March 6, 2015

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The Dan River Region’s state legislators touted an effective and on-time General Assembly session — due in part to the GOP majority avoiding a budget showdown over Medicaid expansion — while talking with Dan River Region leaders during a Legislative Lunch Thursday.

“I think that for a short session, it was a good session,” said Del. Danny Marshall (R- Danville). “I think it was productive. Overall, we had some good legislation come through.”

Marshall and the three other members representing the area took time to talk about meaningful bills passed during the session and take questions from the audience. The luncheon was sponsored by the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce.

First up was state Sen. Frank Ruff (R-Clarksville), who spoke on the budget amendments passed almost unanimously by both chambers. In addition to pay raises for state employees and public school teachers, the bill eliminated $33 million in debt from localities and put $429 million in the state’s rainy day fund.

Many of the speakers mentioned they were able to keep the session on time this year, mostly due to a Republican majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Last year, a Democratic State Senate majority stalled the budget bill for weeks over a fight to approve expansion of the federal Medicaid program.

State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Moneta) spoke on the Medicaid issue more, saying it encouraged him to take a hard look at rural health care models in the region.

“Philosophically, I was not for the expansion of Medicaid because it was a flawed and failed program,” Stanley said. “I thought it was not bringing quality healthcare to those that needed it that were in the (coverage) gap. So, I wanted to find out one — what health care delivery models we had in our rural and underserved areas? — and two — what can make them better?”

After taking a tour of several regional care organizations last fall, Stanley introduced several pieces of legislation intended to strengthen local care.

“The coverage gap exposes a need to transform delivery,” he said.

One of the bills, which expands a scholarship fund for doctors who pledge to practice in rural Virginia, passed almost unanimously by both chambers. Stanley said he talked with medical students with as much as $300,000 in medical school bills, who then were seeking jobs in Northern Virginia with higher salaries. Stanley also said the average age of doctors in the region was 54 years old.

The legislators praised an ethics bill passed in the wake of the federal corruption against former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, but said it would need tweaking in further sessions.

“Ethics is something that comes from the heart and the soul,” Ruff said. “It doesn’t come from passing laws.”

Marshall said the bill came on the heels of similar legislation passed last year. The 2015 bill limits gifts to officials to $100, and also creates an ethics advisory council, among other measures.

“I think that the 2015 ethics bill was a good second step,” Marshall said. “I’m sure there will be additional tweaks.”

Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) talked about a bill aimed to strengthen woman and minority-owned businesses in the region. The legislation closes a loophole in the Virginia Public Procurement Act which allowed large businesses to nab state contracts by using dummy corporations.

Finally, Adams and Marshall praised two bills related to regulation of marijuana and hemp plants. One allows medical usage to treat sufferers of certain forms of epilepsy. The other measure allows for the growing of industrial grade hemp. Adams said he still supports current federal laws against possession of the drug.

Metcalfe reports for the Danville Register & Bee.