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Editorial: No easy days ahead for JLARC

Editorial: No easy days ahead for JLARC

Posted by on May 17, 2019 in News |

Richmond Times Dispatch, May 15, 2019.

Virginia has long enjoyed a national reputation as one of the country’s best-run states. A well-managed, almost corruption-free state government is one of the reasons for that standing. Another reason, we believe, is the hard work the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) does every day to keep state offices on their toes.

It’s not often we can assure Virginia citizens with confidence that a state agency is not only performing its job well — it’s performing far above expectations. As we have noted on these pages before, JLARC enjoys a strong reputation of solid research and sound advice. Its full-time staff works diligently to save taxpayer dollars and suggest both minor and major improvements in how many of the commonwealth’s policies and programs are managed.

Since its founding in 1974, the watchdog agency has reviewed numerous other agencies and offices and made recommendations that have improved services and ultimately saved state taxpayers about $1.2 billion. JLARC’s staff seeks to ensure state agencies comply with laws in the manner intended by the legislature. Should the JLARC find an agency whose performance is subpar, it is required to make recommendations on how operations could be improved for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Its detailed reports are valued by legislators who rely upon them to make informed decisions.

In Wednesday’s news story, “Watchdog agency takes on ‘robust’ work plan,” RTD reporter Michael Martz notes that “the legislature has implemented 73% of the 352 recommendations the agency has made in reports from 2015 through last year” — which, according to JLARC executive director Hal Greer, is a record.

Because of the agency’s reputation for accuracy and solid recommendations, members of the General Assembly are relying more heavily than ever upon its work. Martz’s article outlines JLARC’s ambitious schedule in the upcoming months. The legislative review commission has approved a work plan that includes studying casino gambling, taking a hard look at both the attorney general’s and inspector general’s offices as well the state’s Department Of Game And Inland Fisheries and its recently restructured IT system. In addition, JLARC staffers will debate expanding a list of diseases the state considers relative “to the work of firefighters, police officers and other hazardous-duty employees and examine the statewide rollout of community services provided for people with behavioral health conditions and how to pay for them.”

Additionally, the agency also will be keeping watch on the progress of Virginia’s Medicaid expansion — a topic that could play a significant role in the November elections that will determine whether the General Assembly is controlled by Democrats or Republicans. Several of the politically charged issues being reviewed are going to make the upcoming months especially challenging for a commission comprised of members from both parties and both chambers of the assembly.

JLARC staffers acknowledge that the planned studies of the inspector general’s office — which is scheduled for September and will look at whether that office should be authorized to monitor local and regional jails — and the attorney general’s office, due in November, will both require a careful approach. One of the areas of concern is Attorney General Mark Herring’s questionable use of outside counsel, although Greer says that isn’t the reason the study is being done.

According to the RTD, Greer is expanding his staff to 30 people to handle the additional tasking. We wish them the best in handling the robust workload, and we anticipate reading their reports and seeing their impact during the next General Assembly session.

— Robin Beres

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Editorial: Why ban JLARC from state meetings?

Editorial: Why ban JLARC from state meetings?

Posted by on Apr 5, 2019 in News |


In a March 31 RTD news article, “Va. attorney general told jail death investigators they could exclude state auditors from observing,” Patrick Wilson reported that Attorney General Mark Herring’s office has informed a state board investigating jail deaths in the commonwealth that it was not obligated to allow auditors from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) access to closed meetings.

The nonpartisan watchdog commission, JLARC, is responsible for conducting program evaluations, policy analysis and oversight of state agencies at the request of the General Assembly. Its duties are authorized by and outlined in the Code of Virginia. At the assembly’s request, JLARC has been conducting a review of the Office of the State Inspector General, specifically the IG’s role in inspecting jails. State law requires state agencies to provide any requested information to JLARC.

Hal Greer, executive director of JLARC, says that Herring told the state Board of Corrections it wasn’t required to let JLARC staff attend its closed discussions. Herring’s press secretary, Charlotte Gomer, declined to answer an email from Wilson as to how the attorney general reached that decision.

But Herring’s relationship with JLARC has been thorny. In January, an Associated Press news story says he “denounced a wide-ranging review of his office by the legislature’s watchdog agency as a politically motivated witch hunt.”

Not surprisingly, JLARC disagrees with Herring’s decision. The commission is seeking an amendment to the state budget that will give its staff access “to all information and operations of the Board of Corrections, including observing closed sessions.” Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has taken action to ensure the assembly considers the budget change when it reconvenes on Wednesday.

