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State Senate Resignation Sends Virginia Budget Negotiations Into Twilight Zone

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Although it’s largely gone unnoticed, Virginia has been careening down the path to a budget showdown, and possible shutdown of state government, at the end of this month. At issue are the efforts of Governor Terry McAuliffe to take advantage of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that allow states to expand Medicaid coverage, with the Federal Government picking up most of the bill. Republicans in the state legislature have been generally opposed to the idea, with their primary objection being the fact that the PPACA subsidies are going to run out in a few years, leaving the state with a brand new entitlement costing hundreds of millions of dollars and not enough revenue to pay for it. For some time, it’s seemed as though McAuliffe has had something of an upper hand thanks to the small, single seat, Democratic advantage in the State Senate.

That advantage is about to go away, though, and the debate over Virginia’s budget is shifting to the GOP’s advantage:

RICHMOND — Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The news prompted outrage among Democrats — and accusations that Republicans were trying to buy the Senate with job offers in order to thwart McAuliffe’s proposal to expand health coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians.

Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said Republicans were unable to win the policy argument about Medicaid expansion, so they have resorted to other means.

“It’s astounding to me. The House Republican caucus will do anything and everything to prevent low-income Virginians from getting health care. . . . They figure the only way they could win was to give a job to a state senator,” Surovell said. “At least they can’t offer Terry McAuliffe a job. I hope Terry continues to stand up to these bullies.”

Puckett, a senator since 1998, did not respond to calls seeking comment. Other Republicans denied that Puckett was offered the jobs in exchange for his resignation.

In a statement, McAuliffe (D) acknowledged that Puckett’s resignation had created “uncertainty” for his plan to expand the federal-state health program for the poor to 400,000 uninsured Virginians. But he contended that he still had a majority of the Senate on his side.

“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially those in Southwest Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, issued a statement praising Puckett. “Although Senator Puckett has decided to end his tenure in the Senate of Virginia, his legacy there will endure,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City). “And, his commitment and service to the people of Southwest, who honored him with their votes in five successive elections, will continue.”

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) confirmed in a brief telephone interview that Puckett would resign Monday. Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the commission, confirmed that its executive committee is expected to meet and consider appointing him, perhaps this week.

Kilgore disputed the notion that Puckett was resigning in exchange for the tobacco commission job, but he said the resignation made Puckett available to take the position, which involves awarding economic development grants funded by the national tobacco litigation settlement. Puckett’s salary would be determined by the commission, Kilgore said.

“If he’s available, we would like to have him because of his knowledge of the area, and he formerly was on the tobacco commission for years, and he knew what we’re about,” Kilgore said.

Puckett’s unexpected departure will give the GOP a 20-to-19 majority in the Senate at a time when McAuliffe was counting on Senate support for his Medicaid plan. The GOP-dominated House is firmly opposed, and the disagreement has led to a budget standoff that could trigger a government shutdown if it is not resolved before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1. In addition, Puckett’s district is heavily Republican, and it will be difficult for Democrats to retain the seat in a special election and hang on to control of the Senate overall.

Puckett’s exit does not immediately sink McAuliffe’s chances in the Senate because three moderate Republicans in that chamber support expansion. But some of McAuliffe’s Senate allies have recently signaled their discomfort with the idea of letting the Medicaid push trigger a government shutdown.

And the resignation will come as two prominent Democrats are out of Virginia. Saslaw is in California visiting his newborn grandchild. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) is leaving on Thursday on a trip to South Africa that is expected to last through June 24. But she said she will return earlier if she is needed.

Once Puckett resigns, Senate Republicans are expected to take advantage of their newfound majority by calling members back to Richmond — something that nine members of the Senate can make happen. The legislature has been in a special session for months but has not been meeting regularly. With the Senate back in Richmond, the chamber’s new Republican majority could pass a budget without Medicaid expansion.

The reaction to this news is about what you’d expect. Virginia’s Republicans are ecstatic, while Democrats are referring to Puckett as a traitor. Nationally, those on the left are calling the apparent deal that led to Puckett’s resignation as bribery,  while John Cole wonders how something like this can be legal.

The truth, of course, is that while there is something unseemly about this whole arrangement where Puckett resigns, apparently gets a seat on the Tobacco Commission while his daughter gets confirmed to her Judgeship, and the GOP gets a majority in the State Senate that is likely to last until at least the 2015 midterm elections, it’s also a maneuver that is as old as politics itself. The practice of offering appointments, or patronage, or whatever it might be in exchange for a political favor of some kind is how political machines maintained themselves throughout the 19th and most of the 20th Centuries. There’s not really anything illegal about it, and I’m not sure that there is any solution to the “problem” outside of reducing the power of politicians to hand out this kind of patronage by reducing the power and scope of government itself.

