- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2016

Virginia Democratic lawmakers laid out priorities Monday that mirror President Obama’s national agenda of expanding gun control, boosting the government’s health care program for the poor and pushing for broader voter registration as they prepare for the opening of the legislative session on Wednesday.

But they will face an uphill climb after Republicans kept control of both chambers in November’s elections, giving the GOP the power to set the agenda and forcing Democrats to try to find issues on which they can build bipartisanship.

House Minority Leader David Toscano said he will try to reform the criminal justice system, noting that the state spends $125,000 per juvenile inmate each year. He said that drug offenders should be dealt with in drug courts and that more must be done to get them into rehabilitation programs rather than prisons.

“We think there are good opportunities here for the conservative elements, the moderate elements and the progressive elements in the General Assembly to work together,” said Mr. Toscano, Charlottesville Democrat. “I think you’ve seen some writings from the Thomas Jefferson Institute recently that talk about the cost of incarceration and how it might not be the most effective way to spend the Commonwealth’s money. So there’s going to be a lot of discussion about that.”

Among the issues Democrats cited Monday are trying to boost the state’s minimum wage and pushing to expand Obamacare in the state through Medicaid, the federal-state partnership that provides health care coverage for the poor. Democrats say some 400,000 Virginians could be added to the rolls if the state were to expand eligibility.

Perhaps the most contentious fight will be over guns, where Democrats hope to harness the national debate and force changes in Virginia, which traditionally has been seen as a pro-Second Amendment state.

Delegate-elect Jennifer Boysko, Fairfax and Loudoun Democrat, said her party may not have the votes in the House to change laws, but she hopes that personal tales of gun-related grief would open the discussion on gun control.

“We have people who are members of the House of Delegates who have family members who were murdered [by] people who had guns obtained illegally,” she said. “We can reach a person and have them see, human to human, that there are real consequences to this legislation.”

Delegate Charniele Herring, Alexandria Democrat, said she does not necessarily expect progress but hopes for a lively debate that might change a mind or two.

“I think this issue is going to be a long issue, but until people are ready to sit down and talk based on facts, figures and looking at it and putting aside our biases, nothing’s going to get done,” said Ms. Herring, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “But the conversation’s important; these bills are filed. Maybe we will pass something on gun safety this year or maybe not. But I would say it is, clearly, a concern of many.”

Another idea catching fire among the state’s Democrats: an automatic voter registration system set up through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Oregon and California set up similar systems last year, and other states are toying with automatic voter registration this year.

Republicans are not keen on many of these ideas — and if Democrats cannot persuade them, many of these proposals will die in committees.

“While Virginia Democrats are focused on expanding Obamacare and new gun control laws, Republicans in the new House of Delegates will be focused on strengthening our economy to create new jobs, improving our schools to give children new opportunities and taking care of the most vulnerable without expanding broken entitlement programs,” said Matthew Moran, communications director for House Speaker William Howell.

The two parties do agree on some issues on the economic front, such as tax incentives for small businesses, but when it comes to increasing the minimum wage, Democrats may have to wait for a friendlier General Assembly to move forward.

“It’s no surprise that Democrats are carrying water for the labor unions, but Virginia is consistently recognized as one of the best states to do business because Republicans in the House of Delegates have held firm on new mandates that kill jobs and new regulations that hurt small businesses,” Mr. Moran said. “And the House of Delegates will continue to stand up for that.”

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