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee which is tasked with evaluating SOLs and assessments on an ongoing basis to ensure that our assessment system is current. A high-quality education system is critical to the success of our young people.

Another significant reform passed by the House is HB 324 which establishes the Virginia Virtual School to offer online educational programs and services to students across the Commonwealth. Online education has been growing by leaps and bounds in the private sector and at many colleges and universities, while it has been moving at a snail’s pace at the K-12 level. In many cases, virtual schooling can offer greater flexibility for students and parents while delivering instruction more efficiently. If this legislation passes the Senate and signed by the Governor, the Virginia Virtual School would soon be open to any school-age student in the Commonwealth and provide an educational program meeting the Standards of Quality for grades kindergarten through 12.

The House of Delegates unanimously adopted HB 2, which incorporates provisions of my HB 87. This legislation reforms how Virginia prioritizes and spends its transportation dollars. It requires the Commonwealth Transportation Board and VDOT to develop and utilize a prioritization model for funding transportation projects to ensure that transportation dollars are going to projects that are needed to move traffic.

HB 1090 directs the Secretary of Transportation to update and revise Virginia’s Smart Travel Programs by evaluating and incorporating new smart road technologies and other innovations in transportation. HB 1095 creates the Innovation and Technology Transportation Fund to fund pilot programs and initiatives pertaining to high-tech infrastructure improvements.

The House unanimously passed "Keep Your Healthcare Plan" legislation. HB 1147 will allow Virginians to keep their health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act has created a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the healthcare and insurance industry. Many Virginians have had their health care plans cancelled because of the ACA. This legislation puts Virginia in a posture to not be part of that uncertainty. While we cannot control what happens in Washington, we have a responsibility to try to protect Virginians from the negative consequences of the ACA.

House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly passed House Joint Resolution 40 to direct the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to conduct a comprehensive external operational study and financial audit of Virginia’s Medicaid Program. There is clear consensus that Virginia’s Medicaid program needs significant reform. Medicaid spending in Virginia has grown by 1600 percent over the last 30 years, and it continues to grow at an average rate of 8 percent per year. It now consumes over one-fifth of Virginia’s general fund spending, and threatens to crowd out other key services like K-12 education and public safety.

As Virginia continues to debate the future of ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, we must know exactly what challenges and obstacles we face. With rapidly-changing financial projections on the cost of expansion, significant evidence of waste and fraud and uncertainty about the fiscal future in Washington, a comprehensive external study and audit of Medicaid is the responsible thing to do.

The House of Delegates passed a bipartisan ethics reform bill by a vote of 98 to 1. HB 1211 would significantly reform and update Virginia's ethics, transparency and disclosure laws. These reforms are accomplished by:

• Imposing a $250 gift cap
• Creating a statewide ethics advisory council
• Updating and modernizing several aspects of Virginia's financial disclosure system
• Implementing a mandatory training requirement for elected officials.

This package of reforms will increase accountability, promote greater transparency and help preserve the integrity of state government.

February 4, 2014

The Congressional Budget Office (not a conservative group) came out with a new estimate projecting that ObamaCare will cause more than 2 million full-time jobs to be lost in coming years. I think that is probably a low number and the impact will be worse.

Here is a video of Delegate Ed Scott sharing the impact ObamaCare is having on his business. This is happening to thousands of small businesses all across the country.

January 28, 2014

I have submitted several bills for consideration this session. One of them is House Bill (HB) 87 which would only allow funding for new road projects that reduce traffic congestion or improve safety. Some transportation projects are completed for economic development purposes. While they may be good economic development projects, they should be funded with economic development dollars and not transportation funds. Given the serious congestion problems we have in our area, Northern Virginia, and Tidewater, transportation money should only be spent on projects that relieve congestion or improve safety.

As Chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, I am sponsoring several bills dealing with elections. HB 679 updates Virginia’s election code to incorporate new technology and terminology. HB 45 makes minor changes to several House of Delegate Districts to reduce split precincts; most of these changes were requested by local registrars. HB 104 allows non-partisan individuals to serve as chief election officers and HB 105 reduces the requirements for tabulating write-in votes.

HB 784 and HB 785 are good government bills that reform and consolidate several boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies to improve efficiency.

