State, local budgets move forward

Published 7:16 pm Saturday, June 14, 2014

Suffolk and its public schools can move forward with their own budgets, now that the General Assembly managed to pass a budget before the June 30 deadline and avoid a government shutdown.

The Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Senate, which had equal numbers from both parties until early last week, were in disagreement on whether to expand Medicaid in Virginia, a move that Democrats said would have extended health care to 400,000 Virginians.

But when Democratic Sen. Phillip Puckett, of southwest Virginia’s 38th district, abruptly resigned his seat, it gave Republicans a majority in the Senate and cleared the way for the budget to move forward.

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Democrats decried Puckett’s resignation after reports surfaced of a deal to give him a job on the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and confirm his daughter to a judgeship in exchange for his resignation. Puckett has since announced that he will not pursue the position.

Republican Sen. Thomas Norment, who represents a small portion of North Suffolk, acknowledged the meaning of Puckett’s resignation to the budget process in an email update to constituents on Friday.

“His resignation was a pivotal moment in the budget standoff,” Norment wrote. “Recognizing the meaning of Republican control, the advocates of Marketplace Virginia agreed to ‘decouple’ the program from the budget. That means they would allow the budget to move through without insisting on the inclusion of the Marketplace Virginia program. With Marketplace Virginia off the table, the House and Senate budgets were remarkably similar and easily reconcilable.”

But it was not to be that easy. With recent revenue numbers falling short of projections, the legislators had to find a way to cut expenses.

“While much had to be removed, there’s basically no new spending,” said Delegate Chris Jones, a Suffolk Republican who chaired the House Appropriations Committee this year. “Overall, given the downturn in our revenue, I was pleased we were able to come together as the House and the Senate and get a budget done by the 30th of June.”

Jones said the budget fully funds the re-benchmarking for K-12 education, mental health and domestic violence initiatives, a full payment to the Virginia Retirement System and bond payments for higher education capital projects.

He said the budget uses $1 from the rainy day fund for every $1 cut in order to protect core services. It also requires twice as many cuts in the first year of the biannual budget as in the second year.

Jones said the legislators also approved language that would prevent Medicaid expansion without money appropriated by the General Assembly.

“It was a very busy and hectic week, but at the end of the day we got a budget, and that’s what matters,” Jones said.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in an emailed statement he would evaluate the budget carefully.

“This fight is far from over,” he said about Medicaid expansion. “This is the right thing for Virginia, and I will not rest until we get it done.”