RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday ordered state legislators to return to Richmond in April to wrap up work on the state budget, something that a Medicaid fight has so far kept them from doing.
Northam (D) called the April 11 special session three days after the legislature adjourned its 60-day regular session without sending a two-year budget bill to his desk. Budget negotiations stalled over whether to allow more low-income Virginians to be enrolled in Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor.
“Virginians sent us to Richmond to work together to make life better for every family, no matter who they are or where they live,” said Northam, who won office last year on a promise to expand the program. “We can live up to that responsibility by passing a budget that expands health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who need it.”
During the regular session, the House passed a budget bill that called for expanding Medicaid eligibility to as many as 400,000 uninsured Virginians. The Senate’s budget plan did not expand the program, which currently covers 1 million residents.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will pay 90 percent of the $2 billion-a-year cost of expanding the program in Virginia. The plan passed by the House would pay the state’s 10 percent share by taxing hospitals.
Republicans narrowly control both chambers, and most Republicans staunchly opposed expansion for four years under Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe (D). They predicted the state would wind up stuck with the whole tab. They also voiced objections to extending an entitlement program to able-bodied adults, no matter how poor.
Expansion would be available to people with incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $16,643 for an individual and $28,180 for a family of three.
Opposition in the House softened after Democrats nearly took control of the chamber in November, picking up 15 seats in an anti-President Trump wave. But there has been no discernible shift in the Senate, which did not face voters last year.
As a result, their rival spending plans were unusually far apart. The Senate budget was lean, while the House showered $370 million in projected Medicaid savings on schools, state employees and other priorities. Budget negotiators soon declared themselves stuck, and legislators went home Saturday knowing they would have to come back to try again. They must have a state spending plan in place by July 1 to avoid a government shutdown.
The two chambers could not even agree on the mechanics of calling the special session, which is why it fell to Northam to order them back to work. Northam also directed Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne to continue working with budget negotiators, presumably with hopes of hammering out a deal by April 11.
“Speaker Cox is hopeful that everyone is able to return to Richmond with clear minds and a fresh perspective on the budget,” said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Senate Republicans said: “We are looking forward to continuing our work.”