In Virginia, Medicaid expansion fight escalates


Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), right, speaks during a news conference in February dealing with Medicaid expansion as Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters, left, looks on. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Two state workers gained access to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s deserted office suite one recent Sunday, on a mission from Republican House Speaker William J. Howell.

Watergate it was not. The workers were escorted by the chief of Capitol Police. Their assignment: to drop off a copy of the state budget bill.

Yet the expedition was not entirely devoid of political intrigue. The sooner the budget arrived at the governor’s office, the sooner McAuliffe (D) would have to act on it; the governor gets seven days from the moment it lands, to sign, veto or amend it.

So the delivery Howell engineered packed a bit of political punch by forcing the governor to hustle. The governor’s office accused Howell and Capitol police of a breach of security.

It has come to this in a Capitol where civility and decorum were once high arts: It is not enough to fight over the state budget. The manner by which budget documents physically change hands is layered with scheming, suspicion and acrimony. The episode came to light this week as the legislature finally came together on a long-delayed state spending plan. Despite the budget detente, intense partisanship and distrust hang over Richmond as the fight over Medicaid expansion churns on.

McAuliffe is pushing ahead with plans to defy the GOP-led General Assembly and expand the health-care program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act. Republicans are determined to block him.

On Wednesday, the fight escalated again: House Republicans announced that one of the nation’s most prominent lawyers had found that the governor lacked the authority to expand the program unilaterally. Former U.S. solicitor general Paul D. Clement said on a conference call with reporters that McAuliffe does not have that power in a state where all spending, even pass-through money from Washington, must be appropriated by the General Assembly. The House paid Clement a flat fee of $25,000 for his opinion.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), announced that he would not seek reelection next year. The move was not unexpected. Colgan, an 87-year-old World War II veteran first elected in 1975, had wanted to retire in 2011, but fellow Democrats coaxed him into running one last time in swing territory that now-former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) won in 2009, but McAuliffe picked up last year.

But Colgan’s announcement, first reported by the Prince William Times, gave Republicans hope that they could pick up one more seat in the Senate. The GOP has controlled the chamber by a one-seat margin since Democrat Phillip P. Puckett’s surprise resignation earlier this month. The FBI is investigating the circumstances of Puckett’s departure.

The flap over how the budget was delivered, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, emerged less than 24 hours after the legislature finalized the budget.

On June 12, a Thursday, the House and Senate approved the budget and the House clerk’s office began preparing the document for delivery to the governor — a process that can take several days. State government could have shut down and the state could have lost its stellar bond rating if the new budget was not in place by the start of the fiscal year July 1, so House Appropriations Committee staff worked furiously to finish the job early. They were ready to hand the budget over by Sunday, June 15, which happened to be Father’s Day.

House Clerk G. Paul Nardo called the governor’s legislative director, Felix Sarfo-Kantanka Jr. that morning to say his office was ready to drop the document off. But Sarfo-Kantanka was out of town celebrating the day with his father and said he could not accept it. He said no one else from the governor’s office was available. He suggested that they bring it over on Monday. That would have given McAuliffe until the following Monday to act on the budget, instead of the following Sunday.

Howell was eager to get the document to the governor’s office given that the July 1 deadline was fast approaching, said Howell spokesman Matthew Moran. Nardo called Col. Anthony S. Pike, chief of Capitol Police, whose force is responsible for security at all Capitol Square buildings.

Pike got the call in the midst of his own Father’s Day festivities. But he put that on hold to head for the Capitol, 20 minutes away.

“I came in to do what I considered my duty and my job to help get the budget moved along, took time away from my family,” he said.

He escorted two House Clerk’s Office staffers into the Patrick Henry Building, into the governor’s third-floor offices and then into McAuliffe’s private office suite — a trip that required him to swipe a security access card three times, according to the governor’s office. They left the hefty budget bill on a chair outside of the governor’s personal office, which Pike said they never entered.

“What occurred here Sunday is unacceptable,” McAuliffe Chief of Staff Paul J. Reagan wrote in a June 18 letter to Pike. “Two employees of the Speaker of the House of Delegates were given access to an area of the Governor’s office where sensitive files and materials are kept. For good reason, it is an area that is surrounded by three security perimeters.”

He added: “Even on a normal business day, very few people — including members of the Governor’s cabinet — can gain access to this suite of offices. We certainly do not expect to have agents and employees of the General Assembly roaming through these offices on weekends.”

Reagan’s letter said that he had notified a separate law enforcement agency, Virginia State Police, of “this breach of security.” Reagan did not ask for an investigation, and State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said there was none underway. But Pike said he was stung by the criticism.

“I think the part that alarmed me was the sentence that the state police have been notified of a breach of security, which [implies] that I did something unlawful,” Pike said. “There was no sinister motive behind it. I had some of my employees come up to me today and say, ‘Colonel, did you do something wrong?’ It’s bothersome.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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