Virginia Senate puts off budget, Medicaid debate

The Capitol building is bathed in sunlight in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Steve Helber(ASSOCIATED PRESS/Steve Helber)
WASHINGTON — Virginia senators have put off the debate on the state budget and whether to expand Medicaid, drawing sharp criticism from the governor and House speaker.

The Senate did not take up budget discussions Tuesday, but instead scheduled a meeting next week for the Senate Finance Committee to take up a newly proposed budget plan.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment said he expects the upper chamber to pass a budget May 30, and it is “probable” that it will include Medicaid expansion.

Democrat Janet Howell accused a minority of the Senate of delaying and obstructing action.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican who backs Medicaid expansion, canceled a planned House meeting for Wednesday, since the delegates would have had no new bill to vote on. The House passed its budget in this special session more than a month ago and had expected to act Wednesday on a Senate version.

Republicans are currently split on whether to expand Medicaid after years of near unified opposition. The disagreement has led to a stalemate on the state budget.

“The time has come to finish the budget. Our teachers, local school boards, and local governments are waiting to craft their budgets and the national bond rating agencies are carefully monitoring Virginia’s AAA bond rating,” Cox said in a statement.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who made Medicaid expansion to about 300,000 more low-income Virignians part of his campaign last year, was even stronger.

“The continued delays and procedural stall tactics that we are seeing from the Senate create uncertainty for families and local governments, threaten Virginia’s bond rating, and run afoul of this Commonwealth’s reputation for efficient and effective government,” Northam said in a statement.

“This unnecessary delay is made more insulting to Virginians by the reality that the house of delegates passed a budget that expands health care weeks ago, and a majority of Senators have indicated they would vote for a similar measure if the Senate would simply put one on the floor. Virginians have waited long enough,” he said.

Pro-expansion lawmakers have a majority in both chambers, but some Republican Senate leaders oppose Medicaid expansion and said they need more time to study a new budget deal released Monday by pro-expansion Republicans.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, Republican co-chair of the Finance Committee, had apparently been prepared to join Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw Tuesday to bypass the Finance Committee and get the budget bill to the floor. Instead, Norment assured pro-expansion lawmakers that the Senate would finally hold a vote on its budget next week.

Norment insisted Tuesday that the months of delay — with no deal in the regular session this winter or any Senate action yet since the special session convened in April — has helped resolve the dispute since additional tax revenue above previous forecasts can be used to bolster the state’s rainy day fund.

“Raise your eyebrows and twitch your ears, but that is a financial fact,” he said.

He maintains his opposition to Medicaid expansion, and said he has no plans to leave the Senate.

“I tell you what, I’m going [to] be here in 2019 and 2020 to kick your ass,” he said on the Senate floor.

He also called for better decorum in the chamber.

Impact of budget delays

Senate Democrats said the wait for local budgets, teachers, and those who would benefit from Medicaid expansion could not go on any longer. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the Medicaid expansion costs.

“These are real people, with real stories and real challenges. They didn’t ask for this,” Prince William Democrat Jeremy McPike said.

“While we’re diddling and dawdling on the Senate floor, people are suffering. Some people are dying,” Howell, a Fairfax County Democrat, said.

Republican Sen. Bill Carrico said he would not listen to a lecture, since Democrats support abortion-rights.

That was just one piece of how Republicans opposed to expansion pushed back on the Senate floor Tuesday evening, during what effectively became a debate over Medicaid expansion despite no bill sitting before the body.

“Government dependency breeds more government dependency and takes away freedom,” Republican Bill Stanley said.

He argued that free trade agreements and warnings that tobacco has negative health effects have been the key drivers of economic problems in southwest Virginia, and more people with Medicaid coverage could simply put more of a strain on hospitals.

A number of Republicans who remain opposed to expansion have focused on potential costs of the system.

“Spending the taxpayers money on other people … is the most inefficient way to spend money,” Sen. Mark Obenshain said.

Democrat George Barker of Fairfax County responded that Virginia’s Medicaid program is run efficiently.

“It’s been effective in helping people receive the care they need. It’s been effective in holding down costs, and in many instances, it’s been effective in actually reducing costs,” Barker said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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