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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

January 22, 2018

Northam Era Begins in Richmond

Issue / State

Governor Ralph Northam Gives Inaugural Address

On Saturday, January 13th, Ralph Northam was officially sworn in as the new Governor of Virginia. On Saturday, Northam made his first speech as Governor and called for a “Virginia Way forward” stating his intention to “leave this place better than we found it”.  Northam’s speech focused heavily on the current political situation of strong party ties which can lead to political gridlock and low cooperation and hopes to make an impact in ending this growing issue. He also discussed some specific policy points that he views as paramount for the legislature to address.

The new, 1 vote majority for Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly leaves the upcoming legislative session in new territory. The House of Delegates has not been this closely divided since the turn of the century. Northam hopes to use his party’s strengthened Democratic support to pass a multitude of bills this session.

Perhaps the most controversial point of Northam’s upcoming legislative agenda is expanding Medicaid to nearly 400,000 more Virginians. This has been a major goal for the Democratic Party since the passage of the Affordable Care Act; which originally required all states to expand their Medicaid programs to expand coverage to low-income Americans who would now be mandated to buy health insurance under the ACA. Both provisions were challenged by 13 state Attorney Generals, including Virginia’s then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and although the individual mandate survived the challenge, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not be forced to participate in the expanded Medicaid program. Subsequently, 19 Republican-led states opted out, including Virginia.

Since then, Republicans have blocked proposals for Medicaid expansion in every session, and appear to want to continue that effort in the new session.  It should be noted that there is significant support for Medicaid expansion among Virginia voters. In a poll released last week, 83% of Virginians are in favor of accepting federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage, including 71% of Republicans. The combination of public pressure and a stronger Democratic presence in the legislature could ultimately result in expansion.

Despite bipartisan appeals in the speech, a number of Republicans voiced their displeasure, arguing that his plea for more bipartisanship was contradicted by a largely-partisan agenda. House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) was the most notable legislator to publicly denounce Northam’s speech, saying he was “disappointed with the tone of the speech.” Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) echoed a similar sentiment. Whoever is to blame efforts at increased bipartisanship in the Northam Era is off to a shaky start.

Another cornerstone to Ralph Northam’s legislative agenda is to introduce stricter gun control laws. Just days after Northam’s inauguration, gun control legislation was already making headlines, when several gun control provisions were voted down in a Senate committee. The first of the provisions would have allowed cities to ban firearms in large public events, in response to the violent rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. Another provision would have required background checks on all gun purchases at gun shows, effectively closing a loophole that has been widely debated among Virginia citizens. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted against both of these provisions.

Northam has voiced his support for protecting women’s reproductive rights, a cause he became well known for after effectively killing the extremely controversial transvaginal ultrasound bill in 2012. In terms of economic policy, Northam’s “rural economy” plan hopes to facilitate economic growth in the rural areas of Virginia, particularly the low-income southwest corner of the state.

Northam has the foundation to achieve key legislative goals with the House so nearly split. The Wason Center will continue to monitor the efforts of Virginia lawmakers to pass new legislation throughout this legislative session, analyzing key votes and breaking down the top stories in the General Assembly.

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