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Special Session: California Dreamin’
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA – Whether it’s the regular session or a special session, despite its typically frenetic pace, the General Assembly at times can lull you to sleep. Then — bang — out of nowhere, alarm bells. That’s what happened at the pivotal Senate Finance Committee meeting that set the stage for the ultimate adoption of the commonwealth’s new Obamacare Medicaid expanded budget.

Even before all the ballots were counted and empty film canisters were drawn it was a surety that the legislature was going to adopt the hundreds- of-billions-of-dollars program. With Democrats drawing to within a seat of parity in both chambers, spurred by a whopping wave election gain of 15 House seats, and enough big government Republicans, the only question was in what form it would take and how it would be negotiated and enacted.

It was astonishing that the 19 anti- Obamacare Senate Republicans held out as long as they did. But just as the writing was finishing up on the wall, a last minute, surprise, roll-of-the-dice Hail Mary almost — and probably should have — worked, which would still have them in special session. It certainly woke up a sleepy crowd jammed into the Finance Committee and overflow rooms.

The committee was about to end what seemed to be a scripted event. The majority anti-Obamacare opposition rejected the expanded Medicaid budget crafted by Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County) and Governor Ralph Northam and adopting an amended form of the Senate’s budget from the regular session. This all seemed pro forma as Hanger simply would introduce his version on the floor where he, the breakaway Republicans and 19 Democrats would override the committee’s bill.

But as the committee was about to adjourn, Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) motioned to reconsider the defeated Hanger bill. The motion was agreed to, but as they were about to vote Senators Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield), George Barker (D-Fairfax County) and Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) caught on — twice defeating amendments in committee makes them ineligible for introduction on the floor, which would have meant the only option would be to adopt the committee’s budget.

Confusion reigned and Hanger, the committee’s co-chair whose turn it was to preside that day, abruptly adjourned the committee, cutting off his co-chair Norment who was about to speak. Norment, clearly appalled at his colleague, should have called for the vote instead of debating the motion. Better, he should have made the motion immediately after the original vote to kill the Hanger substitute earlier in the meeting.

So much for Tuesday afternoon quarterbacking, but you know it caused a stir when decades-long journalist veterans didn’t understand what had happened. The Obamacare fissures that long ago split House Republicans now were on full display in the Senate. The rest of the afternoon entertained speculation over possible maneuvers, including Norment reconvening the committee or calling a Rules Committee meeting to rule Hanger’s actions out of order.

In the end, nothing of the sort happened. However, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is crafting an Obamacare repeal acceptable to all U.S. Senate Republicans, briefed the GOP caucus and held a press conference before the vote where he noted the fiscal danger of adopting a program about to be phased out and the irony that a Virginia Obamacare budget would improve the likelihood of his plan’s passage.

Instead, on Wednesday, opponents introduced a number of floor amendments to restrict and narrow the implementation of the $200 billion program. Each time Hanger, who ran the show on the floor, and his coalition beat them back, despite his repeated assertions that he liked and supported the ideas, but opposed them because the governor opposes them. A colleague quipped, "Is he the governor’s spokesman?” After all, what’s the point of being a legislator? So much for Hanger’s promised, conservative and reformed Medicaid. It also includes a $600 million tax increase he previously opposed.

By all accounts, Virginia now will have one of the most liberal of Medicaid plans in the country, one similar to California’s. As President Pro Tempore Steve Newman (R-Forest) called it, "pure, unadulterated Obamacare.” It’s a California dream Virginia Democrats could never have imagined.

Stephen J. (Steve) Rossie is a Richmond-based public and government relations consultant. He has been a General Assembly lobbyist since 2006 and has written about Virginia government since 2007.


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