Monday, May 21, 2018

Budget Rumors and Games

It is now day 40 of the Special Session of the General Assembly. The Special Session was called for the sole purpose of completing work on a two-year state budget. Forty days and the Senate has yet to take action on any budget at all.

It is 34 days since the House of Delegates passed a bipartisan budget and sent it to the Senate for consideration. If it isn't clear where the roadblock is, let me paint it for you. It is the Republican Senate leadership. They continue to play games with our economy and play games with state, local, and school employees. Last week they played a game with us all when the Senate Finance Committee announced a meeting date and we all thought they might actually look at the House budget. They didn't. Instead they heard presentations on state revenues and on the differences between the House budget and the Senate budget (that doesn't really exist). Then they adjourned.

By the end of the week it was announced that the full Senate would come back on May 22 to continue working. In a hopeful sign, Speaker Kirk Cox has called the House back on May 23 just in case the Senate acts on something. Remember that in order to have a budget, it must be agreed to by both chambers. So each body must take up the other body's version of the budget before they come to an adopted budget.

Apparently even Speaker Cox and the Republican leadership in the House is not convinced the Senate isn't still playing games. In his press release Speaker Cox said, "The House of Delegates will reconvene on May 23rd at Noon to await action by the Senate of Virginia on House Bills 5001 and 5002. While it is still unclear exactly what action the Senate will take, we do expect to receive budget bills for the House to consider late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The House will act as quickly as possible as we look to finalize the state budget.”

So there is the reality of where we are, and the underground rumors that seem to be getting stronger.

Where we are: The fight is over Medicaid expansion in Virginia. That is the bottom line. The Governor and the House of Delegates both supported expanding Medicaid and investing the saved state revenues in public services, including schools and for teacher salaries.

The Senate has refused to budge on Medicaid and they continue to use state dollars for expenses that can be covered by Federal dollars. They also refuse to expand health care to the 400,000 Virginians who would become eligible under an expansion.

The Commonwealth's current fiscal year ends at midnight, June 30. If there is no budget by then, our state government will shut down. That won't happen, but the Senate Republicans know the closer to that date, the greater the pressure on everyone else to give up the fight. Keep in mind most local governments are required by law to have passed their budgets by April 1, and they have without real information on their level of state funding.

The rumors: There are meetings going on behind the scenes to get the Senate budget to a place where the House can easily agree to it. That would mean Medicaid expansion. There is no way the House Republicans, who have TWICE voted to expand, will back down now. They have risked far too much political capital. The Senate Finance Committee is meeting tomorrow, although no time has yet been set, to, one would hope, take up a budget. Senators Hanger and Wagner are now in the expansion corner with the 19 Senate Democrats, so once a budget gets to the floor, it will (should) pass.

If the budgets are similar, there won't be a conference to hammer out the differences, and we could have a biennial budget by Thursday or Friday. That's what I am hearing will happen, but, there have been too many games for me to completely buy this scenario. We must keep the pressure on our members of the Senate to expand Medicaid. The VEA has created an action alert urging the Senate to do what is right for Virginia. Click here to contact your Senator.

If the budgets are far enough apart that there isn't agreement, the bills will go to conference. That could drag all of this out for another week to ten days or more. Let's hope the latest rumors are true. Keep checking here for updates.