General Assembly to convene April 11 to resume budget talks


Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the General Assembly on Tuesday to go into a special session next month to nail down a state budget — something lawmakers failed to do by the end of their regular session over the weekend.

Northam signed a proclamation that called for lawmakers to convene on April 11, one week before they are scheduled to return to Richmond to consider any of the governor’s vetoes or proposed amendments to bills.

“After a legislative session that was marked by bipartisan progress on issues that matter to people’s lives, I remain disappointed that the General Assembly was unable to extend that spirit of cooperation to its work on the budget,” Northam said in a statement.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate passed separate versions of a two-year state budget. They are starkly different plans, with the main difference being a House proposal to use federal Affordable Care Act funds to expand Medicaid.

That proposal frees up about $370 million of state funds that are currently spent on mental health and medical care for impoverished Virginians. The House slated that money for a wide range of other programs in its proposed budget.

After the House and Senate each passed their own budget drafts, conference committees were formed to negotiate one final plan. Last week, lawmakers in both chambers said they could not reach a deal by the March 10 deadline for the regular session.

Among his promises to voters, Northam, like most Democrats who ran for state office, campaigned strongly on expanding Medicaid.

Over the weekend, Northam said he spoke with leaders in both chambers about the budget he will introduce for the special session. Earlier this month, Northam said he would bring forward a budget amendment to expand Medicaid if it does not make it into the final proposed budget.

“Virginians sent us to Richmond to work together to make life better for every family, no matter who they are or where they live,” Northam’s statement said. “We can live up to that responsibility by passing a budget that expands health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who need it. Expanding coverage will also generate savings that we can invest in education, workforce training, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, and a healthy cash balance to prepare for fiscal downturns.”

Parker Slaybaugh, spokesman for Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, said “it’s almost certain that April 11 will be the start, not the end, of this process,” but that the House will work “as quickly as possible.”

“Speaker Cox is hopeful that everyone is able to return to Richmond with clear minds and a fresh perspective on the budget,” Slaybaugh said in an email. “We look forward to continuing conversations with the Governor and the Senate.”

In his statement, Northam indicated that lawmakers will be working with him before the special session convenes to make sure a budget is passed quickly once the special session begins. He has also directed Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne to work with members of the General Assembly money committees before the special session.

Layne told the Senate Finance Committee that there won’t be a clear picture of revenue until May because of changes connected to federal tax reform, said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment Jr., R-James City, in a statement to the Daily Press.

“I know we need a full revenue re-forecast to properly craft a budget,” Norment said. “We must have that information from Secretary Layne to ensure a fiscally responsible budget with sustainable revenues.”

The fight over Medicaid expansion almost led to a government shutdown in 2014, but the situation was flipped: a Republican-led House opposed expansion under Obamacare, while an evenly split Senate approved a plan to make thousands of people eligible for Medicaid.

A budget deal without Medicaid expansion emerged in June 2014 only after the surprise resignation of Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett gave Senate Republicans a one-vote majority. The budget was passed just days before a July 1 deadline for a government shutdown.

Then-Speaker of the House William Howell ruled vetoes of budget items by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe were unconstitutional.

Amin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4890 or on Twitter at @reemadamin.

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