Serving in the Senate leads to many highs and lows. Last week was no exception.
High: The House of Delegates, with a one-vote Republican majority, passed a budget that includes providing healthcare to over 350,000 Virginians. This is paid for by using federal funds and fees paid by hospitals. Expanding Medicaid frees up hundreds of millions of general fund dollars that the House uses to better fund public and higher education, economic development, public safety and employee compensation. This was an unexpected move and a sharp break from the recent past.
Low: The Senate budget -- because of the Republican one vote majority-- does not expand healthcare coverage. As a result, we had to cut $422 million from the Governor's introduced budget. Virginia's constitution requires a balanced budget and, as a result, the Senate budget is constrained. It clearly is not meeting the current needs of Virginians or investing adequately in your futures.
High: For the tenth year, I have been appointed as a budget conferee. We are the six Senators and seven Delegates who negotiate the differences between the two budgets. We work intensely until the budgets are identical to each other. Most legislators have a relatively calm week. Conferees are under intense pressure from voters, interest groups, and lobbyists. As a result, we are often tired and cranky as we fight over deeply held, yet divergent, priorities.
Low: Once again, I am the only woman named as a budget conferee.
Low: The two budgets are so far apart, that I can't quite wrap my mind around how we will agree. Always before in my experience, both budgets agreed on the amount of revenue available. This year we are almost half a billion dollars apart.
High: The press is reporting, and I have been told personally, that we will expand Medicaid during the veto session on April 11. The way to reach that result is that the Governor will send down an amendment to the budget that includes expansion. One Republican will join the Democrats in supporting the amendment. That will lead to a tie, which will be broken in favor of expansion by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. The Lieutenant Governor is not permitted to vote on the budget conference report but he is permitted to vote on the Governor's budget amendments.
Low: We have to have a budget that passes both Houses that the Governor can amend. As you may have guessed by now, I am very worried about achieving several steps in this process. But, of course, I am honored to be one of the "deciders."
Aside from the all-important budget, we have been voting on over 2000 pieces of legislation. About half of my bills have passed. This past week my two top priority bills met their fate. Both dealt with student loans.
High: My bill creating an Office of Student Loan Ombudsman passed! This office will help student borrowers navigate the complicated systems. It will offer unbiased advice and attempt to resolve problems borrowers may have. It will also create consumer education programs to assist borrowers.
Low: My bill requiring student loan servicers to be licensed was defeated in the House Commerce and Labor Committee. We have all read about the disgraceful and illegal practices of some student loan servicers. Student loan borrowers are at their mercy --- borrowers have no say in who their servicer is nor can they change their assigned servicer. My bill would have required the servicer to follow ethical and legal practices to be licensed. The bill passed the Senate unanimously but was defeated on a party line vote in the House subcommittee.
As always, my greatest "high" is representing you in the Senate. I love it and am very grateful for your support. Please let my aide, Karol Straub, or me know if we can assist you with state government. And, please keep me informed on issues of importance to you.