WASHINGTON — With the Virginia General Assembly locked in a budget stalemate over expanding Medicaid and a must-meet funding deadline this summer looming, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said he’s confident lawmakers will reach a deal and pledged a shutdown won’t happen on his watch.
“The writing is on the wall and so I would just encourage the Senate to go ahead and get back to Richmond and let’s make this happen,” Northam said on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program April 25.
He added: “We’ve got the House Republicans that are on board with expanding coverage. We’ve got a couple Republican senators now. Let’s go ahead and come back to Richmond and do the right thing.”
Last month, the General Assembly opened a special reconvened session after lawmakers failed to hammer out a budget deal during the regular session. But the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee announced this week it won’t meet again until May 14 — nearly a month after the budget standoff began.
Lawmakers must approve a state budget by July 1. The main sticking point has been expanding Medicaid eligibility to 400,000 low-income Virginians by accepting federal cash. The House of Delegates approved a state budget last week that expands Medicaid with a work-requirement provision.
Northam said his preference is for expanding Medicaid without a work requirement, which he characterized as a “Republican buzzword” that would create more government bureaucracy.
“I think the simpler we do this; the better. Without getting into waivers, without getting into work requirements,” Northam said. “But you know, all options are on the table right now.”
There has never been a Virginia state government shutdown, Northam said.
“I think it’s kind of a what-if, but that’s not going to happen under my watch,” he said. “I will continue to work with people from both sides of the aisle. And I think your listeners need to remind the legislators to do their job. And the last thing that we want in Virginia … is a government shutdown. So that’s not going to happen.”
Northam: ‘Irresponsible’ vote blocking tax increases to pay for Metro
In the first part of the reconvened session last week, the GOP-led House of Delegates shot down Northam-backed amendments to increase taxes on hotel stays and some home sales as part of a formula to pay for dedicated Metro funding.
That means dedicated Metro funding will be paid for mostly out of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s coffers, which would likely come at the expensive of other Northern Virginia transportation projects, including road improvements.
Northam said the House’s action is “not the last word,” and pledged, “I will do everything that I can to get us back to where we need so that all of that money in Northern Virginia transportation authority is used locally and not going toward Metro.”
Northam said additional funding to the NVTA could even be hashed out in the budget.
In a landmark vote in March, Virginia lawmakers set aside $154 million in dedicated Metro funding as part of a $500 million regional funding pact.
Northam blasted Republican Del. Tim Hugo, who fought the tax increases, as being “irresponsible” and “way out of step” with Northern Virginia voters.
“What the legislators and the people of Northern Virginia asked for is: Let’s not take any more funding than we have to from the transportation authority in Northern Virginia, because when we do that, it takes money away from projects like Route 1 and Route 28.”
Northam added: “There’s a finite amount of resources that we have for transportation. These — the Route 1, Route 28 projects — were lined up, ready to go and now that funding may be jeopardized.”
Hugo represents the 40th District, which includes parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Northam said Northern Virginia constituents were “overwhelming” in their desire not to see other transportation projects take a hit, and Del. Hugo “wasn’t listening. And I think that he will have to listen to the voters in November 2019.”
In a follow-up interview with WTOP, Hugo said: “I don’t think my constituents want a tax increase, especially when they’re paying $40 tolls and especially when gas prices are going up. What they want is to get out of traffic.”
Hugo said the idea of using NVTA funding to pay for dedicated Metro funding originated with Northam’s office and that the NVTA’s coffers would not be depleted in the absence of the proposed tax increases.
“There’s hundreds of millions there for Metro,” he said. NVTA has got an infusion of cash in the last year and a half. There is going to be plenty of money .”
Trump’s ’embarrassing’ tweets
Northam was also asked about the now shaky confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, is now facing an uncertain future, after allegations of repeated drunkenness and creating a toxic work environment, emerged.
Northam, himself a veteran, who served in the U.S. Army as a medical officer during Desert Storm, said he doesn’t know Jackson personally. “I am very concerned about the health of the VA system in Virginia,” he said.
There are about 725,000 veterans living in Virginia.
“What really bothers me … is a pattern that we’re seeing in Washington, the way that our current president is governing, to be making policy over his Twitter account,” Northam said.
He added: “Not only has (Trump) not vetted Dr. Jackson, but he doesn’t vet any of his policies. And I just can’t imagine even working in that Cabinet or administration and circling behind him every time he puts out another tweet. It’s just not the way to govern. It’s dangerous and it’s also embarrassing for this country.”
WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report.