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Months late, Virginia General Assembly finalizes state budget

Loudoun state Del. Tag Greason has shaved his beard.

Perhaps more importantly, Virginia has a state budget for the biennium beginning next week.

Following a three-month impasse on state budget negotiations between lawmakers in a split-party General Assembly, legislators returned to Richmond Monday and approved a two-year, $96 billion spending plan that doesn't include expanded Medicaid health care to as many as 400,000 uninsured residents. The Medicaid fight was the primary issue holding up budget approval; it led the Republican Greason and one of his House colleagues to grow a highly-publicized "no budget, no shave" beard.

Monday's action comes three days after Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, at a press conference in Richmond, announced he would sign the budget – avoiding a state government shutdown – but not before vetoing a string of line items in the spending proposal.

Key vetoes included eliminating the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission and striking a Republican-launched amendment that would have limited McAuliffe's ability to expand Medicaid without approval from the state legislature.

But Republican House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell used parliamentary procedure Monday night to rid the budget of two of McAuliffe's vetoes. Howell said those vetoes -- including the one that would've provided a more clear path for the governor to expand Medicaid without the legislature's approval -- were out of line with the Constitution of Virginia.

“These are not decisions I make lightly," Howell said in a prepared statement. "As I have said before, I am committed to upholding the procedures, rules, traditions and integrity of the office of Speaker and the Virginia House of Delegates. I cannot idly allow unconstitutional actions to be considered by this body."

Democratic leaders were miffed, saying that by ruling on the governor's veto, Howell "denied it an up-or-down vote in the legislature."

“Speaker Howell’s transparently partisan decree means legislators never even got to vote on Gov. McAuliffe’s veto,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin said in a statement. “Instead of letting legislators do their job, he took matters into his own hands and prevented the fair debate that Virginians expect and deserve. This is not the Virginia way — it’s the kind of hyper-partisan obstruction that voters expect from Washington. All Virginians deserve better — especially the countless uninsured families whom House Republicans refuse to help.”

Virginia's part-time state legislators routinely finalize a state budget by the close of each regular session, which typically concludes in late winter. This year, a special session was called when lawmakers adjourned without completing work on the budget. Yet even the special session yielded little progress.

A breakthrough in the budget negotiations came June 9 when former Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett abruptly resigned his seat, sparking controversy and tipping power in the upper house from Democrats to the GOP.

In addition to the power-shift, lawmakers were nudged to action by a growing state revenue shortfall, now estimated at more than $1.5 billion. Without approving a budget, the state isn't allowed to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in the commonwealth's rainy day fund.

Commenting on Monday's movement, Gov. McAuliffe said he plans to "remain focused on expanding access to health care for Virginia residents."

“With respect to the Speaker’s ruling on my veto of the Stanley floor amendment, I am continually surprised and disappointed by the lengths to which Republicans in the House of Delegates will go to prevent their own constituents from getting access to health care," the governor said in a statement. "Instead of putting all of my vetoes through the process prescribed by the Constitution of Virginia, House Republicans robbed the voters of their voice by using a procedural gimmick to obstruct the normal legislative process where this veto was concerned."

Click here to read the June 20 story "Governor will sign budget, enact several line-item vetoes."

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