- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Virginia Senate sent a dead-on-arrival two-year budget to the House of Delegates on Tuesday with a provision to effectively expand Medicaid coverage in Virginia, even as a new poll shows Democrats might not have the groundswell of support on the issue that they’re claiming.

House Republicans, having passed their own $96 billion spending blueprint two weeks ago, took no action on the Senate budget, which included a plan to recapture federal Medicaid money for people to purchase private insurance that the House had already rejected during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

The standoff prompted Gov. Terry McAuliffe to call a special session, but there was no outward sign Tuesday that the two sides are anywhere closer to a compromise on an issue a majority of voters in the state do not support, according to a poll released Tuesday.

Forty-nine percent of likely voters favor accepting federal money for Medicaid expansion, compared with 43 percent who oppose it and 8 percent who aren’t sure, according to the poll released Tuesday by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling for the liberal group Moveon.org Political Action.

Senate Democrats, however, insisted they’re winning the public relations battle.

“We’re winning this thing,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. “I mean, who are they down to, huh? The Cato Institute? Rush Limbaugh? Give me a damn break. That’s all they got left. That’s all they got left. Rush Limbaugh and the Cato Institute. And the tea party.”

The issue does largely split on party lines, according to the poll. Eighty-five percent of Democrats say the state should accept the federal funds to expand Medicaid, while 11 percent say Virginia should not. About a fifth of Republicans say Virginia should expand Medicaid, while two-thirds say the state should not.

Among independents, 53 percent oppose expansion and 40 percent are in favor.

A poll released in February by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy showed 56 percent of Virginians supported expansion, though the percentage of people opposed to the idea ticked up to 54 percent when they were asked if they favored expansion if the federal government did not provide its share of subsidies.

Under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, the feds pick up the tab for the first three years for states that expand Medicaid eligibility to people with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The 2014 poverty level for a family of four is $23,850.

For Virginia, that figure amounts to about $2 billion per year. After three years, the federal subsidy winds down to 90 percent.

In the Senate-passed budget, the private, so-called “Marketplace Virginia” option recovers the federal Medicaid funding in order to purchase private health insurance plans for hundreds of thousands of needy Virginians. Unlike straight expansion, the language would require participants to contribute up to 5 percent of total household income for health care expenses “as appropriate,” among other provisions.

Also wading into the battle for public opinion this week is the Virginia chapter of Americans For Prosperity, the anti-tax group funded by billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch, which is up on broadcast and cable television throughout the state with an ad that shows Mr. McAuliffe talking about the issue during one of last year’s gubernatorial debates.

“No budget will be shut down in Virginia over the Medicaid expansion,” Mr. McAuliffe says in the video clip. “I will work in a bipartisan way to get it done.”

“But now McAuliffe’s doubling down on Obamacare — bringing D.C. gridlock to Virginia and threatening a government shutdown,” a narrator continues.

For his part, Mr. McAuliffe recently said on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program that the only ones talking about a government shutdown in Virginia are House Republicans.

But House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, said Tuesday that Mr. McAuliffe can send down any proposal he wants and the body would gladly debate it — just not under the current circumstances.

“We are willing to have that debate, but not with the threat of a government shutdown looming,” he said.

If the two sides cannot agree, they run the risk of a shutdown once the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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