One of the first actions of newly elected Attorney General Mark Herring was to declare that he would not defend a lawsuit against Virginia’s Constitution which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Not only that, but he plans to join the other side of the lawsuit.

Virginia’s definition of marriage was approved by a wide margin in a voter referendum in 2006. In fact then Senator Mark Herring voted in favor of and supported the amendment defining marriage as being between and man and a woman. During last year’s campaign, he refused to take a stand on the issue.

The Attorney General is Virginia’s lawyer, and as such has a duty to defend Virginia’s Constitution. It is inappropriate for him to use taxpayer resources to actively oppose a duly ratified constitutional amendment. In effect, he is seeking to unilaterally reverse the actions of the people of Virginia who ratified the amendment. If he personally does not feel the law should be defended, he has a duty to appoint outside counsel to represent the people of Virginia.

The State Senate is evenly divided with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Previously, they had organized as a Republican majority, due to then Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling casting tie breaking votes. With the election Democrat Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the Senate has reorganized with a Democrat majority. The practical effect of this is that it will be more difficult to get conservative legislation through the Senate.

January 9, 2014

The 2014 General Assembly commenced on schedule the second Wednesday in January with several changes. Most important, Virginia has a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, along with 15 new faces in the House of Delegates and we are awaiting two new Senators.

Keeping with tradition, Governor McDonnell gave his last State of the Commonwealth address to the Joint Assembly on the first day of Session. He highlighted several accomplishments during his term and particularly thanked the citizens of the Commonwealth, staff, and General Assembly members for helping return Virginia to the number one ranking for best state for doing business. Virginia’s focus on job creation resulted in 177,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, a full 2 points lower than four years ago. The Governor also highlighted record budget surpluses, passage of a transformative transportation infrastructure bill, and major reforms for our public education system.

The Rainy Day Fund, the state’s emergency fund, has dramatically increased in recent years. Our financial reserves have grown from $295 million to just over $1 billion by the end of Fiscal Year 2016, the fourth-largest balance in history giving us a reserve to meet the challenges during these uncertain economic times.

The Governor also took this opportunity to give what I believe was a sincere and heartfelt apology for the appearance of ethical impropriety involving himself and his family. While Governor McDonnell maintains that he did nothing illegal, he did acknowledge poor judgment and the appearance of impropriety.

One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) was the expansion of Medicaid. Medicaid is a joint Federal and State program to provide health care to the poor. Incoming Governor McAuliffe made Medicaid Expansion a big issue in the 2013 campaigns and no doubt will push for expansion during this General Assembly session.

I have watched, like many Americans, in shock at the failures of the Obama administration when it comes to the new health care law. I have been disappointed by the rising premiums, cancelled health plans and decreased access to health care under ObamaCare.

ObamaCare has demonstrated that government-run healthcare programs don't work well, if at all. Medicaid expansion would further entangle Virginia in Washington's health care mess.

Separate from ObamaCare, Medicaid is in need of serious reforms. Costs are out of control, patients are not receiving the care they need and the program is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse.

Medicaid spending in Virginia has grown by more than 16 times in the last 30 years. Medicaid now consumes 22 percent of the state's general fund spending and threatens to crowd out other key services like education and public safety. We must make reforms to the current Medicaid program to bend the cost curve for both the state and health care providers.

Nearly one third of doctors now refuse to see Medicaid patients due to low reimbursement rates. This has led to decreased access and lower quality care for Medicaid patients. A new study shows that emergency room visits have actually increased under ObamaCare. This is unacceptable. The working mothers and children who rely on Medicaid deserve high quality health care, not a hollow promise from a broken system.

Finally, Secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Hazel recently told the General Assembly that about 15 percent of health care spending in Virginia is waste. Outgoing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli recovered nearly $200 million in Medicaid fraud settlements last year.

Expanding a broken program just does not make sense to me.

The key argument for Medicaid expansion is the false promise of free money from Washington. There is no such thing as free money, and there is no such thing as a no-strings attached promise from Washington.

With our nation $17 Trillion in debt and facing massive deficits every year, the federal government simply cannot afford to pay the cost of expansion. The truth is that Virginia will eventually get stuck with the bill - likely over $1 Billion per year.

That's why Virginia cannot and should not expand Medicaid.