Last week saw the passage of a state budget and also the potential demise of Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Two dramatic events of the previous few days drove the results of the Special Session.
Resignation of Senator Phillip Puckett
First, word leaked out gradually on June 6th and June 7th of the sudden resignation of Senator Phillip Puckett. His resignation restored the Republican majority in the Senate of Virginia, ensuring that Republicans controlled both houses of the General Assembly.
When I first heard about Senator Puckett’s resignation, I called him. Phillip Puckett has been a good friend of mine for a long time. I have eaten at his table, been a guest in his home, prayed in his church. He told me he was resigning to do what was best for his family and would not give me more detail. I trust Phillip and am certain that his decision to leave the Senate of Virginia was what he thought was right for his family. However, members of the General Assembly also have an obligation to the people they represent and to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Red flags appeared immediately. First, Republican legislators seemed more informed about what was going on than did Democrats. Republican senators were quoted in the papers about Senator Puckett continuing his service and a prominent Republican delegate from southwest Virginia, the Chairman of the Tobacco Commission, indicated that Senator Puckett was going to be considered for the position of Deputy Director of the Tobacco Commission. In fact, the Tobacco Commission had a meeting scheduled for last Wednesday and the only thing on the docket was the consideration of the hiring of a Deputy Director.
Second, in recent years Senator Puckett has maintained a focus on helping appoint his daughter to the bench. Republicans denied him the 21st vote necessary to have her elected as a judge based on a supposed tradition of the Senate not appointing family members to the bench. While I think such a policy makes sense, history suggests there is no such tradition. In the 1990s, former Delegate Ward Armstrong’s brother was appointed to the district court bench. Later, former Delegate Joe Johnson’s son went on the district court bench and was elevated a few years later to the circuit bench. I have never known of another senator to have a family member considered for a judgeship, but it is clear that there is no such tradition with respect to members of the General Assembly.
After Senator Puckett resigned and the public exploded, he withdrew his name from consideration for employment with the Tobacco Commission. The meeting scheduled for last Wednesday was cancelled.
Senator Puckett’s sudden resignation came at a crucial time in this budget standoff – when the pressure was on both sides to find a way to close the coverage gap and get a budget passed before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The resignation means that Republicans have the majority in both houses of the legislature. They were able to pass a budget, and they now have the unfettered ability to elect judges.
The Defeat of US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
The second event which turned the political world on its head in Virginia was the defeat of Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives in the Republican Primary in the 7th Congressional District. Eric Cantor was elected to the House of Delegates with me in 1991. I have known Eric for a long time and while we have disagreements on matters of policy, we have always been friendly to one another. His loss in the primary sent a shockwave through the Republican apparatus in Virginia and allowed the House Republican Caucus and the 17 members of the Senate Republican Caucus that opposed Marketplace Virginia, to put pressure on the three senators who have worked with the Governor and with the Democratic Caucus to arrive at a compromise on Medicaid expansion in Virginia.
Much speculation has centered on the strength of the Tea Party and its effect on the primary. The Tea Party is an important subset, a populist subset, of the Republican Party. However, my take on things is much simpler. I think Representative Cantor took his eyes off the ball and paid more attention to his job as majority leader than to the residents of the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia. While he had plenty of money in the bank, he did not have the field organization necessary to turn people out to vote in the primary After all, elections are pretty simple – you just need to get more people to vote for you than the other guy.
Governor McAuliffe’s Options
The end result of this tumultuous political week in Virginia was that the three Republican senators, described as moderate in the media, caved. Not only did a budget pass without Medicaid expansion, but interwoven into the budget is language aimed at preventing the Governor from trying to expand administratively.
The legality of the Governor expanding Medicaid without prior legislative approval has generated significant discussion and debate. The Constitution requires all monies spent by the Commonwealth, even flow through dollars from the federal government, be appropriated by the General Assembly. Last year, the House and the Senate, working together, agreed to put language in the budget to create the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) to reform Medicaid and set up a mechanism to expand Medicaid. The amendments adopted last week by the House and the Senate removed that compromise language from the budget. Medicaid expansion will now need approval from the majority of the General Assembly.
The Governor’s options at this point are at least threefold. First, he could sign the budget. The budget agreement that passed is balanced. The Medicaid language can be changed (at least theoretically) when we reconvene in January. Signing the budget will end this protracted budget debate and allow local governments to move forward.
The Governor could veto the budget. A veto would leave everything up in the air for the remainder of the month, and the General Assembly would likely be in session for many days trying to craft a compromise before the end of the fiscal year.
The third option is to use the line item veto to eliminate the new budget language that strips authority from the MIRC. Although the language is interwoven in the budget, in my view, this is the best option. Sign the remainder of the budget. Austerity cannot be prevented in a time of declining revenue. If the amended language is stricken, and the General Assembly fails to muster the two-thirds vote to override the veto, the Governor can continue to explore ways to expand Medicaid and close the coverage gap. At this point, there is not much for him to lose if he can find a way to line item veto the amendment out of the budget.
In the meantime, candidates are being chosen to fill Senator Puckett’s seat in southwest Virginia. Elections in that region are driven by the politics of coal. The coal field counties are areas that have seen significant population loss over the past 30 years and face severe economic challenges. I am convinced that we can find a Democratic candidate who can hold on to the seat. If we can accomplish that goal, we can restore balance to the General Assembly.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Should you have concerns, questions or views you wish to share, please contact me at (434) 296-5491 or [email protected].