- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The 2015 legislative session kicks off Wednesday with lawmakers returning to Richmond to hear Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s State of the Commonwealth speech.

McAuliffe, a Democrat who is entering his second year in office, will be seeking to make his mark on a General Assembly that’s now firmly in control of Republicans following the surprise resignation of a Democratic senator last summer.

Here are some key issues to watch during the 45-day session:

ETHICS

Lawmakers pledged to make ethics reform a top issue following the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges in September. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of illegally accepting more than $165,000 in loans and gifts from vitamin salesman Jonnie Williams. The lengthy trial helped highlight how Virginia politicians can be - and routinely are - lavished with expensive gifts.

The trial also highlighted gaps in disclosure requirements that shielded both the McDonnells’ personal financial struggles as well as their relationship with Williams from public view. House Republicans have proposed a $100 cap on gifts to lawmakers, a limit McAuliffe instituted for himself during his first days in office.

REDISTRICTING

McAuliffe and other Democratic lawmakers will be pushing to create an independent commission tasked with handling legislative redistricting. Democrats say the current boundaries heavily favor Republicans, who have a supermajority in the House of Delegates even though Virginia is a swing state that has elected Democrats to statewide offices. Republicans have pledged to resist changing the process.

Lawmakers will also be watching a federal court case that could affect the state’s congressional boundaries. Virginia’s Republican congressmen are appealing a recent federal court ruling that said state legislators packed too many black voters into one congressional district in order to make adjacent districts safer for Republican incumbents. A 2-1 ruling by a panel of judges ordered the General Assembly to draw new boundaries by April 1, an order that’s in limbo pending the appeal.

EDUCATION

Lawmakers from both parties have introduced legislation that would drive the final nails into the coffin of two education initiatives championed by McDonnell.

Several of the measures would abolish the Opportunity Educational Institution, a state entity created to take over struggling schools. A Norfolk judge ruled the entity unconstitutional last year, and McAuliffe did not appeal the ruling.

Other pending bills would jettison the A-F grading scale that McDonnell sought to apply to entire schools based on students’ performance on standardized tests. Critics said the school-wide grades would stamp struggling schools with a “scarlet letter” that would do more harm than good.

At the college level, House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has created a stir with his intention to seek a cap on the mandatory fees paid by students to support intercollegiate athletic programs.

GRIDLOCK

Virginia’s government is more divided than ever since Republicans’ surprise recapture of a slim majority in the state Senate last year, giving the GOP total control of the legislature. Republicans already enjoyed a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates.

That means any controversial initiatives from the Democratic governor are likely dead on arrival.

Conversely, Republican initiatives face the prospect of a McAuliffe veto. The two-thirds vote necessary to override a veto might be achievable in the House but is unlikely in the closely divided Senate.

The result could be something akin to the gridlock that has seemingly paralyzed Washington.

MEDICAID

Much of last year’s legislative session was colored by a fight between Republicans and Democrats over expanding Medicaid eligibility to about 400,000 low-income people. The GOP opposes expansion, saying the state cannot afford a large-scale increase to its safety net. Democrats say expansion will help the state’s working poor and overall economy because the federal government has pledged to cover most of the cost. Republicans won last year’s fight, firmly rejecting Medicaid expansion on several occasions.

But McAuliffe is set to push for Medicaid expansion again this year in hopes that GOP lawmakers might have a change of heart. Some notable Republicans in neighboring states, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, have signaled support for expanding Medicaid in their states, which have previously rejected it. But in Virginia, Republican lawmakers have scoffed at McAuliffe’s efforts to revive the Medicaid debate, saying the governor is wasting time with a proposal that has no chance of passing.

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