General Assembly notebook: A big year for women in Virginia government; tunnel toll reduction study is longshot
Jan. 13--RICHMOND -- It's a good year for women in Virginia government -- they have more representation than ever.
Women hold 38 of 140 seats -- 27 percent -- compared to 24 seats in 2015. Arizona and Nevada legislatures have the highest percentage of women -- 40.
Gov. Ralph Northam's cabinet is majority female, with eight women serving as: deputy chief of staff; secretaries of administration, commonwealth, commerce and trade, agriculture and forestry, and transportation; general counsel; and chief workforce development advisor.
There's already evidence of a culture shift. New Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, brought her nearly 1-year-old daughter on the first day. She nursed her on the floor during the State of the Commonwealth.
Tran is the first female Asian-American delegate. The other newly elected legislators include: the first two Latinas; first open lesbian; first transgender woman; and youngest-ever female Republican, 33-year-old Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk.
Brewer said she's glad the body is becoming more reflective of the commonwealth overall. The House is younger and more diverse than last year and likely ever.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, the longest-serving woman in the legislature, said "we didn't crack the ceiling -- we shattered it," during a floor speech this week.
Del. Kelly Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, told The Washington Post she wants to replace the Day of Tears that mourns the loss of unborn babies on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with the Day of Women in Virginia.
Rules committee sees more bills
In a highly unusual move, many of the House Democrats' priority bills are heading to the Rules Committee, usually reserved for parliamentary procedure changes and bills about subjects like the state song.
It's also one of the few committees where Republicans hold a strong advantage -- 11-6. Most committees are split 12-10 among the parties but Rules has long been the domain of the speaker and historically hasn't been split as evenly.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is chair of the committee, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that "it's a senior committee that probably should have been playing a bigger role in the past."
Cox's chief of staff, Matt Moran, said the committee will help "direct traffic" and eliminate many similar bills on the same topic.
Cox is in his first year as speaker after Bill Howell retired after nearly 15 years at the helm. The speaker assigns bills to committees and has wide latitude to do so. Cox said the Rules Committee will be a first step for bills.
Democratic priorities like campaign finance reform, a larceny threshold increase, in-state tuition for Dreamers, a ban on bump stocks for guns and all legislative studies are currently assigned to the committee. Last year, the committee only heard 12 House bills. So far, 28 have been assigned this year.
Democratic leadership is perplexed why these type of bills aren't going to their usual committees, like courts, and are worried the Rules committee may be a new killing field for their bills.
Yancey named head of Transportation Committee
Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, fresh off his tiebreaker win, was named chair of the House Transportation Committee this week.
Political commentators say Republicans may be trying to raise his profile to help protect his seat, next up in 2019, though former chair Ron Villanueva lost his election.
Yancey is a proponent of Interstate 64 expansion and widening the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
The committee sees a wide variety of bills that address, among other things, driver's licenses, airports, traffic laws and taxi regulations.
Former Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Yancey is pragmatic and a good choice for the region, but he pointed out most of the important transportation bills -- like ones that deal with the gas tax, public transit funding and more -- go to House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees.
"It's still good for the area," Layne said.
Tunnel toll reduction study a long shot
In a near-annual attempt, Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, wants the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission, which does studies for the state, to take a look at the toll situation at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels.
HJ25 is one of Portsmouth's top legislative priorities, but Heretick said the commission only studies three to five issues a year.
Layne says there's not too much to study anyway. He said the only real solution would to buy out the contract, which is highly unlikely.
One option he could see is paying Elizabeth River Crossing $7-8 million annually to allow free passage for carpoolers.
"At least that helps some people out," Layne said.
"It's just a bad deal," he said of the original contract, in effect until 2070.
McAuliffe says tourism improved during his tenure
More than $1.4 billion of private investment has gone into the tourism industry since 2014, according to the Governor's Office.
The industry grew by $2.2 billion during the administration of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
"Virginia's tourism industry is a critical component of the new Virginia economy, providing jobs for our citizens and funneling millions of dollars back into our communities," McAuliffe said. "My team and I have traveled across the globe to promote Virginia as a premier destination, showcasing our beautiful scenery, rich history, and incredible culinary offerings, in addition to our outstanding oysters, wine, craft beer, cider, and distilled spirits."
McAuliffe cited 35 trade and marketing missions here and abroad to promote Virginia as a "premier travel destination for domestic and international visitors."
He also mentioned 115 announcements of new tourism products, events and developments.
The tourism industry is the state's fifth-largest private employer. It's also among the top industries in Virginia Beach.
In 2016, domestic travelers spent nearly $65 million per day across the commonwealth.
w impact of Medicaid expansion
Democrats have long been pushing for Medicaid expansion, saying it would cover 400,000 Virginians without health care. More than 30 Democrats from both chambers made another plea to their Republicans colleagues last week at a press conference.
The Commonwealth Institute, a nonpartisan fiscal analysis group, calculated the number of people in each locality who would benefit from an expanded program. The organization used Census data on uninsured adults and poverty level for the analysis.
More than 38,000 Hampton Roads residents would benefit, the group said, including: 13,900 in Norfolk; 11,500 in Virginia Beach; 6,100 in Chesapeake; 4,400 in Portsmouth; and 2,300 in Suffolk.