By Del. Terry Austin The General Assembly adjourned on Saturday, knowing that we would soon be called back into session to address the one item of business remaining: the adoption of the biennial budget.
Officially we have until June 30 to adopt the budget, but the sooner we do so, the better. This is because state agencies, local governments and school boards, among many others, cannot complete their budgets until they know the funding they can expect from the commonwealth.
For this reason, I am urging my colleagues to bring the same productive spirit to the budget that we have brought to the session as a whole.
That spirit produced such achievements as bipartisan compromises on regulatory reform and criminal justice; legislation to address the teacher shortage; and action to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
I will expand upon those achievements and others in a future report, but for now I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the budget deliberations.
The point of debate is how Virginia will expand Medicaid. Two approaches have been proposed, one approach from a bipartisan majority in the House and the other from a bipartisan majority in the Senate. And, as can be expected in the Democratic process, there are bipartisan minorities in both chambers who are opposed to either plan for Medicaid expansion.
Briefly stated, the House plan will extend Medicaid to 300,000 Virginians, while the Senate plan will expand Medicaid to 60,000 Virginians.
But the differences do not end with the number of Virginians covered.
The House takes advantage of federal funds available to states that expand the program. It also derives funds from a new provider assessment on the growing revenues produced by hospitals. These funds will cover the cost of Medicaid expansion, and at the same time provide pay increases to teachers, public safety and state employees. Moreover, they will allow us to grow the commonwealth’s rainy-day fund by $91 million.
The Senate version does not take advantage of the available federal funds. As a consequence, this version leaves a $400 million gap in the budget. And it fails to provide the teacher and state employee pay increases, or to add to the rainy-day fund.
To be clear, I acknowledge that the Senate’s position seems reasonable, at least at first glance. It reflects an understandable reluctance to accept a flow of funds from the federal government, for fear that the flow can be stopped at any time, leaving Virginia holding the bag.
But the House version provides protection against this by invoking a “safety switch” that will kill the program if the feds cut off funding. I am confident that we are protected.
An important part of the House plan is the requirement that Medicaid recipients work or be in a training program or do volunteer work. The Senate’s position casts doubt on the effectiveness of this provision. I have studied the details of the provision and have discussed it with my constituents and colleagues. I believe it to be a sound, effective policy that will improve the entire Medicaid program.
To summarize, I have evaluated all of the options that have been proposed for the treatment of Medicaid, including the no expansion option.
My carefully considered opinion is that the House version provides the broad coverage that our citizens deserve, while at the same time generating new revenues for important needs like teacher salaries. And it does this without undue risk to the Virginia taxpayer. When we reconvene, I will be working to ensure that the final budget includes as many, if not all, of the House provisions as possible.
I will provide updates on the budget deliberations as they progress. In the meantime, thank you, as always, for allowing me the privilege of serving the 19th District of Virginia.