WASHINGTON — As the Virginia Senate debated a proposal that would end the standoff over Virginia’s budget and provide for an expansion of Medicaid, Gov. Ralph Northam told WTOP that he was confident that a bill would head to his desk in the next couple of days.
Hours after Northam’s monthly appearance on WTOP’s Ask the Governor, the Virginia House passed a two-year budget with Medicaid expansion, 67-31, Wednesday night, and voted 68-30 on the “caboose” that the Senate approved earlier in the day. Both bills head to the governor.
The Senate approved a budget proposal with Medicaid expansion Wednesday afternoon. Speaking some time before the vote, Northam said, “Hopefully they’ll be able to vote out a budget that is good for all Virginians, that is structurally sound, that expands health coverage … and protects our Triple-A bond rating.”
“We’ve been fighting [for] this for five years,” Northam said. Up to 400,000 working Virginians will be covered under the expansion, and that includes people “who are working one, two or three jobs, but the cost of health care has risen a lot faster than their salaries, so they have no options other than to go to the emergency room.”
Northam said that every day that Virginia doesn’t expand Medicaid is costing the commonwealth $5 million, and $10 billion since January 2014 — “not only leaving it on the table, but forfeiting it to other states we compete with. And from a business perspective, that makes no sense.”
“It’s time to put the excuses aside,” Northam said. “Whether you’re in favor of the Affordable Care Act or not … it is the law of the land, and we need to take advantage of the resources that we’ve sent to Washington, and bring them back to Virginia.”
“There are consequences to limited resources.”
Asked whether the work requirement for a Medicaid expansion should come with a job guarantee and student debt relief, Northam said, “I have been trying to approach it with a carrot rather than a stick. I don’t think we need to be penalizing people out there trying to work.” But then, he said, “We’ll see how they do today” in the Senate.
Northam said that he and his administration had already been in contact with the federal government about implementation of a Medicaid expansion, and that “they’re ready for us” — he predicted that by the beginning of next year “we should be up and running.”
He also addressed fears that the federal government, which will pick up 90 percent of the tab of a Medicaid expansion, would someday fail to fulfill their promise: “We’ve obviously got language in there that if they were to renege we would have an out.”
Northam said “there have been some tough negotiations” with Republicans in Richmond, but he credited Speaker Kirk Cox and Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones on the House side, and Sens. Emmett Hanger and Frank Wagner, as being partners in the deal-making process.
Other Senate Republicans, especially in the leadership, “have chosen not to be at the table,” Northam said.
Northam has signed a bill calling for a study of the question of adding tolls to Interstate 81 to pay for improvements such as lane widening. VDOT has said that widening I-81 near Harrisonville would cost $10 million to $15 million a mile. Asked whether tolls would eventually become the dominant method of funding road improvements, Northam said that each project had to be looked at individually.
He did say, however, that, “These projects are very, very expensive, and the money doesn’t fall out of the sky,” especially in the case of I-81, much of which goes through mountainous terrain. “So we need to look at ways that we can fund them.”
In the case of I-81, he suggested that tolls could fall heavily on commercial drivers: “A lot of this traffic, a lot of these trucks, are from out of state.”
That said, Northam also added that there’s a limit to the cycle of building and tolling. “We can’t keep pouring concrete; we can’t keep pouring our way out of traffic. We need to look at rail; we need to look at other forms transit to move people from Point A to Point B.”
Days after U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett, a Republican congressman from the 5th District, became the 44th House Republican to announce his retirement, Northam, after expressing “my best to Tom and his family,” said that the announcement “does open that seat.” He added that he was optimistic about other 2018 races, and said that among Democrats, “there’s a lot of enthusiasm across the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
NBC Washington’s Julie Carey asked about the growing number of Democratic candidates to refuse to take corporate PAC money in their campaigns. Northam agreed that “it will be a continuing trend” and that “there’s far too much money in politics.” But when asked about whether it’s possible to win without such money, and reminded that his endorsed candidate in Virginia’s 10th District, Jennifer Wexton, hasn’t taken such a pledge, Northam insisted that “bilateral disarmament” be part of the solution.
“You can’t just have one side say they’re not going to accept funding while the other side is,” he added.
Northam also said that Virginians shouldn’t worry about the possibility of voters being assigned to the wrong district, which happened in two House of Delegates races that might have kept the Democrats from taking control of the chamber last year. Host Mark Lewis pointed out that Voter ID had been instituted in Virginia several years ago based on far less evidence of problems than the misassignments.
The governor cited “new management” at the Board of Elections, and that even though the mistakes happened at the local level, the solution “starts at the top — it starts with me.” He said “significant changes” had been made, though he didn’t specify what they were, and added that “I would give Virginians confidence that … the upcoming elections will be a lot better than they have been in the past.”
Metro funding, pipelines, other issues
Northam bemoaned the way that Virginia’s share of dedicated funding for Metro is being paid for, and said that he would work to change the formula next year.
Virginia’s share of the $500 million the three jurisdictions and the federal government have pledged to fund Metro is coming at the expense of other Virginia transportation projects, including the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Northam vowed to continue fighting for that money, and said “I amended the legislation so it wouldn’t do that, but there were some folks in the Republican House that saw fit to defeat my amendment.”
“It wasn’t a good direction, and I can’t do anything to fix it this year,” but “it absolutely will be” addressed next year, he promised.
Northam also said the G3 Initiative, which trains workers in what Northam calls “new collar” jobs that require skills, but not necessarily a college degree, would be a second-year priority. The program would give Virginians free community-college tuition or apprenticeships in exchange for a year of public service. Northam said it would cost $37 million up front, but that “after five years, it will end up paying for itself.”
With Apple considering a $5 billion office complex in Northern Virginia that would bring an estimated 20,000 jobs and Amazon also eyeing Virginia for its second headquarters, Northam said that “we’re certainly excited,” but that “we also want to make sure it works for our taxpayers.”
He said the interest from the large companies proved the importance of workforce development, as well as inclusivity — businesses “want to know that we don’t discriminate in Virginia. The doors are open and the lights are on.”
In response to a passel of listener questions about education, Northam said that the current budget proposal calls for a 3 percent raise for teachers in Virginia, who currently make about $9,200 less than the national average.
“If we want to recruit and retain talented teachers, we have to pay them,” Northam said.
He also said that he was in favor of STEM after school activities — he added the arts and health to the list of essential skills — and said that subjects such as coding should start in early childhood. He also mused about the possibility of year-round education.
Northam was also asked about two proposed natural gas pipelines that would stretch across southwestern Virginia. Some of Northam’s fellow Democrats and progressive activists have criticized the project on environmental grounds, and the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report that the pipeline could threaten groundwater.
The governor responded that “I’m very sympathetic to these individuals,” and said that the Department of Environmental Quality and the Corps of Engineers were part of “the most rigorous enforcement we have ever done.”
Northam also said that later Wednesday he’d be a part of the Virginia Public Access event called “Lighten up; It’s just Politics,” a comedy show that would see him sharing the stage with Rep. Dave Brat.
“When Virginians think of entertainment, excitement and laughter, they think of Ralph Northam,” the governor cracked.