- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2014

Republicans on Monday acted quickly on their newly secured majority in the Virginia Senate, announcing plans to call lawmakers into session to resolve a protracted dispute over Medicaid expansion and the state’s budget after the sudden resignation of a crucial Democrat.

The development delivers a setback to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his plan to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income residents as part of the Affordable Care Act. The House of Delegates opposed expansion while the Senate, which was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, supported it. That left the chambers at an impasse, with the threat of a government shutdown looming on July 1 if lawmakers could not resolve the issue to pass the state’s two-year, $96 billion budget.

But the resignation Monday of state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, Tazewell Democrat, gave Republicans a 20-19 edge in the Senate, where Democrats had exercised effective control because of the tiebreaking vote of the Democratic lieutenant governor.

Word of a possible budget resolution quickly followed amid concerns that continued uncertainty around the issue could affect the state’s financial standing.

Senate Republicans, along with President Pro Tem Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, sent a letter Monday to the Senate clerk to call lawmakers back to Richmond at 5 p.m. Thursday. The House later announced plans to reconvene.

“The ultimate goal is to restart the budget process,” a Republican aide said.

Democrats, meanwhile, were left with few options other than caterwauling about reports that Mr. Puckett stepped down in order to receive a position on the Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission.

In a written statement Monday, Mr. Puckett dismissed reports that he was resigning to take the position, saying he was never formally offered a spot on the panel.

Mr. McAuliffe called the situation “unacceptable.”

“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially in Southwest Virginia,” he said in a statement Sunday.

Republicans had urged Mr. McAuliffe to pass a budget and consider Medicaid expansion afterward. But the Democratic governor resisted and was reportedly exploring the limits of his authority to implement Medicaid expansion unilaterally and to keep the government open even without a spending plan.

The office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, recently retained A.E. Dick Howard, who helped write the modern state constitution, as a consultant to provide advice if July 1 approached with no budget.

Those preparations now appear to be academic.

By late Monday, Mr. Puckett’s fellow Democrats were directing their anger toward unspecified “Virginia Republicans.”

“Instead of working on ways to compromise on a budget, they have resorted to brokering shady deals behind the backs of their fellow legislators and constituents,” said Robert Dempsey, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Mr. Puckett wrote that his daughter, who has been appointed to serve in a temporary capacity as a juvenile court judge, cannot be confirmed permanently to the position as long as he is a member of the General Assembly because of ethics rules that generally prohibit the appointments of judges who are directly related to sitting legislators.

“But this is not the sole reason for my resignation,” he said. “My family is dealing with several difficult issues that need our attention. These are private matters and I ask that you respect our privacy in working through them as a family.”

He also wrote that it is his “heartfelt prayer” that the General Assembly will be able to pass some form of Medicaid expansion.

Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics, said the sudden resignation now makes the prospect of a budget deal before July 1 much more likely — and the prospects of legislative action to expand Medicaid all but dead for this year.

“The real question is whether Gov. McAuliffe is going to implement some or all of it administratively,” he said. “I think this is very concerning to him about what happened.”

Mr. Holsworth said he thinks that eventually some form of expanded health coverage will happen, but that Mr. McAuliffe doesn’t have the mandate on the issue that he is claiming.

“His mandate was more negative than positive — he was not Ken Cuccinelli,” Mr. Holsworth said. “He couldn’t say that he had any kind of serious mandate from the public to do this, because it was not an integral part of the campaign in any way.”

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