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Senator quits, imperiling Virginia Medicaid push

June 9, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The resignation of a Democratic state senator on Monday has dealt a serious blow to his party’s push for Medicaid expansion in Virginia and cleared a path for Republicans to pass a budget without compromising on the health care plan.

Sen. Phil Puckett’s resignation gives the GOP a 20-19 majority in the chamber to go with their control of the House. Senate Democrats had linked passage of the state’s $96 billion biennial budget to expanding Medicaid, creating the threat of a government shutdown on July 1 if Republicans wouldn’t relent.

Puckett said he was resigning so that his daughter, Martha Ketron, could be approved as a state judge. Republicans in the Senate had blocked Ketron’s appointment to serve as a juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia earlier this year because of a policy of not appointing immediate family members to judgeships. Ketron had been temporarily appointed by circuit court judges and is now working as a substitute judge.

“At this point in my life, I feel that I cannot allow my political career to hamper my daughter’s future and her desire to serve the families and children of our area,” Puckett said in a statement. He added that his “family is dealing with several difficult issues that need our attention.”

Puckett defended his decision to resign after some members of his party accused him of making a deal with Republicans in exchange for a high level job with the GOP-controlled state tobacco commission, noting that he’d never been “officially offered” a job at the tobacco commission.

Republican Del. Terry Kilgore said Sunday he had discussed a deputy director job opening with Puckett at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization but no deal had been finalized. Kilgore, who is chairman of the commission, said in a statement Monday that Puckett was no longer interested in the job.

The timing of Puckett’s departure has dealt a serious blow to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top legislative priority in his inaugural year: expanding Medicaid eligibility to as many 400,000 low-income residents. The Medicaid battle has drawn national attention, as Democrats attempt to make an inroad for the Affordable Care Act in the South.

Puckett will be replaced by a special election, the date of which has not been set.

The Obama administration has offered to pay most of the costs of expanding Medicaid in states that choose to do so, but Republicans have argued that states would be saddled with the cost if the federal government can’t keep its promise.

With Democrats controlling the Senate through the lieutenant governor’s tie-breaking vote and Republicans running the state House, the state appeared headed toward a government shutdown on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

On Monday, all 20 Republican senators along with Senate Finance Co-Chairman Sen. Chuck Colgan, a Democrat, signed a letter ordering the full Senate to return Thursday to work out a budget. After that letter was filed, House Speaker William J. Howell scheduled for the House to return the same day.

After members of the Senate Finance Committee met Monday, committee Co-Chairman Walter Stosch said he believed there were enough votes for the Senate to pass a budget that does not include Marketplace Virginia, the Senate’s modified version of Medicaid expansion.

“We’re hoping we can pass a clean budget that does not have Marketplace Virginia in it, not that we’ve lost interest in that,” said Stosch, who is one of three Republican senators who support the expanded coverage plan.

Stosch and other senators who support Marketplace Virginia said a recent forecast projecting a $1.3 billion budget deficit over the next two years has forced lawmakers to make passing a budget their top priority.

Colgan said he would like to pass a state budget without expanding Medicaid eligibility and revisit the issue in a special session. Colgan said he “would love” some assurances that Medicaid expansion would pass during a special session, which would be unlikely given the strong Republican majority in the House.

House Republicans have promised a fair hearing on Medicaid expansion if there were a special session, but the lower chamber has already voted against Medicaid expansion proposals twice this year.

A spokesman for McAuliffe declined to comment until the governor’s office had seen what the Senate’ plans were.

The liberal group ProgressVA, which supports Medicaid expansion, called on authorities to investigate whether Puckett has engaged in an illegal quid pro quo. And House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mark Sickles compared Puckett’s behavior to former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges.

As for Puckett’s daughter, Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment said he did not know when, or if, the Senate would approve Ketron to the bench.

Norment added that he did not see anything unethical in Puckett’s behavior.

“It is unkind for people to suggest that,” he said.

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