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Margo Maier

‘It’s All About Energy,’ Governor Tells Symposium

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched the 2015 Energy & Sustainability Conference on Tuesday with a briefing on Virginia’s energy plan.

“My goal is to fund Virginia with clean, abundant and affordable Virginia energy,” McAuliffe told the conference, which the Virginia Chamber of Commerce held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

McAuliffe said members of the General Assembly worked together this year to advance a number of energy-related projects in the commonwealth. “You want to talk about jobs, economic development – it’s all about energy.”

Last fall, McAuliffe unveiled his energy plan, which takes an “all of the above” approach to both fossil fuels and renewable energy resources.

“The first thing I stated when I announced my plan last October was that we need to grow, strengthen and diversify our economy,” he told Tuesday’s gathering. “That is crucial to my strategic vision.”

That means diversifying energy sources as well.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia is the first state to receive a federal wind energy research lease in federal waters.

State officials are planning a wind farm 26 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. The turbines and towers used in the project will be built in-state, providing economic opportunities for Virginians, the governor said.

Moreover, the General Assembly recently created the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority, the governor said. Its purpose is to deploy solar energy initiatives throughout the state, boosting not only the environment but also the economy.

McAuliffe also recounted that last October, he signed an executive order titled “Conserving Energy and Reducing Consumption in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Under that order, he said, officials will do “everything we can to reduce energy consumption” and “promote energy efficiency in state government.”

Republicans Praise McAuliffe for Signing Budget

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Republican legislators applauded Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision Thursday to sign the 2014-2016 state budget without amendments or vetoes. It was the first time since 1998 that a governor has approved a budget in toto.

The budget that the General Assembly passed ahead of schedule this year reduces general fund spending by about $1 billion but includes pay raises for teachers and state employees.

“Today I was proud to sign a budget bill that provides a strong foundation for our future – a foundation built on collaboration and a shared commitment to building a new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said.

“This budget closes our revenue shortfall responsibly, avoids cuts to core programs like education and invests in key priorities that are essential to economic growth. It also includes my top priorities of increasing funding for economic development; offering health-care services to more Virginians who need them; giving Virginia state employees a much-needed raise; funding the first lady’s school breakfast initiative; and supporting efforts to end homelessness across the commonwealth.”

GOP leaders were pleased by McAuliffe’s approval of the budget.

“Through the budget shortfall last year, the House of Delegates worked very hard to prevent any cuts to K-12 education. Not only were we able to do that again this year, but we were also able to provide our teachers with a pay raise,” said Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudoun.

“This is the second pay raise in three years. It reflects our commitment to attracting and retaining the best and brightest teachers. The budget also provides funding to continue our efforts to reform and improve the State’s Assessment System and the Standards of Learning tests.”

Additional praise came from such Republicans as House Speaker William J. Howell; Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Del. Steve Landes of Weyers Cave, the committee’s vice-chairman.

“This has been one of the smoothest budget processes in recent memory and it was punctuated today by Gov. McAuliffe’s signature,” Jones said.

“Since last summer, the House, Senate and the administration have developed a renewed commitment to bipartisanship and cooperation, allowing us to show that once again Virginia is a model for the nation. This is a good budget that reflects our priorities.”

Landes said the budget was crafted “with remarkably little controversy or disagreement.” He then raised a point of contention in the early budget discussions: McAuliffe’s request that the General Assembly expand Medicaid, the health program for low-income residents, as encouraged by the federal government’s health care law. Republican legislators rejected Medicaid expansion.

“I have said many times that Medicaid expansion is the wrong approach for Virginia. The document signed today offers an alternative approach that emphasizes providing targeted care to those who need it most, rather than a one-size-fits-all, government-run entitlement program,” Landes said.

“We are helping the seriously mentally ill, strengthening our free clinic system and building on past efforts to improve community behavioral health services.”

Health Secretary Urges Medicaid Expansion

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s secretary of health and human services, William A. Hazel, wants legislators to put aside their political differences and ensure that every resident of the commonwealth has access to affordable health care.

