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Special Session: Clock Management
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA – The House of Delegates reconvened, brought to the floor and passed its new budget proposal. It contains the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, just as its original budget did.

Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) and their merry band of rump Republicans — only 19 of the 51 in their caucus voted for it and none of Cox’s leadership team — claimed that this version of "conservative” Medicaid is even better than its first attempt as it has more controls on it.

So proud of it, they are, that it’s not mentioned in the GOP caucus’ latest fundraising appeal that warns of a left wing Democrat takeover of the House. That would be the same Democrats whom they gladly joined in passing the largest welfare expansion in Virginia history.

Neither chamber creates its own budget from scratch. Instead, budget writing lawmakers take the executive budget submitted by the governor and mold it into their own. The necessity of a special session gave first-year Governor Ralph Northam an unusual opportunity since that particular two-year spending blueprint is produced by the outgoing chief executive.

Northam tweaked that budget from Terry McAuliffe, released in December — seemingly ancient days ago — and resubmitted it. And people doubt the ghost stories about the governor’s mansion.

Now it’s sitting in the Senate. Pretty much literally, which prompted a resumption of intra-party attacks. Cox’s statements on Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg), who has led GOP Senate opposition to Medicaid expansion, are more pointed than on opposition Democrats, now blaming the senator for refusing to act on the new budget bill.

Meanwhile, Norment scheduled the Senate to return to Richmond later this month. He has assured the public in interviews that there will be a budget by June. The question is whether he is delaying the inevitable or successfully running out the clock. Senators Emmet Hanger (R-Augusta County) and Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) have both signaled intentions to break off if certain conditions are met. Each has different concerns that may not be compatible.

Both senators would be needed to reject a Senate version without Medicaid expansion and adopt the House version. However, if only one defects, it leaves the Senate deadlocked at 20- 20 and the lieutenant governor cannot vote on the budget.

The danger is that if an expansion-less budget gets to the governor and he amends it with an Obamacare package and whatever is needed to persuade either Hanger or Wagner — and, perhaps, without any of the so-called "conservative controls” — only one Republican defection would be needed as the Democrat lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, can vote on amendments.

The clock is ticking. If Senate Republicans can hold together and pass a bill without Medicaid expansion and force a conference committee, it can kick the can well into June and a budget is needed by July 1. Virginia has never begun a new fiscal biennium without a budget. That would seriously throw the commonwealth’s prestigious Triple-A bond rating into doubt and no politician wants that on an opponent’s television ad.

But pushing it to the limit — Norment also wants a new revenue projection to better gauge what money the state has to spend — may force the Obamacare advocates to scrap their plans and try again next year. It’s the political version of clock management that has the commonwealth on edge.

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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