Politics

Virginia Senator's Resignation Leaves One Less Vote for Medicaid Expansion

by | June 9, 2014
 

By Julian Walker

A Southwest Virginia state senator has resigned effective today, a decision that could have implications for the ongoing budget stalemate tied to Medicaid expansion.

The resignation from Sen. Phillip Puckett of Russell County could also cost Democrats lasting control of the Senate if they can't retain one of their last rural footholds in the state.

There are apparent benefits, however, for Puckett: His resignation clears the way for his daughter's confirmation as a local judge -- a confirmation that Republicans had blocked. It could also land him a job on the state's tobacco commission.

This winter, Martha P. Ketron was denied continued tenure on a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court by Senate Republicans, citing a tradition against appointing active legislators' kin to the bench.

Ketron was named an interim judge last July by Circuit Court judges in Virginia's 29th Judicial Circuit with courts in Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties, but she needed legislative confirmation for a six-year term on the bench.

The brouhaha over Puckett's daughter came to a head not long after Democrats in January snatched control of the Virginia Senate, which was split 20-20 between the parties but fell to Democrats because of newly elected Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam's tie-breaking vote.

An aide to Puckett, a senator since 1998, said the lawmaker was unavailable Sunday evening.

Puckett's decision left Democrats scrambling; the Senate Caucus planned a Sunday evening strategy conference call.

It would leave the now-recessed Senate's balance 20-19 in favor of Republicans, pending an as-yet unscheduled special election in a district whose voters pulled the lever for GOP candidates by roughly 2-to-1 margins in the past two statewide election.

Republican sources Sunday mentioned Southwest Virginia Dels. Will Morefield and Ben Chafin, whose law firm once employed Ketron, as potential GOP candidates for Puckett's seat.

Despite district voting trends, Henrico County Sen. Donald McEachin, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said, "I anticipate when the 2015 session is in, the 38th District will be represented by a Democrat."

Puckett's departure costs Senate Democrats a critical vote in the ongoing state budget standoff. Democrats won't yield on the budget without getting their way on Medicaid expansion.

The Republican-controlled House of Delegates is equally stubborn in its opposition to accepting money through the Affordable Care Act so medical insurance can be purchased for as many as 400,000 poor Virginians as a condition of passing a budget for the two-year period starting July 1.

Virginia runs the risk of a state government shutdown if a budget accord isn't found this month.

In a statement, pro-Medicaid expansion Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he is "deeply disappointed" by Puckett's decision "and the uncertainty it creates" at this critical phase of budget deliberations.

A Democratic official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was more biting:

That Democrat blamed Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment for "using Puckett's daughter's judgeship as collateral to convince him to turn his back on the people who elected him. This is shameful back-room politicking at its worst."

Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer denied any pressure from his side, noting the Senate GOP has consistently opposed judgeships for lawmakers' relatives.

"It's nice to know that after 16 years of service, Sen. Puckett can count on his fellow Democrats to treat him with respect upon his retirement," Ryer said.

(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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