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Legislators depart capitol without budget

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Failure to pass a budget before July 1 could send state government into a shutdown.

By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — Mental health reform? Check.
Ethics reform? Check.
State budget to fund core government services? Nope.
Hopelessly divided over Medicaid expansion, General Assembly partisans departed the Capitol on Saturday afternoon at the close of this winter’s 60-day session without agreement on the next two-year budget.
The homebound lawmakers are free to raise campaign cash in the interim, but they won’t be away long: Gov. Terry McAuliffe is calling them back for another try March 24. McAuliffe anticipates a special session lasting three weeks.
After the adjournment, McAuliffe said there was productivity on several fronts during the legislative session: education, transportation, veterans issues and workforce development.
But the key area where it was lacking is the most critical task confronting the legislature: producing a $96 billion budget to fund an array of state and local government programs.
Failure to pass it before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year could send Virginia into a government shutdown.
The holdup is Medicaid expansion.
McAuliffe, fellow Democrats and a working Senate majority favor a “Marketplace Virginia” model to recover $1.7 billion annually in federal tax dollars through the Affordable Care Act and use it to subsidize private health care for an estimated 250,000 uninsured Virginians.
The idea has support from interest groups, including hospitals and businesses, said the governor and legislative supporters who refuse to separate Medicaid and the budget, which House Republican leaders want.
The House GOP is adamantly against the “Marketplace” proposal, saying the plan has been insufficiently fleshed out for serious consideration and should be taken up on its own.
They remain reluctant to grow a Medicaid system they say is plagued by waste, fraud and inefficiency without first fixing it, and they are wary of banking on federal promises to cover much of the cost for new enrollees.
Two high-profile issues on which negotiators navigated to a middle ground were mental health and ethics reforms.
Focus on the former was inspired by the suicide of state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son in November 2013.
Austin “Gus” Deeds, 24, attacked his father, then took his own life at their Bath County home hours after he was discharged from hospitalization. A six-hour emergency custody order had expired before a psychiatric bed was found for him.
An accord between the House of Delegates and Senate extends the emergency custody period to 12 hours and requires hospitalization at a state facility at the eight-hour mark if private placement isn’t found.
It also requires the state to maintain a real-time bed registry, and it mandates enhanced coordination between law enforcement agencies that execute custody orders and community services boards whose clinicians evaluate patients and seek bed space for them.
Deeds is hopeful this plan will prevent people who need care from being discharged too soon, a practice known as “streeting.”
“I think what happened with my situation was inexcusable anyway,” Deeds said. “I think under the current law, my son should have found — they should have had a place for him. But we’ve changed the whole equation.”
The General Assembly also passed bipartisan legislation overhauling the ethics rules governing state officials, spurred by the gift-and-loan scandal in which former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife are facing federal corruption charges.
The legislation tightens financial reporting requirements and establishes an ethics oversight panel. The final version places a $250 annual cap on gifts to an official from a lobbyist. That goes further than the original proposal, which would have allowed unlimited gifts as long as each one was worth less than $250.
The cap does not apply to meals, trips and sports outings — a loophole that left critics unsatisfied.
In both cases, implementing some of those policies takes money that’s tied up in the budget stalemate.
Over the past decade, the General Assembly has routinely blown past its deadlines for approving biennial budgets. Sometimes they’ve missed it by a few days, other times by weeks and months.
They went more than a month over in 2012. Six years before that, they didn’t agree until late June, days before the start of the new fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) said missing the deadline is “not a big deal. We’ve done this numerous times.”
Saslaw said Democrats and the governor won’t accept a budget without Medicaid expansion, and he wasn’t optimistic about resolving the impasse in the upcoming special session.
Sen. Jeff McWaters (R-Virginia Beach) wasn’t hopeful about the prospect for success, either: “It’s one of these kind of binary issues. There’s not a lot of ability to come to the middle.”
McWaters, a retired health care executive, said there’s broad sentiment to help the uninsured, but there is a vast divide on how to do that. Eventually, he said, he expects the governor to unilaterally expand Medicaid. When asked, a McAuliffe spokesman downplayed that idea.
Before the session concluded, lawmakers also passed bipartisan legislation reducing to 17 from 22 the number of standardized tests that must be taken by students in elementary and middle school. They also instituted a two-year delay in implementation of a law passed last year establishing an A-F grading scale for public schools.
In a swipe at McAuliffe, House Republicans prevailed in their refusal to confirm his appointment of Boyd Marcus as chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Marcus, a longtime Republican consultant, had switched sides and worked on McAuliffe’s campaign last fall.
Going home for a few weeks gives lawmakers a respite from governing and has an ancillary benefit — it allows them to resume political fundraising that is legally prohibited during General Assembly regular sessions.
Returning for overtime costs taxpayers: The one-day tab for all 140 lawmakers to be in Richmond is $41,000. It’s nearly $142,000 for a five-day stretch.
It isn’t clear whether every General Assembly member will be present for each day of the upcoming session.