Capitol chaos: What just happened in Richmond?

Governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo: John Robinson Governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo: John Robinson

We have a budget—that’s the good news,” Del. David Toscano said Monday afternoon. The House minority leader and Charlottesville rep was on his cell, en route to Richmond for an evening legislative session to vote on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s budget vetoes. The good news, at least for any remaining hopes of bipartisan agreement on Medicaid in the Commonwealth, ended there, and according to local lawmakers, Virginia is headed for an ugly legal fight over executive power.

Among McAuliffe’s eight line-item vetoes of the two-year, $96 billion budget was one that eliminated a Republican amendment blocking the governor from expanding Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians—something Democrats see as crucial for proper implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but which Republicans have staunchly opposed—without the sanction of the legislature.

But neither House nor Senate voted on whether to uphold or overturn that particular veto, because House Speaker William J. Howell ruled that McAuliffe had overstepped his authority by striking out part of the Medicaid item, effectively dismissing the vetoes before the legislature could consider them. 

“I expected the House Republicans would use parliamentary maneuvers to deny us a vote,” Toscano said Tuesday morning, “and that’s exactly what they did.”

Republican Rob Bell, who represents part of Albemarle in the House, saw it differently. It was a straightforward matter of what the Constitution says the governor can and can’t do, he said. He can veto a full line item, but not part of one, and that’s what he attempted last week. Bell said there’s precedent for the Republicans’ decision to essentially ignore the veto on the grounds that it was too precise. Similar showdowns in the past have ended with the court ruling in favor of legislators, he said.  

In a statement after Monday’s session, McAuliffe slammed the Republicans’ move, calling Howell’s ruling “a procedural gimmick.” 

“I’m sure it’s a hassle to have to deal with a divided government and the system of checks and balances we have,” said Bell. “But the system is set up that way to make sure that he can’t simply do what he wants by fiat. We on our side honestly believe that this is not the right policy choice for Virginia.”

Even before Monday’s session, McAuliffe had vowed to keep pushing for Medicaid expansion with or without the approval of the legislature, and he’s indicated he’ll make good on that promise by viewing the House’s non-vote as a failure to override his veto, Toscano said. 

“If he does something like that and expands Medicaid, he’ll be sued, which is what people are seeing coming down the pike,” he said. McAuliffe isn’t the only one digging in. According to reports out of the statehouse, Republicans in the Senate used their new majority—the result of the surprise resignation of Democrat Phil Puckett shortly before the passage of the budget—to seize control of all the body’s committees.

Partisan battles between the Commonwealth’s chief executive and its legislators are nothing new, and they’ve ended up in the courtroom before, Toscano pointed out, but “it’s unfortunate, because there were a number of compromises, and yet there’s no effort to meet anybody halfway, or even a quarter of the way. It didn’t need to be this way.”