“I took strong exception to the position of the AG, and I was pleased to be able to work with the administration to fashion a solution that takes care of the immediate concern. And we agreed to work in the interim to further clarify JLARC’s authority,” Jones said. “Given the seriousness of the topic, it needed to be addressed immediately.”

We agree with Jones. The Office of the State Inspector General has already been criticized for its less-than-thorough report after the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died in Hampton Roads Regional Jail. In 2016, former Inspector General June Jennings claimed her office had “lacked authority to interview jail employees and request certain documents.” Others with the Inspector General’s Office dispute that.

Hopefully, the General Assembly wastes no time amending the budget to allow JLARC the access it needs. After the shameful death of Mitchell and several others in Virginia jails, discussions should be as transparent as possible. Yes, under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies do have the discretion to hold closed meetings — but why? And why would Herring encourage any agency to do so?

— Robin Beres

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Republican Appropriations chairman to run again in what is now a Democratic-leaning district

Republican Appropriations chairman to run again in what is now a Democratic-leaning district

Posted by on Mar 25, 2019 in News |

BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times Dispatch, March 22, 2019.

House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, will run for re-election in a House of Delegates district that will favor Democrats after being dramatically redrawn by the federal courts.

Jones, 60, said he is undaunted by the challenge of running in a district that flipped from a 12-point Republican advantage to a 15-point margin for Democrats under the court-approved plan drawn by a California political science professor after his old district was among those the court found to be unconstitutional.

“That was not part of my decision,” he said in an interview Friday. “I’ve always reached across the aisle on issues that benefit the commonwealth and benefit Suffolk, and I will continue to do that.”

Despite a 27.4-percentage point swing from Republican to Democrat under the new plan for the 76th House District, no Democrat has filed yet to oppose Jones. House Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Kathryn Gilley predicted that challengers will emerge.

“We definitely have our eye on that district, and we are not letting it go,” Gilley said.

The Suffolk Democratic Committee plans to choose a candidate in a party caucus on May 11, giving potential challengers until April 26 to file for the election. The deadline for candidates to declare in party primaries is March 28.

All 100 House seats and all 40 Senate seats are up for election in November. Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the House.

Jones, who had $605,416 in his campaign account at the end of last year, is seeking a 12th term in a House seat he has held since 1998. Previously, he served four years as Suffolk mayor and 12 on the City Council.

“He’s just a hard-working person who cares about the city,” Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson said.

Jones said he is confident he can retain the seat in the redrawn district because of his ties across party lines, particularly in the African-American community.

Dr. L.D. Britt, chairman of the surgery department at Eastern Virginia Medical School and a Suffolk native, said the party distinction shouldn’t matter.

“At the end of the day, I don’t care what territory in Suffolk they’ve got carved out, Delegate Jones needs to be in the General Assembly,” he said.

Britt, a professor and surgeon whose medical career includes a medal from the U.S. surgeon general, cited Jones’ advocacy for Eastern Virginia Medical School and his role in passage of Medicaid expansion last year after five years as part of Republican opposition in the House.

“For him to take the lead on that, you have to give him credit,” he said.

Eddie Moore, former president of Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, both historically black institutions, is a Suffolk resident who said he got to know Jones while trying to restore state confidence in the finances of Norfolk State over a period of more than four years.

“I try to build a relationship with the person no matter what the party affiliation is,” Moore said. “It was very easy to build a relationship with Chairman Jones. He really did stand behind his word.”

Jones, who became Appropriations chairman in 2014, is a loyal Republican who has long prided himself on his political independence on public policy.

In 2004, he helped engineer a vote to pass a $1.4 billion tax package proposed by then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, to end a long impasse. He was one of 17 Republicans to vote for Warner’s tax proposal, and was exiled by his party leadership.

But Jones also was the architect of redistricting plans in 2001 and 2011 that solidified Republican control of the House. Ultimately, a federal panel found 11 districts in the 2011 plan unconstitutional because House leaders improperly used race to create majority-minority districts that effectively diluted black voters’ influence in adjacent districts.

House Republicans have appealed the court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jones cites his lead role in passage of a transportation funding package in 2013 that relied on new state and regional taxes to pay for critical road improvements, including a pending new bridge-tunnel crossing of Hampton Roads.

He also has played key roles in reforming Virginia’s public retirement system, an ongoing effort to restructure the state mental health system, and, working with then-Sen. Ralph Northam, now governor, banning smoking in most restaurants.

“I’m looking forward to running on my record,” Jones said.

