RICHMOND — Virginia’s House and Senate expect to adjourn the General Assembly session Saturday without a state budget, their standoff on Medicaid expansion forcing legislators to return for a special session later this month.
House Republican leaders firmly opposed to lengthening the state’s Medicaid rolls met Friday with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has made expansion of the health-care program for the poor and disabled his chief priority. McAuliffe told them that he would call a special session March 24, allowing for a break that will give both sides an opportunity to hear from constituents.
“Let’s begin on the 24th an open dialogue,” he said.
But McAuliffe also told them that Medicaid “would not be decoupled” from the rest of the budget as Republicans would like, an issue that came up several times in the brief meeting.
Republicans had proposed a special session beginning immediately rather than a two-week break. House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) suggested that McAuliffe wanted the delay to “continue the campaign that he’s been on,” referring to near-daily visits the governor has been making to hospitals around the state.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) accused McAuliffe of using “blackmail” and “extortion” by including Medicaid expansion in the budget, after opposing such tactics during the federal government shutdown last fall.
No one had expected the meeting to produce a breakthrough, particularly on a day when partisan tensions were inflamed over one of McAuliffe’s political appointments. The House rejected the governor’s choice of Boyd Marcus, a high-profile Republican strategist who had endorsed him in the campaign, to a high-paying job on the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Haggling in the Capitol has shifted in recent days from the question of expansion to the particulars of how the legislature would go into the overtime that the impasse was forcing on them.
Leaving town without a budget means that the General Assembly did not complete what is widely acknowledged as its most important duty: bankrolling schools, local governments, courts and all manner of other services in every corner of the commonwealth.
Any delay can make it hard for local school boards and governments to set their budgets, because they do not know how much funding they can expect from Richmond. Failure to pass a spending plan by July 1 could lead to a government shutdown.
The impasse comes in a year when the House and Senate passed rival two-year, $96 billion spending plans that are remarkably close in many areas. They differ chiefly — but profoundly — on whether the state should expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal health-care law known informally as Obamacare.
McAuliffe, Senate Democrats and three moderate Republicans in that chamber contend that expansion would help up to 400,000 uninsured Virginians and create about 30,000 jobs. House Republicans doubt that Washington can afford to keep its promise to pick up most of the tab, which in Virginia would amount to about $2 billion a year.
The Senate inserted a Medicaid plan into its version of the budget, a move that the GOP calls holding the budget “hostage” to expansion. House Republicans have called for a special session devoted to Medicaid so that expansion would rise or fall on its own merits. That idea went nowhere in the Senate, which would lose its only leverage on Medicaid if it is stripped from the budget.
The Senate has billed its Medicaid plan as a compromise because it would use the federal money to buy private insurance for enrollees. The “Marketplace Virginia” plan would come with strings attached — those covered would have to make substantial co-pays and would have to be employed or looking for work — intended to make it more palatable to conservatives. The House has been unswayed, questioning whether Washington would sign off on those requirements.
The House proposed extending the regular session for 30 days, putting a limit on how long it could drag on. That option would have provided an extra incentive against dawdling: Legislators are prohibited from political fundraising during regular sessions. The Senate rejected that idea, so McAuliffe plans to call an open-ended special session starting March 24. Legislators are not prohibited from fundraising during special sessions.
McAuliffe has been barnstorming the state, making appearances at hospitals that he says could be forced to close without Medicaid money. Republicans have mocked him for leaving town at a critical time and are playing up the large salaries that executives receive at those hospitals.
“On the eve of Virginia’s budget deadline, Governor McAuliffe should be in Richmond working to help pass a clean budget bill,” Howell said in a statement. “Instead, he continues to grandstand, campaigning for Obamacare expansion with a hospital CEO that earned nearly $900,000 in compensation last year.”
McAuliffe, for his part, announced that on Monday he will visit a medical center in Portsmouth.