Jill H. Vogel

A sweek ago Tuesday was “crossover” in the General Assembly. It marks the halfway point of the legislative session when each chamber is required to complete work on its own bills. At the conclusion of crossover, the Senate had passed 591 Senate bills and resolutions and defeated 410.

The time leading up to crossover is consumed by long sessions and lengthy debates, with the most controversial votes left until the end when details are finally refined. This time those bills were health care, energy, and infrastructure bills.

Health Care Costs

Among the most significant measures that passed last week were a series of health-care bills providing relief to Virginians facing exorbitant premiums and staggering out-of-pocket expenses. SB935 creates small business pools, leveraging combined buying power to negotiate lower rates for coverage.

SB844 increases private market participation and choice by requiring insurers doing business with Virginia to also offer plans on the private market. This is intended to prevent scenarios like in Charlottesville, where insurers left the area and then reentered the marketplace with premiums more than 300 percent higher than before. The bill also extends short-term health insurance coverage limits from 90 days to 364 days with potential option for renewal.

SB964 also passed, permitting patients to choose catastrophic coverage policies which contain essential benefits with affordable premiums. It helps young professionals, entrepreneurs, and those on tight budgets obtain coverage.

Finally, we approved SB915 which expands funding for mental-health services, addiction treatment, and additional Priority One ID/DD wavers to help clear our backlog of those waiting for services, who now number more than 3,400.

Utility Regulation

Another of the hotly debated subjects dealt with protecting customers of certain regulated utilities like Dominion. The primary bill would reinstitute periodic rate reviews by state regulators, which are not happening now. Rates had been frozen in 2015 in anticipation of higher costs imposed by federal regulations. Those higher costs did not materialize, so it was important to pass legislation allowing for rate reviews that protect consumers.

We passed such a bill and while the review schedule and rebates are not as aggressive as I might have hoped, the bill sent to us from committee was a compromise and a step forward. The bill is still a work in progress and has near-unanimous support in concept since virtually everyone believes the status quo is terrible policy and unfair for ratepayers.

The full Senate passed a version of the bill that had a broad coalition of supporters that included consumer advocates, business groups, the governor, and conservation groups like the League of Conservation Voters. In addition to addressing rates, the bill directs surplus profits to needed grid modernization, improving energy security, and incorporating more clean, renewable sources into our energy mix.

The bill provides for major expansion of investment in solar production. As noted by the Sierra Club, in 2016 Virginia had 238 megawatts of installed solar capacity and this bill would provide for expansion to 4,000 megawatts.

Our Budget

The most significant event came Sunday evening when the Senate Finance Committee on which I serve voted to pass the Senate budget. This balanced budget ensures Virginia will remain one of the nation’s most fiscally responsible states while protecting our coveted AAA bond rating.

By setting clear priorities, we have been able to increase funding for public education by $565.8 million over the last biennium, all without raising taxes. This budget also increases need-based aid for higher education, as well as makes significant investments in much-needed rural broadband expansion.

Additionally, it sets a high priority on directing money to improve mental-health care, fight opioid abuse, and help students with special needs. While this bill substantially increases funding for health-care services using existing revenues, it did not include full Medicaid expansion or the proposed “hospital tax” used to pay for it.

Other Measures

Some important measures passed the Senate with my support and are now before the House. They include:

Measures to strengthen our prescription monitoring programs as part of our fight against opioid abuse.

Legislation developing a plan of action to reduce congestion on I-81.

A restriction on using state funds in animal research on dogs and cats.

A bill legalizing non-psychoactive CBD oil when recommended by a patient’s doctor.

Several measures to fight voter fraud through better electronic verification of new registrations.

Measures eliminating the possibility of jail time for first-time personal-use marijuana possession.

I urge you to contact our office any time that you have questions or concerns. I can be reached during the General Assembly session at 804-698-7527 or by e-mail at district27@senate.virginia.gov.

Jill H. Vogel, R-Upperville, represents the 27th District in the Senate of Virginia.

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