After campaigning largely on the legacy of outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam held a joint news conference with his predecessor Tuesday to outline shared goals for the legislative session that begins Wednesday.
Days before McAuliffe officially hands power to Northam, the duo highlighted familiar Democratic priorities such as Medicaid expansion, raising the grand larceny threshold and universal background checks on gun purchases, proposals that have routinely died in the Republican-controlled General Assembly but could have new life this year.
Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates in the November elections, wiping out what had been a 66-34 GOP majority. With Republicans now holding slim majorities in the House and the state Senate, Democrats are entering the 60-day session with a stronger shot at passing policies long-blocked by Republican majorities.
“It is nonpartisan. It is common sense,” Northam said of the legislative package he and McAuliffe announced. “It’s something I think that will have support from both sides of the aisle. And these are issues that we ran on in 2017. And as you all know, on the 7th of November, Virginia spoke.”
McAuliffe noted that his policy director, Jennie O’Holleran, is staying on in the same role for Northam.
“This has been the smoothest, easiest transition in Virginia history,” McAuliffe said.
O’Holleran couldn’t be at Tuesday’s news conference at the Capitol, McAuliffe said, because she’s celebrating the birth of a boy.
McAuliffe spoke for nearly 15 minutes, compared with about 4 minutes for Northam.
The policy agenda they outlined includes:
McAuliffe has once again built his two-year budget plan around a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to about 300,000 low-income Virginians who don’t have health insurance. The governor has repeatedly tried to insert Medicaid expansion in his budget, but Republicans have taken it right back out, saying the state can’t afford the costs. McAuliffe’s most recent proposal relies on an estimated $421.7 million in state savings from a new fee that hospitals would have to pay to cover the state’s share of expansion costs.
Northam has suggested he’s open to other health care proposals, but he pitched full expansion Tuesday as a boon for rural hospitals and a way to ease the opioid crisis.
“It is very, very important that we expand Medicaid,” Northam said. “Our budget includes that.”
Gun background checks
Northam and McAuliffe stressed universal background checks, a gun control measure long blocked by the legislature, as a top priority for reducing gun violence. Background checks are already required for federally licensed gun dealers, but they are not mandatory for private sales at gun shows and person-to-person transfers.
Under a gun legislation deal McAuliffe signed in 2016, Republicans agreed to support voluntary background checks at gun shows. Only 54 checks were performed during the first year of the program, a small number compared with the 39,738 checks conducted by licensed dealers.
Last year, 3,584 gun sales were denied in Virginia through mandatory checks, according to the Virginia State Police.
Student loan debt
McAuliffe and Northam proposed a “Borrower’s Bill of Rights” to protect college students from crushing debt, which would impose new rules on student loan providers and create a state ombudsman dealing with debt issues through the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, or SCHEV.
Excuse-free absentee voting
In order to vote absentee, Virginia residents currently have to provide a reason why they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day, such as work responsibilities, travel or health issues. Northam and McAuliffe proposed dropping that requirement, allowing 21 days of no-excuse absentee voting before Election Day to make it easier for voters to participate and reduce lines at polling places.
Raising the grand larceny threshold
Under current law, stealing an item worth $200 or more qualifies as grand larceny, which can bring a felony charge. Democrats have long tried to raise the threshold, arguing that because the number hasn’t changed since 1980, relatively minor acts of theft can produce serious criminal charges. McAuliffe and Northam proposed raising the threshold to $1,000. During last year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie said he supported raising the threshold to $500.
Building on McAuliffe’s efforts to enact a state-level plan to fight climate change, the two governors said Virginia should officially join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a state compact between Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont intended to cap and reduce power sector emissions.
Campaign finance reform
Northam and McAuliffe called for a ban on the personal use of campaign money, a long-stalled proposal Gillespie also supported last year. Under current law, politicians don’t have to use the money they raise for actual campaign expenses.