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Long journey for autism advocates ends with stroke of governor’s pen

Long journey for autism advocates ends with stroke of governor’s pen

Posted by on Mar 25, 2019 in News |

BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times Dispatch, March 21, 2019.

More than a dozen years ago, Dr. Ralph Northam helped Mark Llobell on the path to a diagnosis for his grandson, Mark III, who has autism.

This week, as governor, Northam completed Llobell’s long political battle for insurance to pay for services to Virginians with autism, no matter their age.

The governor signed a pair of bills on Monday that will remove the age cap on requiring insurance coverage of services — now at 10 years old — effective on Jan. 1 for at least 10,000 Virginians with autism.

“It’s wonderful,” said Llobell, a Virginia Beach resident who had consulted with Northam, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, for a diagnosis of his grandson, now 14. “I’m just glad and grateful our families will finally receive the services that doctors prescribe.”

For Northam, the legislation epitomizes why he ran for public office in the first place.

“One of my primary motivations for entering public service was finding an avenue to address the frustrations and challenges that I would routinely encounter as a physician trying to help families navigate the insurance landscape,” the governor said Thursday in an announcement of his action.

“Now, individuals with autism will have access to the coverage they need, no matter their age — that will have a profound impact on families,” he said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have been working on this legislation for years and I’m proud to sign this legislation that exemplifies what we can achieve when we come together to improve the lives of the Virginians we serve.”

The legislation got a big boost from the same legislator who had let it die in committee last year on the last day of the legislative session.

House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, asked Llobell then to work with him between General Assembly sessions to help him understand the need for the legislation and allay concerns about its effect on insurers and the businesses they cover.

This year, Jones enlisted the support of House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who asked Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford, to carry it in the House of Delegates, where it faced the highest hurdle.

“The advocates were tireless in their efforts,” Jones said Thursday. “I am very pleased to see the legislation signed by the governor.”

The measure already had strong support in the Senate, where Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, sponsored the legislation.

“As someone who worked on this legislation for more than 10 years, I have seen the impact on families whose children were cut off from coverage,” Vogel said in the governor’s announcement. “We only succeeded this year because of their hard work and unbelievable commitment all of these years.”

Llobell began the search for insurance coverage of autism services after his grandson was diagnosed in 2007 at age 2.

For three years, he and other advocates had no success. In 2011, the General Assembly adopted legislation mandating coverage for ages 2-6, or under the average age for diagnosis. In 2015, the legislature raised the age cap to 10, where it has remained, despite determined efforts on both sides of the aisle and both chambers to remove it entirely.

During that span, Llobell helped found the Virginia Autism Project and the Virginia Autism Foundation, which he leads as CEO. He also spent his life savings on services for his formerly non-verbal grandson, who this year led the Pledge of Allegiance at a news conference for the legislation.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I’ve been vacationing in Richmond for 12 years, every January and February, trying to get this legislation passed.”

For Llobell, the legislation represents the opportunity for Virginians with autism to learn to care for themselves, communicate with others, attend public schools, and become productive citizens. It requires intensive services — especially applied behavioral analysis to engage those with autism — but he contends the alternative is far more costly to society.

“If you don’t get them the kinds of services they need, they become wards of the state,” he said. “The parents become caregivers for life.”

Dr. Hughes Melton, Virginia commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, said the legislation’s approval “symbolizes yet another way that Governor Northam’s administration is addressing significant gaps in insurance coverage parity in the commonwealth.”

“Individuals with developmental disabilities such as autism need high-quality health insurance for all of their lives, not just an eight-year period,” Melton said.

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New tax fund will hold big money, require big decisions for future lawmakers

New tax fund will hold big money, require big decisions for future lawmakers

Posted by on Mar 5, 2019 in News |

BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times Dispatch, March 1, 2019.

A sweeping new tax package that the General Assembly passed and Gov. Ralph Northam immediately signed into law will leave more than $1 billion in tax revenues in a new fund over the next six years for some form of tax relief to Virginians who pay more in state income taxes because of federal tax reforms.

The money represents higher income taxes Virginians are expected to pay under temporary provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that President Donald Trump signed in late 2017, but future state lawmakers will have to decide how to provide taxpayer relief with the revenues that will stop flowing after 2025.

“This will certainly put a premium on looking at comprehensive tax reforms, but the dilemma is all of this goes away in six years,” said House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, one of the architects of the revised two-year budget that represents the limit of the current legislature’s ability to determine what form tax relief will take.

