Saturday, March 30, 2013

McEachin: Unusual coalitions fueled successes

Comments:  Thanks to this great person for helping us fight uranium mining and other unfair prcedures from the GOP of VA!

Donald McEachin | Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 12:00 am 
This session of the General Assembly was what’s known as a “short session,” meaning it lasted only 46 days. During short sessions, among other business, the General Assembly simply amends the previous year’s biennial budget to account for changing circumstances. Moreover, this fall all three statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general will be on the ballot. The entire House of Delegates will also stand for election. Typically, at this point in Virginia’s quadrennial political cycle, the General Assembly session is quieter, with politicians focused on the election in the fall.

This year, however, was different. The session contained actions that even long-time General Assembly watchers found surprising, none more so than comprehensive transportation reform. For almost 30 years, Virginia has not addressed, in any meaningful way, its transportation crisis. Roads are in need of repair, bridges and tunnels are becoming a safety risk.

Although the pressure to address these problems, ease traffic congestion and invest in mass transit was growing, the governor and legislators, including those in his own party, were far from agreement. Outside pressures, such as Grover Norquist’s Citizens for Tax Reform, which strongly opposed raising sustainable new revenue, exacerbated the differences.

However, much to everyone’s astonishment, the General Assembly developed and approved a comprehensive plan, which is the result of much negotiation and compromise. Many of its components make citizens and legislators, even those who voted for it, unhappy.

The large raid on the General Fund — which pays for public education, public health and public safety — is very concerning. Putting an annual fee on hybrid vehicles whose owners have already paid more for their cars to lessen America’s dependence on foreign fossil fuel is simply unfair.

Yet, despite these and other legitimate concerns, this accord represents a genuine long-term fix that we can build on.

Last summer and fall, months before the session began, discussion had reached a heated level about the propriety of mining uranium in Southside Virginia. At that time, speculation was high that such mining would be approved, even over the objections of some local residents.

The governor had not expressed an opinion but conventional wisdom held that he supported the mining. The bill to allow it was going to be introduced and carried by a well-respected senior lawmaker, Sen. John Watkins. At that time, the opposition was seen as the usual motley crew of progressive scientists, environmentalists and some alarmist local residents. However, as we heard the evidence, opposition grew stronger and the rationale for lifting the ban on uranium mining grew weaker.

Although the General Assembly often remains sharply divided along rancorous partisan lines, a bipartisan coalition of legislators expressed their serious concerns about the heath risks and safety of such a mining endeavor. These legislators came from around the commonwealth and covered a broad spectrum of political views. Business groups formed an alliance with environmental leaders and local governments. Sometimes their ability to work together and share ideas as closely as they did surprised even themselves.

By mid-session, Senator Watkins surrendered and withdrew his bill, not even daring to have it come to a vote. These unusual coalitions and their success at cooperating were unique for the General Assembly in recent years but, hopefully, a harbinger of things to come.

Perhaps the most astonishing and astounding act of this year’s session was the progress toward Medicaid expansion. The governor had taken a doctrinaire position in opposition, and, as recently as the last week of session, penned a harshly-worded letter that seemed to leave no options available. But legislators, citizens, businesses and community groups came together to insist that poor Virginians needed access to health care, community hospitals needed relief from the costs of indigent care and everyone needed the jobs that expansion would create across the commonwealth.

Because of this steady advocacy, a new commission will ensure needed reforms are in place and begin the process to expand Medicaid, a shocking but very significant accomplishment this session.
In 46 days, this General Assembly not only accomplished some very important tasks, but demonstrated that, even with significant philosophical differences seeming to dominate, in a strongly divided environment, with partisan elections looming, Virginia legislators can work together to accomplish very significant goals for the commonwealth, achievements that may surprise even themselves.

Donald McEachin, a Henrico County Democrat, represents the 9th District in the Virginia Senate. He is chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Contact him at