Once Again, Virginia Lawmakers Crush Governor's Hopes of Expanding Medicaid

Legislative Republicans again turned away Medicaid expansion in Virginia Wednesday during a one-day reconvene session that also saw all of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's vetoes upheld, but many of his attempted bill amendments undone.
by | April 6, 2017 AT 6:30 PM

By Travis Fain

Legislative Republicans again turned away Medicaid expansion in Virginia Wednesday during a one-day reconvene session that also saw all of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's vetoes upheld, but many of his attempted bill amendments undone.

That included an attempt, by amendment to a largely unrelated bill, to reinstate Virginia's prohibition against buying more than one hand gun a month. The law was rolled back under McAuliffe's Republican predecessor, and the governor sent the proposal back down after a gun smuggler busted in a New York sting bragged about using Virginia's lax laws to stockpile firearms.

Bills expanding gun rights, including one that would have given victims of domestic violence an automatic concealed carry permit when they take out a restraining order, went down because Republicans couldn't muster the two-thirds votes needed to overturn McAuliffe's vetoes. A McAuliffe attempt to rein in legislation requiring the release of police records after a suicide, also was shot down.

As with all other bills where the General Assembly rejected amendments, it's now up to the governor to either accept the bill without his amendments or veto the entire thing, a move the legislature could no longer undo.

McAuliffe's veto of a coal industry tax credit held, as did his veto of legislation to allow the concealed carry of switchblades, to outlaw "sanctuary cities" unwilling to enforce federal immigration law, a bill to let home-schooled children join public school sports teams and a requirement for parental notice, and an opt-out, when students read sexually explicit literature at school.

These outcomes, given that the Republican majority in the General Assembly is not a veto-proof one, were so expected that the Senate took up most of its override votes in a single block. Many of these issues will be fodder for the 2017 governor's race.

Democrats seized in particular Wednesday upon the failed Medicaid expansion, something McAuliffe has sought for four legislative sessions. The issue was re-invigorated after congressional Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, of which expansion is part and parcel.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democratic candidate for governor, held a brief press conference ahead of the reconvene session, making the moral and business case for expansion, which would use billions in federal tax dollars to provide health insurance to as many as 400,000 uninsured Virginians. State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, flanked Northam as he spoke.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, Northam's competition in the primary, also put out a statement blasting Republicans for blocking expansion. GOP legislators said they took the prudent path. Medicaid spending in Virginia has grown by by 8 to 10 percent a year, Appropriations Vice Chairman Steve Landes said, making it unsustainable even without expansion.

Democrats have argued expansion would actually save the state money as state expenses, including hospital reimbursements for charity care, are covered by federal spending.

Legislators also blocked McAuliffe's attempt Wednesday to require new disclosures on contracts held by state legislators or their firms. They also undid a $5 million cut the governor proposed for Jamestown/Yorktown's 2019 commemoration.

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox said the commemoration is more than a party, as the governor has termed it, and that it will have a massive economic impact.

If that's the case, Del. Marcus Simon asked, "why not $20 million?"

"At some point enough is enough," said Simon, D-Falls Church, before ticking off McAuliffe priorities the legislature cut, including funding for cyber security training, solar power projects and jail-based mental health assessments.

The disclosure amendment was a McAuliffe tack-on to the legislature's third re-write in as many years of new ethics rules put into place after former Gov. Bob McDonnell's indictment. As this rewrite was done, House Republicans added a measure stating legislators are allowed to have a personal interest in no-bid contracts awarded by the executive branch, judicial branch or local governments.

The language was perhaps most relevant to attorneys whose firms represent local government entities, but potentially affects other lines of business as well. It was pitched as a clarification of existing practice, and a number of attorneys in the legislature are members of firms that also do local government work.

The McAuliffe administration raised concerns about the change during the full session, and after session amended House and Senate versions of the ethics bill to require that legislators disclose these contracts in annual filings.

Legislators balked, with several saying they don't always know what contracts large companies they're involved with may have. State Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said he's a partner in more than 100 companies. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City, voted for the governor's change, but preached caution to his colleagues, saying his law firm has more than 100 attorneys.

Legislators from both parties held the line against the governor's attempt to water down legislation that would require police to release records to families after suicides and natural deaths. Senate Bill 1102 had passed the assembly unanimously, but McAuliffe changed it on advice from law enforcement to require the release of a case summary, not the underlying records.

On the Senate floor, state Sen. Bill Carrico, a former state trooper, said the change would spare families gruesome details. Others said it would keep disturbing pictures off the internet

State Sen. Scott Surovell, who sponsored the initial bill, said that's not law enforcement's role, and he noted some families want to double check police work. State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, told the chamber that he lost a brother to suicide, and he asked the senate to vote against the governor and give families closure.

"Family members have a lot of questions," he said.

Legislators agreed with McAuliffe on changes to Senate Bill 1398, which will now delay the closure of coal ash ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed while more study is given to whether its safe to cap ponds in place or if the toxic ash should be trucked to lined landfills. The matter was once hotly debated but Dominion, which owns these ponds, announced ahead of this one-day session that it would back the delay until 2018.

The day also brought a surprise retirement: Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, will not seek re-election after some 24 years in the House of Delegates. Albo's is a rare swing districts in the House, and Democrats were licking their chops Wednesday at the chance of a pickup.

Few expect Democrats to take the House in this year's elections, but they may eat into Republicans' 66-34 margin.

Albo, who chairs the House courts committee was treated to multiple standing ovations Wednesday, and he closed his farewell speech with "Dave Albo out," and by dropping his microphone next to his desk.

Del. Rick Morris' exit from the House was more low key. The Carrollton Republican, who faces a May trial on domestic abuse charges, said shortly after the full session wrapped that he wouldn't run for re-election, saying he wants to focus on his family.

His retirement went unremarked upon for nearly two hours as legislators praised Albo and several other departing members. Then Todd Gilbert, who will rise next session to Republican majority leader, stood up and said Morris was initially "fired up to run" this year.

Then he got a text message, Gilbert related, from his oldest daughter, who remembered their times together and wondered whether being in the House would allow Morris time with his younger children.

"He said that was it," said Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

Gilbert also predicted that Morris, who has maintained his innocence, will be exonerated. The House gave Morris a bipartisan standing ovation, typical of goodbyes. He stood up briefly and waved.

(c)2017 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)