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Vote set today on state budget

RICHMOND—Lawmakers are expected to vote today on budget amendments, including language on Medicaid expansion, after a compromise on that issue paved the way for a final budget agreement.

That means lawmakers in both houses will vote today on budget issues and the Senate will vote on a transportation compromise that the House passed on Friday.

Democrats in the evenly split Senate refused to vote for the transportation bill until Gov. Bob McDonnell promised in writing not to meddle with compromise Medicaid language worked out by budget negotiators.

Democrats want to move forward with Medicaid expansion, while McDonnell does not. Budget negotiators have worked out language that would put a 12-member commission, appointed by the House and Senate money committees, in charge of voting on expansion if the state receives Medicaid program waivers from the federal government.

By Friday evening, McDonnell sent Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment a letter that Democrat Sen. Janet Howell said would satisfy Democrats.

In it, McDonnell reiterated his position that Medicaid needs reforms at the state and federal levels to justify spending more money on it.

“The creation of a commission will institutionalize a process in state law whereby thoughtful discussion and meaningful system reforms are an integral part of any process as the Commonwealth moves forward in its waiver and reform negotiations with HHS, and initiates additional state based and private sector reforms,” McDonnell wrote. “The proposal ensures that these reforms are implemented before Virginia participates in any Medicaid expansion.”

“It has the wording we wanted,” Howell told reporters Friday night.

That should pave the way for the Senate to vote Saturday on budget amendments and the transportation bill that the House passed on Friday. Budget work was expected to wrap up Friday night.

The question of Medicaid expansion was the biggest difference between the House and Senate amendments to the two-year budget, and once it was resolved other differences were expected to be resolved relatively easily.

The General Assembly is due to adjourn its session on Saturday.

Earlier Friday, the House voted, 60-40, to approve the transportation compromise sought by McDonnell all session.

While this bill is vastly different from what McDonnell originally proposed, he said he’ll support it.

The statewide portion of the bill is expected to generate $880 million a year in transportation money within five years by replacing the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale sales tax on gas and increasing the state sales tax to 5.3 percent.

Regional components raise more money in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, who sponsored McDonnell’s original bill, said the compromise was “a good bipartisan effort” to pass a “very strong, far-reaching bill.”

It will shift Virginia’s transportation tax base to a revenue source that grows with the economy, Howell said, rather than one that has been declining.

Answering critics who want Virginia to spend differently rather than tax more, Howell said it’s impossible to get $800 million out of existing sources.

“We can’t print money in Virginia,” he said. “It’s part of our responsibility.”

Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, agreed. During floor debate, he told lawmakers that–despite what they’re hearing from conservatives and anti-tax groups– there’s no way the state could generate the $1 billion or so it needs to improve transportation simply by dipping into the state’s existing revenues.

He ticked off a list of items funded in the budget—K-12 education, higher education, Medicaid spending, public safety and the $950 million-a-year payment for the car tax cut. When all that is paid for, Albo said, only about $750 million a year is left—not enough.

“Mathematics shows us that there is no money,” he said. “It is mathematically impossible to find a billion dollars in the general fund.”

Many Democrats voted for the bill. Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, said the bill worked because “nobody’s getting everything they want.”

“It’s not about you individually,” he told his colleagues. “It’s about the state.”

Republican opponents say they don’t believe the state should be raising taxes as much as the bill does.

“Now with the economy so weak, it’s a terrible time to be raising taxes,” said Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, one of three Fredericksburg-region delegates voting against the bill.

The other two were Del. John Cox, R-Hanover, and Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale. Howell, Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, and Del. Mark Dudenhefer, R-Stafford, voted for it.

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said the bill contained “a laundry list of taxes” that would hurt families.

“You are going to do serious damage to the economic health of the commonwealth,” Cline said.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245



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