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Senate panel advances budget

RICHMOND—The Senate Finance Committee advanced a new state budget without Medicaid expansion, but the deal fast-tracked by legislative leaders was delayed Thursday night after a Republican senator proposed an amendment aimed at preventing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe from expanding the program without legislative approval.

More than four hours after the scheduled start of a Senate floor session, GOP senators continued to wrangle over Sen. Dick Black’s amendment behind closed doors, threatening to derail an agreement legislative leaders reached this week to enact a budget in time to avoid a possible government shutdown after the current budget expires June 30.

Because of lagging revenues, the budget would slash spending by nearly $900 million and require a withdrawal from the state’s savings account to close a budget shortfall approaching $1.6 billion. Among the biggest losers are state workers and teachers, who won’t get the raises that had been included in earlier versions of the proposed budget.

The General Assembly ended its regular session in March without passing a budget because of a partisan split on Medicaid expansion, McAuliffe’s top legislative priority. Republicans who control the House of Delegates oppose expanding the program under President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. McAuliffe has not ruled out trying to expand Medicaid by executive fiat, although it is unclear whether he has legal authority to do so.

The budget and Medicaid deadlock appeared to break when Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett resigned Monday, giving Republicans a one-seat advantage in the Senate, but Black’s amendment threw what was supposed to be a smooth budget vote into turmoil.

Meantime, Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, one of a handful of Republicans favoring a modified Medicaid expansion plan emphasizing the use of private insurers, introduced such a bill. House Republicans have agreed to consider the bill later this year, provided it clears the Senate.

“We’ve always said that whatever form the bill takes, we will give it a fair hearing,” said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox.

Legislators would have to return to Richmond in a few days to consider any amendments McAuliffe offers on the budget and elect new judges authorized by the spending plan. They could either extend the session to deal with Medicaid or deal with it in a special session.

The judgeships were among the few new spending items that survived a budget-cutting process. Senate and House budget negotiators already were looking at a $1.35 billion shortfall before revenue collections declined by 21 percent in May, requiring further belt-tightening.

Rob Jones of the Virginia Education Association lamented the withdrawal of planned teacher raises.

“It’s just tough,” he said. “I understand the cards they were dealt, but this is just going to put us further behind. Are we doing our best to attract quality teachers to Virginia? No.”

The cuts came from increased spending that had been proposed in earlier versions of the budget, essentially keeping funding for most programs at or near current levels. Planned new spending for higher education was cut by $184 million. Public schools took a $166 million hit, although the budget retains additional funding linked to enrollment growth.

Health and human resources spending was trimmed by $80 million. But legislators retained $50 million in additional spending for mental health, which became a priority after state Sen. Creigh Deeds was wounded by a son who then committed suicide hours after being released from an emergency custody order.

 

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