RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A definitive vote on landmark Virginia transportation funding reforms will await the General Assembly's final, hectic day Saturday after Senate Democrats promised to sink Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's centerpiece initiative without his written promise not to block Medicaid expansion.
The state Senate adjourned abruptly Friday evening without a vote on the $880 million-a-year transportation bill that had passed the House hours earlier on a bipartisan, 60-40 vote. Senators had languished in recess much of the day Friday, negotiating with the McDonnell administration. McDonnell issued his written response around 7 p.m.
"It's good. We're heading in the right direction," Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said after reading the governor's three-paragraph statement.
In it, McDonnell offered general approval of the direction of the compromise but said he looked forward to reviewing it further. He left open the prospect of amending the Medicaid expansion line item in the budget.
McDonnell's promise to muster at least $800 million a year to maintain and repair Virginia's aging, 58,000-mile network of state roads is at the core of a transportation overhaul bill he introduced the day before the 2013 session began. It remains his best hope for a significant and lasting legislative legacy.
But Friday's 11th-hour standoff over Medicaid expansion provisions in the state budget leaves in limbo a transportation vote that had been a toss-up at best.
"We have to have assurance that he will follow the conference committee report on Medicaid, or the votes aren't there for transportation," said state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County and one of the Senate budget and transportation negotiators. "There's some dissatisfaction with the transportation plan anyway."
Aside from seeking leverage to ensure Medicaid expansion, Democrats were unhappy with the transportation plan's diversion of sales tax revenues from the general fund, which pays for services such as public schools, health care and public safety.
McDonnell sent a two-page ultimatum late Wednesday to senior budget writers, warning them not to expand Medicaid until vast federal and state cost and efficiency reforms are finalized. The move angered Democrats and dismayed Republicans who had worked for weeks privately negotiating a politically fragile compromise on both transportation and the budget.
House and Senate negotiators along with Dr. Bill Hazel, McDonnell's secretary of health and human resources, worked out a compromise that establishes a 12-member commission to oversee and approve reforms demanded by McDonnell. Expanding the program would extend benefits to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty level.