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An uncertain run-up to an uncertain General Assembly session

There are three separate folders on Newport News Del. Marcia “Cia” Price’s tablet — for the three different sets of legislative ideas needed for her three different strategies for a House of Delegates where there were three different possibilities for control.

Predictions about the 2018 General Assembly session have been a challenge, with the direction of the House hanging since Election Day on a handful of votes — including one ballot that created a tie broken only when a state election official drew Newport News Del. David Yancey’s name from a bowl on Thursday.

“Everybody’s been walking on eggshells,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News. “We don’t know who’s going to chair committees, who’s going to be on committees.”

Election Day ended with a 51-49 Republican majority in the House of Delegates, a stunning retreat from the GOP’s 66-34 margin ahead of the vote. A recount in Yancey’s race reversed his original 10 vote edge to a one vote victory for Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds and after a panel of circuit court judges reviewed one ballot, a tie.

In Fredericksburg, where the Republican candidate won by 73 votes, more than 140 voters got ballots for another district. For weeks, nobody’s known whether the House would convene with a 51-49 GOP majority, a 50-50-tie, 51-49 Democratic majority, or even if all 100 members would be able to take a seat.

So Price has drafts of bills that do everything she wants, others “where I’m looking at two of the three things I want.” One folder is full of bills she needs Democratic majorities on key committees to get through, one is for bills and versions of bills she figured an evenly divided House might like, and one is for ideas where she thinks she has a chance to swing enough GOP votes.

All three folders included two bills she’s particularly passionate about: one giving local governments authority to ban firearms from their own buildings, the other saying minors need parents’ permission to have handguns and assault firearms.

At least one strong gun rights proponent, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, who happens to be a devoted father of twins, was listening hard last year when she floated the idea, so Price has high hopes for the parental permission bill.

“I’m feeling optimistic it will be a cooperative session,” she said.

So is Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, who’s juggling 45 drafts of bills that he figures he’ll winnow down to the mid-20s.

“That’s still a lot,” he sighs.

“But I’m looking forward to working with everyone to get the legislation my district and coastal Virginia needs,” he said.

He’s not expecting partisan bickering in a narrowly divided House to get in the way.

"We’re gonna find ourselves working with the other side more than we ever have,” said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson.

But, he added, “I think in the last days and weeks our colleagues on the other side have not always acted like they intend to pursue that. We've seen some poisoning of the well here in the last few days.”

Yancey himself, called a “Grinch” in some Democratic Party communications, says he’s not bothered.

“Campaigning is campaigning; legislating is something else,” he said, adding that he believes in working with legislators from both parties.

“It’s like my dad says: ‘It’s not a good deal if it’s not a good deal for the other guy,’” he said.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, cautions that when the balance of power in a legislature comes down to recounts and disputes over how ballots are counted and whether everyone got to vote, ill feelings can linger.

“The last time people felt that something had been taken away from them, 1998, it was pretty ugly,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect a productive session.”

After the 1997 election returned 51 House Democrats, 48 Republicans and one independent who caused with the GOP, Gov. Jim Gilmore named Prince William County Democrat David Brickley head of the state parks department. A special election returned a Republican, creating what was effectively a 50-50 split.

When state election officials didn’t formally certify that newly elected legislator or two other winners of special elections in time for the opening the of 1998 session, Democrats forced through Speaker Tom Moss’ re-election. The power sharing accord that followed did not calm tempers.

This year, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has said he would not try to recruit legislators — and, implicitly, GOP legislators — to state offices. It hasn’t been just words. He’s been hands-off, said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.

“That’s a very strong signal to the [General Assembly] leadership,” he said. So has been the distance Northam has kept from the recounts and arguments over the close results in the 94th District and the Fredericksburg race, he said.

That could make it possible to find common ground on the issue that has sucked much of the oxygen out of the air in the past four General Assembly sessions: whether to use federal Affordable Care Act funds to expand Medicaid to cover more than 300,000 Virginians who make too much money to qualify under the state’s current stringent eligibility rules — among the toughest in the country — but who can’t get federal subsidies to buy Obamacare policies.

Kidd said Yancey — who has already asked the legislature’s Division of Legislative Services to draft Medicaid reform proposals that could also expand eligibility — could end up playing a critical role. Yancey is exploring the idea of a kind of Medicaid rainy day fund, as an insurance policy against future financial shocks to the program.