As for what this means going forward in Virginia, that’s hard to say. For the moment at least, it will obviously embolden Republicans in Richmond to dig in their heels on the Medicaid expansion issue, which would seem to make the prospect of a shutdown on July 1st more likely. As noted, though, there are several Democrats in the State Senate who have expressed discomfort at the idea of shutting down the government over the Medicaid expansion issue, and if they start defecting then McAuliffe’s bargaining position will be even more weakened than it has been by Senator Puckett’s resignation. If I had to guess now, I’d say that the GOP ends up winning this round and the issue of Medicaid expansion gets punted until after the 2015 midterms.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A state senator motivated by naked self interest? Say it ain’t so!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. C. Clavin says:

    I guess we’ll see how big McAuliffe’s cojones are.
    Wasn’t there something similar in the Toomey/Sestak/Specter kerfuffle a few years back?

    I’d say that the GOP ends up winning this round and the issue of Medicaid expansion gets punted until after the 2015 midterms.

    And of course when Republicans win anyone who isn’t rich loses.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  3. C. Clavin says:

    More specifically 98,000 Virginians will lose if Republicans win.
    No insurance for you, poor people. Now go home and die you takers…you mooches!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Republicans in the state legislature have been generally opposed to the idea, with their primary objection being the fact that the PPACA subsidies are going to run out in a few years, leaving the state with a brand new entitlement costing hundreds of millions of dollars and not enough revenue to pay for it.

    Everything I see says the feds will continue to pick up 90% of the cost permanently. So the Rs are bullshiting. Is there anything substantive behind their opposition, or is this just another case of believing their own BS? They’ve been screaming Obamacare is evil so loudl and so long their base believes it, and they can’t back down?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  5. stonetools says:

    I sure hope Macauliffe digs in in this, and makes it very clear that approximately 100,000 Virginians will be denied health insurance if Medicaid expansion is denied. Opposing expanded Medicaid is going to be a loser long term for Republicans.
    Note Doug doesn’t even argue that opposing Medicaid expansion is justifiable on its merits-it just isn’t , period. It’s about as sensible as Virginia resisting school integration by closing its public schools. An earlier generation of Virginian politicians-that time Democrats-thought that was a good idea too, and pulled off the same kind of borderline illegal tactics to make it happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Wasn’t there something similar in the Toomey/Sestak/Specter kerfuffle a few years back?

    From Wikipedia:

    On May 28, 2010, the White House released an official report on the matter, authored by White House Counsel Robert F. Bauer, clarifying that Sestak had been approached about potential, uncompensated executive branch positions on senior advisory boards and stating Bauer’s official opinion that nothing inappropriate, illegal or unethical had taken place. The official report also stated that the offer had been made by former president Bill Clinton, on behalf of the Obama administration. Following the release of the report, Sestak issued a statement in which he essentially confirmed the contents of the White House report.
    Republican Congressman Darrell Issa alleged that such an offer and Sestak’s not reporting the offer could possibly have been felonies.

    Hmmm….wonder if Issa and the rest of the Republican noise machine will be accusing the Virginia Republicans of felonies in this case??? Yeah….most likely not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. rudderpedals says:

    VA’s getting as bad as Florida. Someone in the commonwealth really needs to introduce an Honest Services law and start taking on the delegates and senators selling their services to the highest bidder. And it needs to allow private enforcement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. stonetools says:

    Blue Virginia lets fly with both barrels here:

    Benedict Arnold. Judas Iscariot. Brutus. Quisling.

    Add to the names of history’s traitors one Phillip Puckett. This former Democrat apparently made a deal to resign his Senate seat just to hand the majority to the GOP. In return he gets – no, not thirty pieces of silver, but a seat on the Tobacco Commission and a judgeship for his daughter.

    Judges, you know, those people who are supposed to administer the law fairly, honestly and dispassionately? You might think that obtaining the job through such sleazebaggery would taint the rest of her career a bit.

    Is this act of openly bribing a state official even legal? All I know is that if Republicans want to play such unscrupulous, hardball, no-holds-barred politics, the answer is not to respond by playing patty cake with them. If they are going to take power through dishonest means, just playing along is not the way to honor or maintain a democracy.

