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Round and round it goes

SoVaNow.com / May 29, 2014
I have come to take perverse, frankly regrettable pride in being able to knuckle under deadlines and get stuff done. (At least most of the time.) This is what results from life lived on the clock — a blasé attitude towards time itself. As a matter of fact, the phlegmatic-pneumatic pace of the media business is so pervasive that I’m left to wonder: If I didn’t have a deadline hanging over my head, would I ever get anything accomplished?

Probably not. Yet the high-wire, quick-trigger mindset is not something that resides solely among journalists, term paper writers, bomb disposal squads and Twitter geeks. Procrastination, followed by bursts of high energy, pretty much describes the way the entire country now operates. Still, if you look around, you can usually tell the difference between standard practitioners and serial offenders.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Virginia General Assembly!

I swore I’d wait until June to write about the failure of the state legislature to enact a budget, a delay which has now passed the three-month mark. (The budget was supposed to be completed when the Assembly convened for business at the end of February. June 30 is a significant date in this discussion because that’s when the state’s current fiscal year ends; the new budget year starts July 1. By the way, the same timetable applies to localities, which are legally required to have their budgets in place by July.) It made sense to wait out the soap opera raging in Richmond because it’s been clear all along that the budget antagonists are merely biding their time. The conventional wisdom has held that everyone at the Capital would piddle around until the last moment and then act. I can identify.

But any confidence that this impasse will be settled by July 1 must give way at some point to the reality that deadlines don’t mean much to dead-enders: if the entire point is to stand athwart history, yelling “stop,” what’s the big deal with letting extra seconds tick off the stopwatch? The athwart-history reference, of course, belongs to the late conservative writer and Yale intellectual William F. Buckley, who in many ways is the progenitor of the modern Republican Party. It’s hard to believe he’d be pleased by what his spawn are up to these days, however.

Republicans in the House of Delegates are demanding that Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the state Senate drop a Medicaid expansion plan to provide health insurance to the state’s low-income residents before they’ll let a budget get through the House. I’ve written about this issue many times in recent months — noting how Medicaid expansion would cost the state next to nothing, how it would create jobs, how it could be a godsend for regions like Southside Virginia where “low-income” describes about one out of every three persons — and even a cursory review of the facts should settle the question of who’s right and who’s wrong in this debate.

In fact, Republican naysayers (not the entire party, thankfully) have yet to make a single valid argument for why Virginia should turn its back on billions of dollars that are earmarked under the Affordable Care Act to pay for Medicaid expansion in Virginia. What arguments they do offer are downright laughable, as typified by our own state senator, Frank Ruff, who regularly writes constituent columns giving an ever-changing list of reasons to justify his position. Ruff is the worst kind of career politician, the sort who thinks nothing of spewing half-truths and no-truths about Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, while he collects payroll checks — and receives health insurance — on the taxpayer dime. With some of the dead-enders in Richmond, you can ascribe their opposition to genuine ideological fervor. Frank Ruff? Please. This marks the tenth anniversary of his vote in the state Senate to raise Virginia’s gas tax by more than 20 cents. Not exactly the type of behavior you’d expect out of a rock-ribbed conservative. But this is classic Ruff: Whoever is calling the shots at the Capital — back in 2004, it was GOP moderates — has the voice he will parrot. In the current Tea Party-infused era, just give our Senator a tri-corner hat and his talking points and watch him go.

With irrationality driving the Republican position on Medicaid, Democrats paradoxically have little choice but to stick to their guns or else forfeit any opportunity to advance their priorities through the Assembly for the next three-plus years. (The old way of splitting the differences between parties, via horse-trading and each side taking something away from the deal, went out with the Reagan-Bush I era.) Our current governor, Terry McAuliffe, previously might have been a collection agent for the Clinton machine — what some would call a political hack — but he’s not a fool: McAuliffe seems to understand that caving on Medicaid is not an option if he wants his gubernatorial tenure to amount to anything at all. So he’s been good about carrying the fight through. It helps enormously, of course, that the governor’s adversaries chose to cede the high ground. Still, June 30 is fast approaching; with both sides showing no sign of movement, can Virginia’s fiscal integrity be saved?

A few weeks ago I would have said no. So the pols send the Commonwealth over the edge: What then? If it were me and I could be named your benevolent dictator, I’d find a way to hit the Frank Ruffs of the world where it hurts — rescind legislators’ pay, perhaps, or run state government from the proceeds of the Virginia Tobacco Commission for a month or two, let’s see how much Southside and Southwest Republicans enjoy that — but of course real-life outcomes tend to be be much less dramatic than the scenarios you can dream up in your head. If Virginia doesn’t enact a budget, McAuliffe presumably will be in a position to invoke various emergency executive powers, but it’s hard to see him running wild with new authority made up on the fly. Forget about the inevitable lawsuits; it’s unlikely the legal system would move quickly enough to stop the governor from doing what he deems essential. The real curb on gubernatorial power is psychological; the last thing McAuliffe needs out of this fight is to be seen as reckless, and unserious.

So where does this thing go? There’s been a lot of speculation that McAuliffe will try to bypass the legislature and use Virginia’s private-public partnership act to enact a plan much like the Marketplace Virginia proposal that Republican defectors from party orthodoxy worked out with Democrats in the state Senate. (For the record, these Marketplace Virginia supporters are GOP senators John Watkins, Walter Stosch and Emmett Hanger. Our sincerest thanks to each of these gentlemen.) The private-public partnership law theoretically could allow McAuliffe to strike out a deal with private insurers such as Anthem to cover Medicaid-eligible citizens, using money from the federal health care law to pay the tab. All this is mere conjecture, of course. On the other hand, the public-private partnership act was employed by Bob McDonnell to sign the contract for expansion of U.S. 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg, the early frontrunner for state government fiasco of the century. If McDonnell can use the law to execute such idiocy, why can McAuliffe use it for the good?

Prediction is folly in politics, but I have learned one thing, at least, about the legislative process: At times when it seems like there’s no way out, no solution to be had, assorted grandees will gather in a quiet room and find a way to overcome their differences. I can’t even begin to list the number of times that a seemingly intractable budget issue suddenly became tractable. So my guess is that we’ve got a few more weeks left with the present-day deadlock before someone backs away from the ledge. But who? The Lynchburg News & Advance carried an excellent editorial a few weeks ago that posed a variation of this question: Who will be the next Preston Bryant? It’s a reference to the then-Lynchburg delegate who broke ranks with the Republican Party to support Mark Warner’s 2004 budget package to fix state finances in the wake of the Jim Gilmore’s disastrous tenure. For this act of apostasy, Bryant was all but run out of the party. Yet he did well for himself, serving as Secretary of Natural Resources in the cabinet of Warner’s successor, Tim Kaine. Bryant never renounced his conservatism, but he didn’t let it define him, either. Back in 2004 he herded together 16 other delegates and backed the Democratic governor over his own party leadership.

Rumor is, there are enough House Republicans who quietly favor Medicaid expansion to pass the McAuliffe-Senate budget with the support of Democratic colleagues. All that’s lacking is a leader who will be the first to openly defy the Republican powers-that-be. There’s one Republican delegate I can think of who has expressed open support for the Marketplace Virginia/Medicaid proposal: James Edmunds. In temperament and in his approach to politics, Edmunds sort of reminds one of Preston Bryant.

Could our delegate be instrumental in breaking the deadlock in Richmond? Who knows. But one thought is comforting to hold onto: If Edmunds follows the Preston Bryant route, Halifax County could do a lot worse than to see one of our own appointed as Secretary of Natural Resources in the future administration of Gov. Ralph Northam or Mark Herring.



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