RICHMOND — Virginia’s pitched battle over Medicaid expansion returns to the Capitol on Monday with no indication that Gov. Terry McAuliffe is any closer to a deal on his top priority.
Two weeks after an impasse over Medicaid prevented passage of a two-year, $96 billion budget, the legislature is coming back to Richmond to try again in a special session.
The deadlock could lead to a government shutdown if it is not resolved by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Shorter delays could make it difficult for local governments, school boards, universities and other recipients of state dollars to set their budgets.
McAuliffe (D) spent much of the past two weeks winging by state plane from one far-flung hospital to another, spotlighting individual patients and medical institutions that he said would suffer if the state does not expand Medicaid under the federal law known as Obamacare.
The barnstorming appears to have done little to pressure House Republicans into rethinking their steadfast opposition to expansion. McAuliffe’s contention at one appearance that “hospitals will close and people will die” without expansion seems only to have stoked partisan rancor. The GOP has spent the past two weeks trumpeting the Affordable Care Act’s well-publicized flaws and highlighting the hefty salaries earned by the hospital executives whom McAuliffe has gone to visit.
The standoff seemed more intractable than ever Friday, as House Republicans outmaneuvered McAuliffe by filing a new budget bill to be considered during the special session instead of waiting for the governor to put his own in on Monday.
The surprise move robbed McAuliffe of the opportunity to propose a budget of his own, which Virginia’s budget cycle normally prevents first-year governors from doing. But the real significance was that even before legislators had returned to Richmond, the wrangling was underway.
McAuliffe, Senate Democrats and three moderate Republicans in that evenly split chamber support expansion, saying it will help 400,000 needy Virginians and create up to 30,000 new jobs. The GOP-dominated House is opposed, contending that the federal government cannot afford to make good on its promise to pick up most of the $2 billion-a-year tab.
After two weeks away from Richmond, both sides seem more dug in than ever.
“I promise you in this room, we will get this done this year,” McAuliffe said at a gathering with health officials in Alexandria last week. “You have my word on it. I do not make promises lightly. If I put my word to it, you’re going to get it. And I don’t want to get into too much detail, but on Monday I will be making a major announcement.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy declined to comment on the announcement remark, which was posted on the Blue Virginia Web site. McAuliffe told House and Senate budget negotiators last week that he would unveil a budget plan Monday.
House Republicans sound no less committed to stopping expansion. During the two-week break, they have been trying to highlight the plight of local governments, school districts and other recipients of state funds that cannot set their own budgets until they know what money they can count on from Richmond. At least 17 counties and four cities have passed resolutions calling for Medicaid expansion to be considered separately from the budget, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in an interview.
He noted that even the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which supports expansion, has called for “decoupling” Medicaid from the budget.
“I think we’re doing a good job of proving the case that Medicaid expansion really doesn’t belong in the budget,” Howell said. “And the local governments are desperate for budget figures from the state so they can do their budgets, hire their teachers, do the things they need to do.”
An oddity of Virginia’s two-year budgeting schedule calls for the outgoing governor to propose a budget just weeks before his term ends, leaving it for the House, Senate and the incoming governor to amend as they see fit. So the budget plan the General Assembly worked from during the regular session was created by now-former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).
“It would be an unprecedented opportunity for a first-year governor to introduce his own budget,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).
In comments to reporters last week, McAuliffe described what he planned to propose Monday as “the original McDonnell budget” with some clearly delineated amendments of his own. But McAuliffe told Senate conferees that his budget plan would be “significantly different” than McDonnell’s, Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) said in a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk).
The rival spending plans on the table when the regular session concluded were unusually close, but budget talks stalled over Medicaid expansion. Expansion opponents were wary of McAuliffe’s attempt to introduce a substantially changed budget, believing it might be an attempt to create more areas of disagreement and mask the fact that Medicaid was the only major sticking point.
Jones responded Friday by filing a budget bill of his own. With that bill on the table, McAuliffe’s is expected to be left to die in committee.
Jones’s bill is based on the House version but includes compromises that negotiators had reached before the session ended.
Jones said filing the bill was the quickest way to get the legislation back into deliberations. The House is likely to approve his plan, and the Senate is likely to amend it to include Medicaid expansion and whatever else it wants. Then both chambers can send it back to budget negotiators.
That will still leave negotiators confronting stark difference on Medicaid, with no obvious way to bridge that gap.