AG's ruling circumvented, session meltdown averted

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 23, 2013 at 5:11 pm •  Published: February 23, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The two largest measures before Virginia's General Assembly — the state budget and a landmark reform of the way Virginia funds its 58,000-mile highway network — won final passage Saturday, just before lawmakers ended a 2013 session that remained fractious and dramatic into its final hours.

The budget passed the House and Senate by comfortable margins, as did a transportation funding bill that had eluded governors of both parties for a dozen years, but only after senior budget writers on Saturday circumvented an 11th-hour meltdown resulting from a surprise overnight ruling by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli ruled that the most disputed and politically fragile item in the compromise budget, a legislative panel that would oversee reforms required to expand Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty line, was unconstitutional. That provoked a threat from Senate Democrats to doom the transportation bill and possibly the budget.

A last-minute edit to the final budget conference report before decisive floor votes took away the commission's discretion and makes its actions mandatory. Members of the 10-member committee said the alteration remedied the flaw Cuccinelli identified.

With that, the transportation funding reforms that would be Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's lasting legislative legacy passed the Senate 25-15, with most Democrats backing it and most Republicans opposed. It had similarly won House passage 60-40 Friday, with Republicans split but Democrats strongly for it.

Moments later, the House voted 83-17 to pass the budget conference report containing the retooled amendment, and the Senate followed with a 31-8 vote for the budget, wrapping up the 2013 session.

Democrats had demanded some guarantee of Medicaid expansion and used their numerical parity in the Senate, where each party controls 20 seats and 21 votes are required to enact revenue or appropriations bills, to make it stick.

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate helped broker a fragile agreement to establish the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission. McDonnell gave the panel his conditional approval in a letter to legislators at 7 p.m. Friday. Later that night, at the behest of Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, Cuccinelli issued his ruling that the commission was unconstitutional.

Cuccinelli — a tea party hero and the presumptive Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell — wrote that "the General Assembly is prohibiting (sic) from doing indirectly that which the Virginia Constitution prohibits it from doing directly."

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