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Assembly ends without budget

RICHMOND—Virginia lawmakers left Richmond Saturday without accomplishing their most important task: passing a roughly $96 billion budget for the next two years.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe immediately called for a special session to begin in two weeks, saying he hopes that lawmakers will return ready to pass a budget that includes expanding Medicaid eligibility to about 400,000 residents.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled House oppose the expansion, saying the current fast-growing program needs to be reformed first. They have also argued that expansion should be debated separate from the budget.

The issue has deadlocked the House and the Democratically controlled Senate, with almost no movement during the 60-day session.

A key part of the new federal health care law, Medicaid expansion was McAuliffe’s top priority for this session. He has predicted that the consequences of turning down roughly $5 million in federal funds associated with expanded Medicaid eligibility will be severe.

“Hospitals will close in rural communities,” McAuliffe said. “People are dying.”

House Speaker William J. Howell’s office released a statement saying House Republican leaders were “deeply disappointed” that the governor and the Senate had prevented the General Assembly from passing the budget on time. They said a delayed budget hurts local governments and other entities that depend on state money.

Lawmakers were able to find bipartisan agreement on several other measures Saturday, including legislation aimed at improving the state’s mental health services and tightening ethics rules for state lawmakers.

The General Assembly passed a series of measures aimed at improving the state’s treatment of the mentally ill, prompted by an assault on Sen. R. Creigh Deeds by his son. The Bath County Democrat was attacked in November by Gus Deeds after the younger Deeds was released from an emergency custody order hours earlier. A local community services board said it was unable to locate an available psychiatric bed in the area within the six hours allotted by law. After attacking his father, Gus Deeds committed suicide.

Under the bills passed by lawmakers, the time allotted for finding a bed was extended to 12 hours. And after eight hours of searching, if no private beds can be found, a state hospital will now be required to admit those under an emergency custody order.

Deeds said the measures will save lives and mark strong first steps in addressing shortcomings in the state’s mental health efforts.

“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot but we have so much more to do,” Deeds said.

Lawmakers also passed legislation in reaction to a gift scandal that led to federal corruption charges against former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. Lawmakers passed a bill Saturday that would set a $250 cap on tangible gifts from lobbyists or individuals with business before the state and require enhanced personal financial reporting requirements for lawmakers and their families.

Critics have said the legislation is filled with loopholes that won’t stop lobbyists from showering lawmakers with expensive trips, meals and events.

Other bills that passed during the 2014 regular session include legislation that could impact rates for Dominion Virginia Power customers by allowing the company to write off spending aimed at increasing its nuclear-generated power.

Dominion is a major donor to state campaigns and was the largest gift-giver to lawmakers last year, according to an analysis of personal finance disclosure forms by the Virginia Public Access Project. The governor has not yet taken a position on the bill.

The General Assembly voted to repeal a law forbidding hunting on Sunday, which had previously been deemed a day of rest for wild animals. And after intense grass-roots lobbying by Virginia’s Korean–American community, lawmakers passed a bill requiring new textbooks in Virginia will note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea. McAuliffe has already signed the Sunday hunting bill into law and has said he approves the textbook bill.

BILLS OF NOTE THAT PASSED IN 2014 VA. SESSION

RICHMOND—Notable legislation that passed the Virginia General Assembly during the 2014 legislative session:

MENTAL HEALTH

The General Assembly passed a series of measures aimed at improving the state’s treatment of the mentally ill in the wake of an assault on Sen. R. Creigh Deeds by his son. The Bath County Democrat was attacked in November by Gus Deeds after the younger Deeds was released from an emergency custody order hours earlier. A local community services board said it was unable to locate an available psychiatric bed in the area within the six hours allotted by law. After attacking his father, Gus Deeds committed suicide.

Under the bills passed by lawmakers, the time allotted for finding a bed was extended to 12 hours. And after eight hours of searching, if no private beds can be found, a state hospital will now be required to admit those under an emergency custody order.

EDUCATION

Students in elementary and middle schools will have to take fewer standardized tests. The General Assembly reduced the number of exams, called Standards of Learning tests, from 22 to 17. Legislators also voted to delay by two years implementation of a new A–F school grading system.

ETHICS REFORM

Following a gift scandal that led to federal corruption charges against former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, lawmakers passed a bill Saturday that would set a $250 cap on tangible gifts from lobbyists and require enhanced personal financial reporting requirements for lawmakers and their families.

Critics have said the legislation is filled with loopholes that won’t stop lobbyists from showering lawmakers with expensive trips and meals.

ELECTRIC RATES

The General Assembly passed a bill that might affect how much Dominion Virginia Power customers pay. The legislation allows the Richmond utility to deduct about $400 million in spending on nuclear energy research from its profits. The move will allow Dominion to probably avoid a refund to consumers the next time the State Corporation Commission reviews its financials. Dominion could avoid a possible refund in 2015 and a rate cut in 2017.

Dominion is a major donor to state campaigns and was the largest gift-giver to lawmakers last year.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has not yet indicated whether he supports or opposes the bill.

SUNDAY HUNTING

People can now hunt on Sundays, which Virginia law had previously deemed a day of rest for wild birds

and animals.Proponents of the bill say current law is outdated and hurting the state’s hunting economy. Opponents said the ban made Sundays safer for nature lovers who don’t hunt.

McAuliffe has already signed one of the Sunday hunting bills.

—The Associated Press

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