Virginia General Assembly returns for special session
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia state lawmakers are set to return to Richmond on Monday for a special session in which they will try to pass a roughly $96 billion two-year budget.
But prospects for a quick resolution look dim, as Republican leaders in the House of Delegates and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe continue to spar over whether Virginia should accept additional federal Medicaid funding.
McAuliffe and the Democratically controlled Senate want a state budget that includes a Medicaid expansion plan that emphasizes the use of private insurers, a plan leaders in the GOP-controlled House staunchly oppose.
The impasse led to lawmakers adjourning from their regular legislative session earlier this month without passing a state budget. State government could shut down if no budget is passed before July 1.
There's been no sign that the two sides have come close to an agreement since the regular session ended.
Expanding Medicaid coverage to low-income adults was a key part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made expansions an option, and about half the states so far have opted to expand.
McAuliffe has made expanding Medicaid eligibility to as many as 400,000 Virginians his top legislative priority. The federal government has pledged to cover most of the costs of expansion and McAuliffe has argued the state's cash-strapped rural hospitals can't afford to forgo that money.
The governor has spent the two weeks since the end of the regular session making appearances at health centers around the state to promote the benefits of Medicaid expansion. At a health clinic in Alexandria on Thursday, McAuliffe pledged that Medicaid expansion would occur this year, according to a video of his comments posted on the website, Blue Virginia.
"We will get this done this year. You have my word on it," McAuliffe said. "I do not make promises lightly. If I put my word to it, you're going to get it."
But House Republicans have said they are equally dedicated to preventing Medicaid expansion. They have argued Virginia cannot afford a large-scale increase of Medicaid enrollees and should be wary about the federal government's promises to pay most of the costs associated with expansion.
Republicans have also tried to pressure McAuliffe into "decoupling" the debate over Medicaid expansion and the state's budget. But McAuliffe has rejected the Republican's suggestion that the General Assembly pass a budget without Medicaid expansion and then hold a special session devoted entirely to the subject.
House leaders have spent the break between the regular session and the special session highlighting how uncertainty with the state budget affects those who depend on the money.
"The thing we're interested in right now is decoupling, because the local governments are waiting on our budget," House Speaker William J. Howell told reporters after meeting with McAuliffe on Wednesday.