    If they want a fight, let’s give them a fight. Let’s shout out our protest everywhere from social media to the streets. Democrats should boycott every institution rendered illegitimate by this dirty act, from the General Assembly to Mr. Puckett’s daughter’s courtroom.

    Virginia was born when the people in this colony could no longer brook the tyranny of King George III. From that fight we gained democratic governance. Now we need to fight to bring that principle back.

    Just a little hyperbolic, but quite the clarion call to action.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Dave D says:

    The practice of offering appointments, or patronage, or whatever it might be in exchange for a political favor of some kind is how political machines maintained themselves throughout the 19th and most of the 20th Centuries. There’s not really anything illegal about it, and I’m not sure that there is any solution to the “problem” outside of reducing the power of politicians to hand out this kind of patronage by reducing the power and scope of government itself.

    The problem with this shit is that it is another issue of malfeasance that has taken on a partisan posturing. This kind of implied quid pro quo is disgusting and shouldn’t continue to have a place in government. But I guess if “the people”, whose interests are not being represented here, try to do anything about it the politicians will do everything in their power to stop it, probably because of freedom.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. Rob in CT says:

    Shameless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  11. MikeSJ says:

    I wish someone (mabye even the press?) would have the balls to ask one of these anti medicare expansion Republicans if they are A-OK with people dying because they don’t have insurance.

    The same for this Puckett character. He needs to be asked every time he’s in public if he’s OK with a number of poor in his state dying because of what he did.

    Of course those dying are poor and often black so to the Republicans and Puckett getting called out on this may not be that big of a negative for them…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. stonetools says:

    @MikeSJ:

    Of course those dying are poor and often black so to the Republicans and Puckett getting called out on this may not be that big of a negative for them…

    Actually, a lot of people in that district -which is in southwest Virginia-are Appalachian white-the very folks are so often reflexively anti Obama. The sad thing is that they don’t seem to realize thas yet that expanded Medicaid would directly help them get access to health care. Its up to the Democrats to help these folks figure out what a satab in the back this is. From Digby:

    I can’t even imagine having the moral bankruptcy required to spend this much time and effort machinating to prevent poor people from getting health insurance. The people of Virginia are literally spending millions of dollars paying supposed public servants to spend their every waking hour trying to figure out how to bribe, cheat and scheme their way into stopping people from getting federally subsidized health insurance. It’s plain moral evil on a massive scale.

    Let this also be a reminder that there really, really, really is a big difference between the two parties. Even when it comes to an underwhelming Dem like McAuliffe. Yes, it’s important to try to get better Democrats than McAuliffe, hopefully through the primary process.

    But make no mistake. Terry McAuliffe and most of the Democrats in Virginia are trying to secure Medicaid benefits for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. And the Republican Party is pulling out every single trick in the arsenal to stop it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. MikeSJ says:

    @stonetools:

    People voting against thier direct self interest. Why do they do this?

    They get bamboozled with cultural red flags – abortion, gays, evolution. Because of the importance they place on these issues they vote Republican. OK I can understand that.

    On the other hand far too many of them are willing to bring harm to themselves, their families, thier friends and their communities just to avoid the terrifying thought that somewhere, somehow one of “Those People” is being helped.

    Until they get past that the Republicans will always have an advantage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. rudderpedals says:

    Here is a depressing report from the border between haves and have-nots: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/business/economy/uninsured-on-the-wrong-side-of-a-state-line.html?ref=us&pagewanted=all . It’s like something out of a China Meiville story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. David M says:

    It is still impolite to say the GOP health care plan is “Don’t get sick. And if you do get sick, die quickly.”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. @rudderpedals: You should read about how the Virginia Tobacco Commission (which distributes money designed to subsidize farmers and other businesses while they transition from tobacco production to alternative fields) has been used by members of the Commission to pass around money to family and friends.

    It was also the Tobacco Commission that Jonnie R. Williams, former head of Star Scientiifc, was trying to get money from (in addition to other state agencies).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. rudderpedals says:

    @Timothy Watson: Wow. Why not dump the cash from an airplane? (I know, the wrong people would get it)

    It doesn’t surprise me that everyone would like a piece of the treasure trove but man, to go back so soon after it just sent one guy to the slammer for 10 years is really ballsy. I think Bill Black would approve finding the commission has a criminogenic environment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Grewgills says:

    @rudderpedals:
    You get an upclick for the Mieville ref

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. An Interested Party says:

    The truth, of course, is that…it’s also a maneuver that is as old as politics itself.

    I wonder if Doug would be quite as sanguine if the roles were reversed…after all, I doubt he is in favor of Medicaid expansion in Virginia…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0