RICHMOND — The General Assembly failed to override any of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's vetoes but rejected more than a dozen of his amendments Wednesday in a session that put the partisan gulf between the GOP-dominated House and the Democratic governor on vivid display.
The House had the muscle to overcome one of the governor’s vetoes, on a bill related to red-light cameras and sponsored by the lone General Assembly Democrat who has bucked McAuliffe on his top priority — expanding Medicaid. But the Senate did not, so the veto stands.
The General Assembly returned to the Capitol for its annual “veto session” to consider the 60 bills McAuliffe amended and four of the five he had vetoed. (The fifth veto had been sustained during the regular session.) It took no action on the overdue state budget, which has been deadlocked by an impasse over Medicaid.
But rancor over the budget and Medicaid spilled over into Wednesday’s work in floor speeches and Republican claims that the governor had vetoed the red-light bill to retaliate against the Democrat who opposed expansion. They also said McAuliffe had made some amendments with the aim of pressuring GOP lawmakers on the budget.
The governor’s office disputed those claims and issued a statement urging the General Assembly to turn its attention to resolving the Medicaid and budget impasse, which threatens to shut down the state government if it is not resolved by July 1.
“I want to thank the legislators for returning and honoring their commitment to Virginians by acting on the vetoes and amendments I proposed,” McAuliffe said. “I hope that they will continue to fulfill their responsibility to Virginia families by passing a state budget that closes the healthcare coverage gap as soon as possible.”
He proposed amending about 60 bills, with many of those changes technical in nature and not opposed in either chamber. In about a dozen cases, the governor proposed adding a clause saying that the measure would not take effect unless money for any related costs is appropriated in a budget bill passed by the General Assembly.
House Republicans said the clause was McAuliffe's way of pressuring them to pass a budget, which has stalled over the issue of Medicaid expansion — something the governor and Senate support and the House opposes.
Republicans noted that the governor had not added similar clauses to other bills with far greater fiscal impact on the budget, including one calling for creation of a $70,000 ethics commission and another involving mental-health reform with a price tag in the millions.
“There’s no clause on ethics or mental health,” said House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk).
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor signed many bills before it became clear that the legislature would miss its budget deadline.
The House rejected McAuliffe's amendments on those bills, which covered subjects ranging from patent infringement to the number of judges on the bench. The House’s action sends those bills back to the governor, who will have to choose between signing them without his amendments or vetoing them. The bills will not come back before either chamber, so if McAuliffe chooses to veto any, they will be dead.
The politics of Medicaid expansion also loomed over McAuliffe's veto of the red-light camera bill. It was sponsored by Del. Johnny S. Joannou, (D-Portsmouth), the only member of his party to vote against expanding Medicaid, the federal health-care program for the poor and disabled.
Joannou's bill would have given motorists the right to appeal red-light camera citations to Circuit Court. McAuliffe and others contended that granting the right to appeal such citations, which do not appear on criminal or driving records, would clog the courts.
“You’ll have to put another five or six judges up there just to do this,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
Supporters of the bill said that it was needed to preserve constitutional rights.
“This bill was vetoed because the governor got annoyed at the patron who happened to be, at least in theory, of his party, and he voted in a way that his excellency didn’t like on this whole Medicaid expansion. . . . ‘I’m really unhappy with you and I’m the governor of Virginia and I’m going to show you how unhappy I am with you,’ ” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City.)
Coy said the veto had nothing to do with the Medicaid fight but came at the request of t Virginia Beach’s mayor, who was concerned about low-level offenses tying up court resources.
“The governor presented lawmakers with a very clearly worded veto statement,” Coy said. “We’ll be sure the senior senator from James City County gets an extra copy.”
The 100-member House easily mustered the two-thirds majority needed to override McAuliffe's veto on that bill, with a 78 to 19 vote. But the effort fell short in the Senate, where the vote in favor of overriding the veto was 25 to 13.
Saslaw criticized House Republicans for rejecting an amendment that would have given insurance companies the right to renew policies that do not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. It died when House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) — filling in for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who was absent because of hip surgery — ruled that the amendment was not germane to the underlying bill.
“If the people of Virginia want to blame anyone for not being able to keep their insurance . . . look at the House Republicans,” Saslaw said.
Republicans said they were not opposed to the amendment in spirit but thought that it was not appropriate to tack it onto the bill, which was intended to clarify mandates under health benefits exchanges.
They noted that in the regular session, the House approved a similar bill, giving individuals the right to renew policies not in keeping with the federal health-care law. The Senate killed the measure.