RICHMOND — The General Assembly returns to the Capitol on Thursday with Republicans fully in charge and intending to send Gov. Terry McAuliffe a budget that does not expand Medicaid.
The legislature will reconvene three days after a conservative Democrat from southwest Virginia resigned his Senate seat, allowing Republicans to grab control of what had been an evenly split chamber — and force Democrats to give in on a months-long budget-and-Medicaid stalemate.
House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to a two-year, $96 billion spending plan that does not provide for the Democratic governor’s top priority: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Democrats and three moderate Republicans had been insisting that the budget include language to expand health care to 400,000 uninsured Virginians.
Some of them started wavering weeks ago for a range of reasons, including a potential state shutdown, the state’s bond rating and revenue forecasts. But it was the surprise resignation of Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) that finally broke the impasse, said Sen. Thomas K. Norment (R-James City).
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the [budget] deadlines of June 19th or anything,” Norment said. “That is not what is driving . . . the budget forward expeditiously this week. What is actually driving it is, with the announcement of Senator Puckett’s retirement . . . there are only 39 senators, 20 Republicans and 19 Democrats.
“I’m not very good with math,” Norment said, but “we have 20 Republicans. Twenty Republicans constitute the majority.”
When the Senate reconvenes, Republicans could flex their new muscle by taking control of all of its committees, which control which legislation gets to the floor and which dies. No one doubts that Republicans will do so eventually. But Norment, whose title switched from minority leader to majority leader with Puckett’s resignation, said he is in no hurry to reorganize the chamber.
“My focus is getting a budget passed this week and delivered to the citizens of Virginia, and I do not expect I need them to undertake a reorganization of the Senate to make that happen,” Norment said. “The Democrats, being realists, will come along and be supportive. So I don’t see any need to go through a major reorganization or shake-up.”
Puckett’s resignation struck like a thunderbolt in Richmond, in part because his departure appeared to pave the way for his appointment to a job with the state tobacco commission and for his daughter to get a judgeship. Some Democrats said Republicans had engineered his exit as part of an unseemly quid pro quo intended to leave the Democratic Party shorthanded during the budget-and-Medicaid standoff.
In a statement released Monday, Puckett acknowledged that his resignation was intended to clear the way for his daughter to keep her temporary position as a juvenile judge. His service as a senator had prevented her appointment to a full six-year term under the Senate’s anti-nepotism policy.
He said he had never been offered a job with the tobacco commission. But it had been slated to consider his appointment to the job of deputy director on Wednesday — until Puckett, amid an uproar, withdrew his name from consideration.
Until his departure, Democrats had control of the evenly divided Senate because the lieutenant governor, who decides most tie votes, is a Democrat.
The power shift in the chamber was the last straw for Senate negotiators. But some had been wavering for weeks, as the deadline to reach a budget deal was less than a month away.
The state government could shut down if a budget is not in place by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Also heightening the urgency for a budget deal: Recent financial projections indicated that state revenue could be more than $1 billion lower over the two-year budget period. The state may tap its rainy-day fund to cushion the impact of that lower revenue, but only if it has a budget in place.
“Given the fact that we could not go beyond June 30 without placing us in a very precarious position, then I felt we must move forward with the budget,” said Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a supporter of a plan to use Medicaid funds to buy private insurance.