“This is going to require discipline that I rarely have seen in Richmond to get it right,” Jones said.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, one of the principal architects of the tax plan, acknowledged that lawmakers — whoever they are after elections for all 140 assembly seats in November — will have to take up the issue again in the next two-year budget cycle.

“In 2020, we’ll be advancing tax policy again,” Newman predicted.

This year’s tax package generally conformed Virginia’s tax code to the new federal law, while enacting a number of policy changes in the second year and promising one-time refunds to taxpayers in the fall — $110 for individuals and $220 for married couples.

Republican legislators trumpeted the package as $1 billion in tax relief, but according to the state tax department it is expected to return about $782 million over two years, while sequestering about $85 million in the new “taxpayer relief fund” to enable the state to respond to unforeseen consequences as taxpayers file returns on 2018 income under the new federal law.

Most of the relief will come from the one-time refunds on 2018 taxes, totaling about $420 million from the taxpayer relief fund, and a 50 percent increase in state standard deductions. The deductions will increase from $3,000 to $4,500 for individuals and $6,000 to $9,000 for married couples in the next tax year.

Cap on deductions

The relief does not include $107.5 million in tax revenues the state expects by maintaining a $313,000 cap on total deductions by the wealthiest Virginians, which the Trump tax law removes at the federal level.

The cap, known as the Pease Limitation, essentially protects revenues Virginia already has been receiving, so the revised budget requires the money to flow into the state’s revenue reserve fund, not the new pot of money for taxpayer relief.

“We should not give money back to taxpayers unless they’re going to be harmed,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said.

Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, the senior Democrat on the House Finance Committee, insisted on maintaining the cap, especially since the tax reform package already benefits wealthy Virginians by allowing them to continue to deduct more than $10,000 a year in local real estate and other property taxes they pay. The federal law limits the deduction of state and local taxes for federal taxpayers.

Watts thinks the Pease money should have gone into the taxpayer relief fund, where it could be used to help taxpayers left out of the new state law — working families earning less than $22,000, whose tax liability is covered by an Earned Income Tax Credit but who don’t get a refund on the unused amount.

“I regard this as a conscious tax policy change on the federal side and our response to it,” she said of the Pease cap.

Northam had proposed to make the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, allowing eligible taxpayers to get a check for the amount not used to cover their tax liability. Republicans dismissed the idea as soon as the governor proposed it in August and Democrats were unable to restore it in the budget.

The final budget ensured that more than $330 million will be deposited into the revenue reserve in this biennium — the Pease money and additional tax revenues from the permanent provisions of the federal tax law for businesses. The money represents the biggest chunk of the $565.5 million that will be deposited in the reserve in the budget.

Reserve funds

Combined with deposits in the constitutionally established Revenue Stabilization Fund — a rainy day fund for severe downturns in state revenues — House budget officials estimate that Virginia’s total reserves will exceed $1.4 billion by the end of the two-year budget cycle on June 30, 2020.

Some House Democrats questioned why the state is holding so much money in reserve, rather than spending it to meet pressing public needs. Watts defended the approach as wise in the face of potential cutbacks in federal spending that would hurt the state economy, especially in Northern Virginia.

“We can’t afford to run up to the edge of the cliff,” she said.

The tax package creates a third fund that will receive $165 million to $240 million a year in the five fiscal years beyond the current two-year budget. Altogether, the fund will exceed $1 billion, including almost $350 million in the two-year budget the governor will propose in December for 2020-2022.

“There’s going to be a ton of money for the governor’s biennial budget,” Layne said.

The money represents additional state revenues resulting from the Trump tax law that would not be directly returned to Virginia taxpayers under the policy changes state lawmakers made this year.

The policy changes — primarily the temporary increase in standard deductions — are projected to return more than $300 million each year to affected taxpayers, but the rest of the windfall will go into the taxpayer relief fund.

“Just like any other bill dealing with money, it has to be appropriated,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who also is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Virginia’s two-year budget cycle prevents lawmakers from deciding how to handle revenues beyond mid-2020. “We took our best shot at it,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus.

In the next two-year budget cycle “the revenues for taxpayer relief are going to be substantial,” Newman said, “and we anticipate another policy change or another taxpayer refund.”

Northam endorsed the tax legislation in part because it didn’t decide exactly how the state will provide tax relief, Layne said. “A key to the compromise for the administration is that this money would be used for either further tax reforms or future investments that would be equally beneficial to taxpayers.”

By the time the temporary provisions are scheduled to expire, Virginia will have elected a new governor, a new Senate (twice) and new House (three times).

“This is for future legislatures and governors to decide,” Layne said.

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