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RICHMOND — Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly approved budget proposals last week that include funding to open a long-delayed state prison in Grayson County.
The Virginia Senate voted 36-4 to pass its budget plan, which includes Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal for $14.3 million to open the River North Correctional Facility near Independence, which was completed in 2010 and then mothballed because the state could not afford to operate it.
The House passed its budget by a vote of 74-22. It contains the same $14.3 million as the Senate budget, plus an additional $3 million to allow the facility to open in October.
Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) was pleased with the outcome, he said in a news release on Friday: “For the last several years, we have worked tirelessly to secure the necessary funds to open the River North Correctional Facility. Today, at long last, a budget has passed that would fund the facility and put hundreds of Southwest Virginians back to work.
“Work still remains to be done, and I look forward to working with Gov. McDonnell and the House of Delegates to finalize our state budget.”
Each house will vote on the other’s budget plan this week, and negotiators from the two chambers will work to reconcile differences between the bills. The bills revise the $86.5 billion budget that expires June 30, 2014.
The 1,024-bed medium-security facility is expected to employ more than 300 people when it is operational.
Since 2010, it has employed only a skeleton crew of workers, and the state has spent about $700,000 a year on maintenance and upkeep.
The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates set the stage for negotiations over expanding Medicaid on Feb. 7 when they passed competing plans to amend the state’s two-year budget.
The Senate approved a budget provision that would allow Virginia to expand Medicaid eligibility in January 2014 if the state agency administering the program can obtain federal approval of cost-containment reforms. At least 250,000 low-income Virginians could gain coverage if the state proceeds with Medicaid expansion under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has said that he opposes expanding the state-federal Medicaid eligibility without reforms, and has questioned the federal government’s ability to keep its funding commitment.
The Republican-dominated House of Delegates took a more deliberate approach than the Senate. It approved a provision that would require the federal government to approve the state’s reforms before the General Assembly voted on authorizing expansion in its 2014 session. Democrats argued that would delay implementation and cost the state up to $3 billion in federal funds tied to expanding the program, which serves poor, disabled and elderly populations.
The federal government will pay for 100 percent of the increased Medicaid enrollment for three years beginning in 2014 and gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020. Virginia would receive $23 billion in federal funds for the expansion through 2022. The state’s cost over the same period would be an estimated $137.5 million.
The Senate’s Medicaid provision won over Democrats who had voted against the budget plan in the Senate Finance Committee on Sunday.
The full Senate passed its budget bill by a vote of 36-4.
“I would hope that we would seize this opportunity with enthusiasm and recognize it for the historic opportunity that it is,” said Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke).
Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County) said lawmakers have struggled with the political and financial implications of expanding Medicaid.
“If we can adopt this amendment, it will create a clear path forward for us to be able to do it Virginia’s way; to reform Medicaid and, at the same time, provide the services that we want to provide, that our citizens require and demand, and under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act they will already be paying for,” Hanger said.
In the House, Republican leaders said they remain reluctant to commit fully to Medicaid expansion.
“How on earth is that going to happen with a federal government that’s not only broke, but is totally broke?” said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
The House passed its budget by a vote of 74-22.
Both budget plans include pay raises for state workers, college faculty and public schoolteachers. The budget already includes a 2 percent raise for state employee that would take effect in August. The Senate plan would increase the raise to 3 percent, and the House plan includes $17.3 million to adjust pay for senior employees whose salaries lag behind the pay given to newer hires. Both plans would give 3 percent raises to college faculty.
Both budget plans include McDonnell’s proposed 2 percent pay raise for teachers and additional funds to provide the same salary increase for school support staff.
Both budget plans extend a grandfather clause for school divisions that have state waivers allowing them to start classes before Labor Day. The Senate has killed separate legislation to give all school divisions the ability to start before the September holiday. But the Senate and House approved budget provisions that would extend waivers for the 2013-14 academic year.
The Senate budget also strikes $600,000 that McDonnell had sought for a new statewide school board that would take charge of chronically failing schools. Both houses have passed bills to create the Opportunity Education Institution, but the Senate bill is conditioned on approval of state funds.
“I certainly hope and expect that we’ll work it out in conference,” said Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), who sponsored the House bill.