Virginia budget plans include new office building for lawmakers


Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, right, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, confers with Del. Robert H. Brink, D-Arlington, in the Virginia House of Delegates. (Bob Brown/AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The state would rip down the Capitol Square high-rise that houses offices for legislators and build a new one under a $280 million to $300 million plan that the General Assembly’s budget leaders unveiled Friday.

The proposal includes renovations to the adjacent Old City Hall Building and would trigger a reshuffling of other state offices until the new building is completed in 2019, according to the plan.

The rebuilding plan was prompted by a 2012 review indicating that the 11-story General Assembly Building had problems with asbestos, faulty air flow, rotting windows, a leaking roof and a crumbling facade.

“We have been holding together the General Assembly Building with duct tape and bale wire,” House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) told reporters at a press conference Friday morning.

“The health issues in this building are significant,” said Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan). “It’s almost like a petri dish in here.”

Citizens, he said, deserve to testify in a state government “that’s safe, that’s comfortable and that they don’t get the type of exposure that they deal with right now.”

Starting from scratch was the most cost-effective, efficient approach found after years of research, lawmakers said.

“The best thing that can happen to this building is 100 sticks of dynamite,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

The first three floors of the new building will be for public meetings, Jones said, with escalators to improve the flow of foot traffic. Historical experts are being brought in to see if the facade of the oldest part of the current GAB can be preserved, said Richard F. Sliwoski, who leads the Department of General Services.

Previous attempts to renovate the GAB have met with resistance from fiscal conservatives in the House , but Sen. Walter A, Stosch (R-Henrico) , who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said there was a “coordinated, collaborative effort” in the legislature this time around.

The buildin proposal is only a small part of the two distinct state budget proposals that House and Senate committees will separately approve Sunday. And it is expected to represent one of the rare areas of agreement between the two chambers as they lay out rival schemes for spending $96 billion over the coming two-year budget cycle.

The starkest difference between the two budgets will be in the area of Medicaid expansion — though hardly anyone seems to call it that anymore.

Legislators who’d like to provide health insurance to an additional 400,000 Virginians think it might help their argument if they drop the name of the federal-state program behind it all: Medicaid. They now speak of “closing the coverage gap.”

And those who think Washington and Richmond can’t afford expansion have decided to play up the plan’s ties to an unpopular president and his trouble-plagued health-care law. So they’re opposing “Obamacare expansion.”

The lingo and tenor of Richmond’s Medicaid debate seem to change by the day, but positions have solidified as the issue moves to center stage in the Capitol. Leaders in the GOP-dominated House are increasingly outspoken in their opposition, while Democrats and moderate Senate Republicans are pushing harder than ever to make it happen.

Shortly after Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) argued for expansion on the floor Thursday by invoking the plight of an uninsured working mother forced to choose between her seizure medication and feeding her children, Republicans were out with links to a conservative blog that showed the Giles County woman had been charged multiple times with Medicaid fraud. One case remains pending. Prosecutors opted against pursuing three others, according to court records.

“Is [the woman] really the poster-child Democrats want to be using as their example for Medicaid expansion?“ the blog Bearing Drift asked last week when another legislator, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D- Fairfax), shared the story on the floor for the first time.

Krupicka said he had not been aware of the charges before making his floor speech, but he criticized the GOP for zeroing in on the woman’s legal troubles rather than his point about people in need.

“I think it’s telling that instead of focusing on the economics [of expansion], they focus their energy on character attacks on working-class folks,” Krupicka said.

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) continued a drumbeat of warnings over Medicaid expansion, saying that “this game of chicken in the budget process” could endanger top spending priorities, including K-12 education, higher education and mental health.

House and Senate Democrats further fanned partisan flames with separate e-mails criticizing House Republicans for killing a Senate bill to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $8.25 this year and $9.25 the next. Both messages made much of the fact that the House committee vote was taken on a snowy day.

“The committee did not offer the patron the courtesy of waiting to hear the bill when witnesses could get there, but instead forged ahead in the middle of a statewide snowstorm,” an e-mail from the Senate Democrats said.

The bulk of the budget plans remained under wraps. But on the floor of the House on Thursday, Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) provided a few highlights.

He said the House budget would provide $47 million to improve the state’s response to mental health crises, including $10 million to ensure that a “bed of last resort is always available.” The funding would build on the $38 million that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) proposed in his outgoing budget in December.

The increase is a response to an incident involving Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) last fall, when mental health officials said they could not find a bed for Deeds’s mentally ill son before a court order to detain him expired. A day later, the son stabbed Deeds and killed himself.

Jones also said there would be unspecified “dollars in the budget” to improve services for victims of domestic violence. Trying to defy Democrats’ claims that the GOP has waged a “war on women,” House Republicans have emphasized their support for improved services, snagging the symbolic designation of House Bill 1 for the domestic violence measure.

Jones also said the budget would include $26 million intended to minimize tuition increases at the state’s colleges and universities.

Michael Laris contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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