Hazel is urging the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the health coverage program for low-income people, as states are encouraged to do under the federal Affordable Care Act. Hazel made his case again in a recent talk to students at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

Although the Affordable Care Act made it easier and cheaper for many people to buy health insurance, Hazel said coverage gaps still exist.

“We had about 1 million Virginians who were uninsured in 2010,” he said. “Probably two-thirds of the people who came to a community health center last year to try and get coverage were told, ‘You do not qualify for a benefit in an exchange because you do not make enough money.’ Also, we do not cover single adults. We have all these people at lower incomes who are not eligible.”

That’s why Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats are pushing for the state to offer Medicaid to about 400,000 more Virginians. Under the Affordable Care Act, states can extend Medicaid to people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government has promised to pick up most of the cost, which would be about $2 billion annually for Virginia.

“Last year, we made a big effort to get Medicaid expanded ... I think the political odds are this year that the House Republicans will not change their position, but I think this is something that we can do,” said Hazel, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and reappointed by McAuliffe.

Republican legislators in Virginia oppose Medicaid expansion because the program’s costs have been growing and they fear the state eventually will be stuck with the bills. Republicans blocked several efforts by Democrats in the General Assembly to expand Medicaid in 2014.

Hazel spoke at the VCU Medical Center, just blocks from the state Capitol, as the General Assembly’s 2015 session got underway.

He told students that 18 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product goes toward health care – more than in any other nation. Switzerland has a universal health care system, and only 11.5 percent of its GDP in 2012 was spent on health care.

“How can we justify spending so much more money than Switzerland?” Hazel asked. “They are spending two-thirds of what we are spending, and we have people who are not cared for. I’m asking how that happens.”

Much of the problem, he said, is that many Americans lack health coverage and forgo preventive medical care, such as physical exams and screenings. When they have a dire need, they go to hospital emergency rooms, which must treat everyone regardless of insurance status.

Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon, said he wants to change that: “We’re trying to go from ‘fix it when it’s broken’ – which has been my life’s work – to find out how to invest in healthier people who can be more productive.”

McAuliffe has asked the General Assembly to consider expanding Medicaid when it revises the state budget during the legislative session, which runs through Feb. 28. Republican lawmakers so far have rebuffed that request.

Other Medicaid-related proposals before the assembly include:

·         HJ 520, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Del. Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington. It would exempt nonprofits serving indigent people from paying property tax.

·         HJ 637, by Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Verona. It would authorize a study on how to reduce Medicaid costs and improve patient services. A House subcommittee approved the resolution last week.

Panel OKs Law to Protect Bicyclists

By Margo Maier and Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND – The House Transportation Committee approved a bill Tuesday to make it illegal for the operator of a motor vehicle to follow a bicycle or moped too closely.

The committee voted 20-2 in favor of House Bill 1342, sponsored by Del. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

Under current law, motorists are forbidden to tailgate other motorized vehicles. HB 1342 would prohibit motorists from following non-motorized vehicles – such as bicycles, scooters and electric-powered mobility devices – “more closely than is reasonable and prudent.”

“When you’re comparing the damage of a car rear-ending another car versus a car rear-ending a bicycle or motorized scooter, there simply is no comparison,” DeSteph said in a statement.

“What is an inconvenience for the driver of a car getting bumped from behind can be a life-altering catastrophe for a bicyclist or person on an electric scooter. Everyone on the roadway deserves an equal share of protection from the unsafe actions of others. How we get there is to apply the same standards to everyone.”

The Virginia Bicycling Federation supports the measure.

“This bill gives bicyclists in Virginia the same legal protection from tailgating as given to drivers. If passed by both houses, I’m confident it will reduce crashes and ultimately save lives,” said Champe Burnley, a Richmond bicyclist and president of the federation.

“I think the overwhelming support we saw by the House Transportation Committee this morning shows how serious they are about making Virginia’s roads safer for all users and reduce needless injuries.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, is sponsoring an identical proposal – SB 1220 – in the Senate. It is scheduled to come before the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

More on the Web

To see more bike-related proposed legislation, visit the Virginia Bicycling Federation’s website, vabike.org. To track or comments on the bills’ movement through the Virginia General Assembly, visit RichmondSunlight.com.

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