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Bills Catholics should watch at the General Assembly

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Over the course of the 2018 legislative session 2,000-3,000 bills will be introduced at the Virginia General Assembly, said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. With the guidance of Catholic doctrine, Virginia’s Catholic bishops and the VCC board, Caruso and the associate directors will decide which bills to prioritize and advocate for. 

The 2017 elections led to dramatic turnover in the Virginia House of Delegates, which now is split between Democrats and Republicans, with two races potentially still in play. In the Senate, Republicans have a slim majority, 21 Republicans to 19 Democrats. “Our issues cut across the political spectrum, (so) we’ve been very accustomed to close votes in the Senate and now we’ll be dealing with close votes (in both houses),” Caruso said.

In the executive branch, Democrats Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring will be sworn in as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general respectively, Jan. 13. Before Northam became lieutenant governor, the VCC worked with him as a state senator, said Caruso. “There were issues where his votes aligned with our positions and issues where his votes didn’t, but it was always a good relationship and we were able to work together,” he said.

Northam recently tweeted his support for expansion of Medicaid in Virginia, a position the VCC supports. “I have and will continue to advocate for Medicaid expansion because it is a no-brainer for Virginia families, our budget, and our economy. We can also come together on smart policy choices that will allow us to deliver better care at lower cost,” said Northam.

Medicaid expansion has stalled over the years with Republican control of the House of Delegates, who fear the additional costs to the commonwealth. The expansion would make Medicaid available for those who make up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line. The federal government would cover the costs for the first three years, and then the commonwealth would begin to pay a small percentage.

“Virginia’s failure to accept federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid has left a harmful gap in the state’s health care safety net,” the VCC said in a statement. It is estimated some 400,000 uninsured people would take advantage of the expansion.

“It’s going to be a hotly contested issue (but) I think most folks would say more possible than before,” said Caruso.

The conference also will advocate to make the earned income credit more beneficial for the lowest-income working families, and expand the existing K-12 scholarship tax credit program. Currently, donors can get a 65 percent state tax credit for donating to a scholarship foundation that assists K-12 students to attend non-public schools, but scholarships are not available for pre-K students.  Both bills have attracted bipartisan support, said Caruso.

Last year, a VCC-backed bill that would prevent inmates who have a severe mental illness from being executed fell one vote short of passing through the House Criminal Law Committee. Though many new delegates’ position on the death penalty are unclear, Northam publicly said he supports its abolition.

Virginia, which executed two people last year, puts to death more people than any other state in the country besides Texas.  “It is a bill that has bipartisan support and we hope we can see movement this year,” said Kevin Mauer, the VCC’s associate director. “More people are realizing that people who are unable to understand the consequences of their actions should not be put to death.”

While those four bills have a likelihood of being debated and passed this year, the VCC will work on many other issues. They will continue to advocate on behalf of immigrants, especially Dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States as children. They also will defend religious liberty. “The state must preserve the right of faith-based entities to continued access to state licensing, accreditation, contracts, grants and freedom of conscience in employment practices and delivery of services,” the VCC said in a statement.

On the pro-life front, the organization hopes to encourage the government to adhere to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal money from being used for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or life of the mother. Currently, Virginia forces taxpayers to fund abortions in cases when the unborn child may have disabilities.

The Joint Commission on Health Care is in the middle of a two-year study on effects of legalizing assisted suicide in Virginia, and so far, no legislation has been introduced. “That’s certainly something we’re vigilantly watching for,” said Bill Re, associate director. “We would hope to get broad bipartisan opposition to any attempt to legalize assisted suicide, which would really have detrimental effects to the quality of health care in Virginia.”

Throughout the session, the VCC will send out alerts that allow Catholics to send emails to their legislators about upcoming votes. Additionally, Catholics can lobby their legislators in person, with the help of the VCC through its Catholics in the Capitol effort. The VCC encourages all to attend Virginia Vespers Feb. 15, where Catholics can join the Virginia bishops at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond to pray for and meet members of the local government.

“I think it's really important to recognize that these decisions that are going on with government leaders in some case involve whether people are going to live or die, or whether their very basic needs are going to be met,” said Caruso. “It’s important to participate in all those decisions that truly affects human lives and human dignity. It’s part and parcel of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018