10/02/14: Another wasted opportunity in Richmond

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

IT HAS BEEN two weeks since Virginia’s legislature met in a special session. The announced purpose of the meeting was to have a “full and fair” hearing about the expansion of Medicaid.

Two weeks later, Virginia is still waiting.

Yes, the members took up some pretty important business in Richmond last month.

On the previously announced agenda for the session was the election of judges. Virginia is one of only two states — South Carolina is the other — that allow the legislature to elect its judges.

The process essentially turns our judicial system into one of patronage. Former delegate Onzlee Ware, who resigned shortly after being elected last November, was among the 55 judgeships filled.

A last-minute addition was legislation to address the ever-growing budget deficit. Since the spending plan was adopted in late June, the deficit had ballooned to $2.4 billion over the biennium.

Typically, amendments are made to the budget in the session after it is adopted, which would mean January 2015. This time, though, Speaker of the House Bill Howell and Gov. Terry McAuliffe privately worked out a hurried deal that the members overwhelmingly approved.

That the budget was adopted without any consideration of Medicaid expansion should have been a clue — if we needed any — that serious consideration of Medicaid expansion was not going to happen.

The House considered just one bill that would have captured federal Medicaid dollars and used the funds to provide access to health care coverage for uninsured Virginians.

House Bill 5008, patroned by Republican Del. Tom Rust and co-patroned by Virginia Beach Del. Glenn Davis, was killed in a procedural move to prevent a final vote on it.

Rust and Davis, joined by all but one Democrat, voted to advance the bill. Portsmouth Del. Johnny Joannou, who, like many members of the legislature, enjoys health insurance subsidized by Virginia taxpayers, was the lone Democrat to vote with the rest of the Republican majority against the bill.

So much for a “full and fair” hearing on Medicaid expansion. And given the partisan makeup of the legislature, I doubt we will ever discuss this issue again. The one-day special session is said to have cost Virginia taxpayers between $40,000 and $50,000.

To add insult to injury, the House passed a resolution that would allow the speaker to hire an attorney to sue the governor should he seek to expand Medicaid without the legislature’s approval.

That part of the resolution was truly a waste of space: The governor isn’t going to expand Medicaid, and the budget adopted in June expressly prohibits him from doing so, anyway.

The other part of the resolution authorizes the speaker to hire attorneys to defend Virginia’s ban on gay marriage. Never mind that two briefs have been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by two clerks in Virginia that do exactly that.

Virginia has always taken a fiscally conservative stance, regardless of which party is in charge. It is not conservative to forgo $2 billion annually in Medicaid funds and instead balance the budget on the backs of Virginia’s workers and its localities.

It is not fiscally conservative to authorize the spending of money for attorneys when there is a clear lack of need for them. And it’s certainly not fiscally conservative to waste money on a special session that was an absolute charade.

Virginia’s “part-time legislature” remains officially in session, more than nine months after the regular session concluded March 8, no doubt taking a page from its federal counterparts to prevent recess appointments, particularly judgeships.

But that also allows them more time to meet and waste at least $40,000 a day, which they have done six times so far.

It’s going to be a long few years.