By Lia Tabackman
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – As a priority for the legislative session that begins Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Gov.-elect Ralph Northam are calling for universal background checks for gun sales.
"These measures are crucial for the safety of our communities," Northam said. He cited a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gun homicides had increased 59 percent in Virginia over the past five years.
Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers must administer background checks. Under the proposed legislation, the background check requirement would be expanded to all dealers, including gun shows and private sales.
The Democrats held a joint press conference Tuesday to outline their priorities for the 2018 session of the General Assembly, in which Republicans have a narrow majority in both chambers.
Northam, who will be inaugurated as governor on Saturday, urged lawmakers to approve "no excuse" absentee voting. Under the proposed legislation, any registered voter could cast an absentee ballot, in-person, within 21 days of Election Day.
"Why would we make it more difficult for people to vote on Election Day?" McAuliffe asked. He called the proposal non-partisan and said it would simplify the voting process and decrease lines and waiting times on Election Day.
Northam and McAuliffe also advocated expanding access to Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians currently without health coverage. The two officials expressed support for language in the 2018-20 budget to provide Medicaid to Virginians who make too much to qualify under the program's current income limits but can't afford private health care.
During the 60-day legislative session, Northam also plans to pursue proposals to:
• Ensure that campaign contribution funds donated to candidates and elected officials cannot be spent for personal use.
• Raise the threshold for felony larceny from $200 to $1,000.
• Implement a Borrower's Bill of Rights and create a state ombudsman for student loans.
• Have Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based program to reduce carbon emissions. Virginia would be the first Southern state to join RGGI.
Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called the RGGI proposal "historic."
"This announcement is likely the boldest single legislative commitment ever made by a Southern governor in the fight to reduce global warming pollution," Tidwell said. "It marks a new era for Virginia and the nation. Even as federal efforts tragically shrink on climate change, state efforts are heroically growing – and Ralph Northam is now proof of that."