FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 9, CRAIG CARPER – Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times Dispatch joins 88.9 WCVE’s Craig Carper for this week’s political analysis. Topics include crossover in the General Assembly session, joint announcements from Republicans and Democrats, and a mishap with the voting board.
CC: From WCVE News in Richmond, I’m Craig Carper. Joining me now from the Richmond Times Dispatch is political columnist and WCVE’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro. Jeff, good morning.
JS: Hi there Craig.
CC: Well, in some ways it feels like it’s been months, in others it feels like it’s just been a few weeks. We are approaching crossover, which is the procedural midpoint of the General Assembly session.
JS: Think of it as halftime at the Super Bowl without the big show or the wardrobe failure. But it is a good time to kind of take account of what’s been done and what needs to be done. Of course the Republicans who still control the House and Senate, albeit barely, have been using their slender majorities in committee to kill some high-profile Democratic bills: protections for LGBTQ Virginians, banning bump stocks like those used in the terrible Las Vegas mass slaying, also killing legislation that would have given local government the power to do something about those Confederate monuments. The second half of the session the focus will sharpen. There will be less business, but there will be some really high-stakes business, most notably the budget. And it is in the budget or through the budget that we will see whether Ralph Northam, the new governor, can succeed where Terry McAuliffe, his predecessor, failed – Medicaid expansion. And of course to some degree the House Republicans at least have cried “uncle.” They’ve said they’re prepared to go along with this, but they want to see in anything that looks like Medicaid expansion a work-for-benefits feature like that first adopted by the state, excuse me, the Commonwealth of Kentucky. A wild card in the Medicaid deal at this point still seems to be the Republican-controlled Senate.
CC: It appears we’ve been witnessing the Virginia version of Let’s Make a Deal. In one week we’ve seen two joint releases from the Northam administration and the Republican leadership. The first announcing a new effort to cut red tape by 25% in Virginia, and another to achieve a long-standing Democratic priority, that is raising the state’s felony larceny threshold.
JS: Yes, from $200, the level set out in 1982, to $500, still well short of the $1,000 favored by Governor Northam. This is an important breakthrough, nonetheless, if only symbolically. The idea here is to make it easier for people to get a second chance, to keep felonies off their record, to allow them to find and hold jobs, to continue their educations, to support their families. There will be props for both parties. Clearly Northam looks like he is making a significant bow to his progressive base. Of course large numbers of minority Virginians, many of them Democrats, make up the prison population in this state. The Republicans, who have always been tough on law and order, might look a little less hard-hearted by embracing this, but they’re also thinking about holding their slender majorities in the House and Senate. So yes, there’s some altruism here, but there’s a political calculation by both parties.
CC: Jeff, we are seeing some modest redistricting reform efforts moving through both chambers.
JS: Oh yes, baby steps. These are Republican drawn bills that would commit the legislature after the 2020 headcount and the next redistricting in 2021, to draw House and Senate districts that are compact, contiguous, and because they’re compact and contiguous, somehow reflect regional interests. These are the standards contained in the Virginia Constitution. Now remember the Republicans have always opposed this, certainly as long as they have been in charge, better part of 20 years. But again, having seen their political lives flash before their eyes last year with the Democrats near takeover of the House of Delegates, there’s a lot more interest in, shall we say, looking like they are committed to good government rather than continuing the gerrymandering that to some degree has contributed to this kind of free fire zone that passes for the General Assembly. A couple of points: Whatever is passed will probably be deemed inadequate by Governor Northam. He says he wants some type of independent vetting of redistricting, certainly by 2021. But we’re waiting for a federal court to decide any day now whether nearly a dozen African American majority districts drawn by the Republicans and the House of Delegates are legal. And if they are thrown out, the remedy could include special elections this year. And perhaps, if that were to occur, the Republicans could see their slender majority in the House disappear.
CC: And a funny moment on the Senate floor yesterday when Senate Clerk Susan Schaar swore that the Senate had paid their electric bill after the failure of the Senate’s electronic voting board during a vote to re-re-re-reregulate Dominion Energy.
JS: Yes, these controversial electric utility bills, one on the House side, one on the Senate side, compromises negotiated by the Northam administration. You know it’s supposed to be representative of great breakthroughs in terms of greater reliance on green energy, seemingly substantial cash rebates to customers, north of $200 million, and some restored oversight of the electric utilities by the State Corporation Commission. However, a closer look at these bills the fine print shows that all of that extra money, all of those excess profits that the utilities hoovered up under a 2015 bill, they’ll be able to keep. We’re talking, you know, well north of a billion dollars. That’s money that the Corporation Commission ordinarily would have ordered refunded. Utilities can plow that into new equipment, again, it’s your money, and then charge you for the cost of maintaining all that new equipment. Now the opponents of these bills say that’s nothing more than double-dipping, and there was an attempt on the Senate floor at week’s end to do something about that and to just do away with that 2015 bill that kind of set up what we’re seeing unfold now.
CC: Thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times Dispatch. Jeff, we will catch up again next week.
JS: Have a great weekend.