Virginia GOP bashes Democrats’ absence

Speaker Howell: They are ‘not at all serious’ about passing a budget

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RICHMOND — As they sent over their $96 billion spending plan to a vacant chamber Tuesday evening, House Republicans accused Democrats of abdicating their responsibility to pass a timely budget, after the Senate had left town at the end of the first day of a special session convened this week to hammer out a deal.

House Speaker William J. Howell, flanked by dozens of Republicans, said earlier Tuesday that Democrats are “not at all serious about getting a budget done,” noting the absence of Senate Democrats on Capitol Square a day after Gov. Terry McAuliffe had proposed to expand Medicaid.

Mr. McAuliffe on Monday eschewed a plan advanced by Democrats during this year’s 60-day regular session to use federal money to help poor people buy private insurance. Instead, he rolled out his own two-year pilot program that would expand Medicaid to up to 400,000 Virginians and use about $225 million in anticipated savings to provide raises for state employees and teachers and invest in education, among other items.

But Mr. Howell, Stafford Republican, called those “phantom savings — savings I don’t think Virginians will ever see.”

Neither side is willing to move an inch yet on the question of expanding the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, disabled, and elderly in Virginia — a provision made optional in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling upholding the bulk of President Obama’s health care overhaul.

Democrats argue that expanding Medicaid is a win-win: The federal government would pick up the $2 billion-a-year tab for the first few years, and the state can opt out if the feds don’t hold up their end of the bargain or the anticipated savings don’t materialize.

Mr. McAuliffe said Monday he thinks the legislature can finish its work on Medicaid and the budget in about three weeks. The two chambers are far apart on a two-year spending plan, but both advanced changes to the “caboose budget” that closes out the fiscal year through June 30.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, Hanover Republican, said Mr. McAuliffe’s adding 104 amendments to outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s blueprint after both sides had been close at the end of the session was another setback.

“It is going to take a long time to come to any sort of resolution,” he said.

And Delegate S. Chris Jones, Suffolk Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the House has no plans to take up a budget bill that the House passes and the Senate subsequently uses to advance its own version.

“You can look at any legislature across the nation and the budget always originates in the people’s House,” Mr. Jones said. “They lay their budget on ours, they send it back — we never take up the Senate’s budget.”

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico said the health care “coverage gap” has become a crisis for hospitals, businesses, and working families and it’s the Republicans who aren’t willing to compromise on expanding Medicaid.

“We have to fix this problem, and we can’t afford to wait,” he said.

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