As the legislator who secured the GOP’s one-vote majority, “ironically, David Yancey is at the same time the most important Republican in the House of Delegates, and the most vulnerable Republican in the House,” Kidd said. “I’d guess leadership is going to take every opportunity they can to have him in the middle of issues, including Medicaid.”

The leaders of the General Assembly’s budget writing committees, House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, along with Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment, R-James City County, and Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, co-chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, have already said expanding access to health insurance is a priority, even if they’ve had qualms about expanding Medicaid.

Hanger has sketched out a proposal that would expand eligibility for Medicaid to some, but not all, low income adults, based on their diagnoses. The idea echoes outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s pitch that using Obamacare funds would free up state money for key priorities, including K-12 schools, building up cash reserves as demanded by bond-rating agencies and boosting community mental health services.

In the background, meanwhile, is the worrying possibility that Washington will stop funding its share of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Federal law requires Virginia to pick up the bill for roughly half the 125,000 children covered by the program, a bill that would run at about $80 million a year. Covering the rest would cost even more.

Tackling health care won’t be easy for Republicans, however, said Olusoji Akomolafe, chairman of the political science department at Norfolk State University.

“The last elections seem to suggest that more Virginians are in favor of the expansion,” he said. “However, the opposition at the federal level may jeopardize any attempt by the Republicans, assuming they want to, to seek and reach a compromise, since President Trump, together with quite a large number of his party members, has openly advocated for the death of the ACA.”

Farnsworth thinks there won’t be much energy for other legislative challenges besides the budget and health care.

But he thinks there will be some kind of compromise on Medicaid expansion, because of the message from a November election that cost 15 longtime Republican legislators, including some of the more moderate members of the caucus, their seats in Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs.

“Some suburban Republicans are going to be asking how long they want to stay on that train,” he said.

He’s not expecting to see some of the conservative social policy bills that have preoccupied the General Assembly in the past — in large part because of the same uncertainty that led Price to set up her three folders of legislative alternatives.

“Nobody is going to want to spend a lot of time drafting legislation that they aren’t sure will go anywhere,” he said.

For College of William and Mary political scientist John McGlennon, it comes down to this: “Do House Republicans want to fight a seeming lost cause of hard-right policy, or start to figure out ways to regain appeal to the suburbanites who are abandoning the party all over the state?”

“The election of Danica Roem, Chris Hurst, Lee Carter, Kathy Tran, Hala Ayala and others have changed the complexion of the General Assembly and signaled that issues of guns, gays, gender and abortion don't work for the GOP in today's Virginia,” he added.

Roem is the first transgender woman elected to any state legislature; Tran, a refugee from Vietman, the first Asian-American woman in the General Assembly; Ayala and newly elected Elizabeth Guzman are the first Latinas elected to the General Assembly.

McGlennon thinks the new Democratic House members will be on the forefront of the debate on Medicaid, and will want to make a point of showing the blocs of voters who showed up in unexpectedly large numbers in November — young people, voters from immigrant communities, Northern Virginia residents — that their turnout made a difference.

“My guess is that you will see some small bills and actions focused on these constituencies: ways to make college more affordable, expansion of aid to low income residents, more immigrant-friendly policies, maybe additional support for transportation fixes,” he said.

“But the other area where I think they will aggressively push an agenda is on political reform,” McGlennon added, pointing to Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, as he starts on his third term with proposals for allow ballot initiatives, referendums and recall elections.

“Nonpartisan redistricting, restrictions on campaign finance, expanded voter rights, lobbying reform will all get a lot of attention, I think. They might not get far this year, but they are good issues to run on, and presumably will help set the table for the '19 elections,” he said.

Republicans are skeptical.

“You would really have to convince us” to change the way redistricting is done, said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, whom the GOP caucus plans to elect as speaker on Jan. 10. “I've always felt really strongly that the legislative process is the right way to go.”

Cox said the budget is the top priority, adding that he’d like to cut taxes and fees. He’s also hoping to focus on the regulatory climate — an area where Republicans and Democrats often take sharply different stances, as well as streamlining economic development efforts and boosting the state’s workforce development efforts.

“Higher education, access and affordability, is just absolutely key,” he added. “We have a very robust agenda that you’re going to see us push. We certainly are going to work with Gov.-elect Ralph Northam to push items like veterans and things we think we can make progress on so I think it’s going to be a very productive session.”

Daily Press reporter Reema Amin contributed to this report.

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535

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