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With GOP split, Dems hold cards on roads bill fate

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 21, 2013 at 7:56 pm •  Published: February 21, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic General Assembly minorities hold the keys Friday to passage or failure of the first major Virginia transportation funding reforms in 27 years with Republican conservatives opposing the measure in defiance of House and Senate GOP leaders and a Republican governor who has bet his legacy on it.

With decisive up-or-down votes due Friday on the $880 million-a-year compromise brokered early this week by a select committee of five senators and five delegates, as many as two-dozen conservative delegates and up to nine senators on Thursday either opposed it outright or were leaning against what they consider a massive tax increase.

That could leave the issue to Democrats, most of them from urban or suburban regions with dire transportation funding needs, who voiced misgivings Thursday about diversions of existing general revenues away from schools, health care and public safety. They also sought to leverage possible support for transportation reforms for GOP votes for Medicaid expansion authority Saturday in the budget bill.

"It's a little bit volatile right now," conceded Sen. Emmett Hanger, an Augusta Republican who supports the compromise.

The already contentious issue of Medicaid expansion became even more formidable to the looming transportation and budget votes Wednesday when Gov. Bob McDonnell sent a letter to budget negotiators admonishing them not to authorize broadening Medicaid to an additional 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty line until sweeping cost and efficiency reforms to the federal-state program are achieved.

What appeared to be broad Democratic support for transportation became more uncertain after McDonnell's unabashed rant against Medicaid expansion.

"Isn't it immoral to deprive 400,000 Virginians — our neighbors — of medical insurance?" Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax and one of the transportation compromise negotiators, said in upbraiding McDonnell in a floor speech.

It would be equally immoral, she said, to miss out on 30,000 jobs that Medicaid expansion could create in Virginia, while taxes Virginians pay to for Medicaid expansion go elsewhere.

"His timing couldn't have been worse," said Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan and one of the five senators who helped negotiate the deal. "The Democrats hold the cards in both chambers. They (Republicans) can't pass it on their own in either chamber."

Others who were on the conference committee with Watkins also seethed Thursday over McDonnell's uncompromising letter, released hours after the committee concluded four days of intense bargaining with their politically fragile accord Wednesday morning.

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