State Budget Stuck In Neutral

Posted: April 9, 2014

HARRISONBURG — The Senate and House of Delegates reconvened for special session Tuesday but both recessed without getting any closer to reaching agreement on a two-year, $96 billion state budget.

The Senate did approve a budget by a 22-15 vote — three senators were absent — but didn’t act on the spending plan the House passed two weeks earlier.

Then, four hours later, the GOP-led House met but didn’t bring the Senate’s budget to a vote.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said the Senate traditionally acts on the House budget first, and then the two chambers head to a committee of delegates and senators to reach a consensus.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, predicted Tuesday’s occurrence in an interview last week, noting that the House is considered “the body closest to the people,” which is why that chamber’s plan is the starting point in negotiations.

“They may just send us their budget bill,” he said Thursday. “We’re not going to play that game.”

Indeed, delegates did not, leaving uncertain the next move in the budget process: Both sides want the other to act on its spending plan before forming a committee.

Market Out Of Place?

The budget sticking point, as has been the case through the regular session that ended March 8 and since the special session started March 24, is whether to expand Medicaid to as many as 400,000 Virginians. In the budget approved Tuesday, the Senate includes “Marketplace Virginia,” a form of Medicaid expansion where federal dollars would subsidize private insurance premiums for low-income residents in need of health care.

As they did during regular session, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, voted against the plan, while Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, supported it.

The federal government is supposed to pay 100 percent of expansion costs for the first three years in which states expand and 90 percent each year after that, a promise that most of Virginia’s Republican lawmakers fear won’t be kept.

Obenshain warned colleagues that if the federal government does not grant a waiver for the commonwealth’s marketplace, Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe, an expansion supporter, would then have the authority to unilaterally grow Medicaid in the Senate plan.

“It undoes what we did last year,” Obenshain said.

The Senate’s budget takes power away from the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission, which was created last year to oversee reforms and requires a majority of its 10 members — five senators and five delegates — to approve expansion.

At a meeting on Monday, the panel’s members were told that all reforms in the current budget have been met. Hanger is the commission’s chairman.

The marketplace will bring $225 million in savings to Virginia, most of which will go into a reserve fund, senators say. The “one notable exception” is $17 million each fiscal year to create 500 additional intellectual disability waiver slots for people in need of care, Hanger said on the Senate floor.

“Certainly, you could make an argument for doing a whole lot more,” he said.

On the House floor, Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said the marketplace is “flawed and unworkable,” citing issues other states have had with opt-out clauses and costs. He said the fact it still relies on borrowing federal dollars is a problem: The “best case” is it will cost Virginia $200 million, he said, while the “worst case” is $1 billion.

 Medicaid helps with the health care costs for low-income families with children, the disabled and others.  The cost for Medicaid is about $7 billion a year in Virginia, or roughly 20 percent of the state’s budget.

House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said the state has lost $477 million in federal tax money since Jan. 1 because expansion has not happened.

“There’s no way to get the [Senate] bill in conference without us acting today,” he said on the House floor. “If you don’t like it, amend it and send it back [to the Senate].”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Senate leaders want the House to act first on the Senate budget so the Senate does not inject Marketplace Virginia into the House plan and then have it shot down by House Speaker Bill Howell for not being “germane” or pertinent to the bill.

“That would end it,” Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, told the newspaper.

A similar process happened two years ago when Howell declared that Republican Senate amendments to a House bill addressing voting precincts in 39 House districts were not germane to the original legislation, effectively defeating it.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com



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