The local political scene in Virginia was rocked when state senator Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) announced he was resigning on Monday. Puckett hoped to serve as the Deputy Director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission. His daughter is also expected to be confirmed to a local judgeship. Until his retirement she could not hold the judgeship because of rules denying judicial appointments to family members of legislators.
Puckett’s retirement throws the state Democratic party into chaos. Republicans have firm control of the House of Delegates and the Senate was split 20-20 with Democrats holding the Lt. Governor’s position and thus Senate leadership. Now, Republicans have a 20-19 advantage in the chamber and could potentially block a Democratic effort to expand Medicaid. Democrats in the upper chamber have threatened to tie it to the state budget and dare the GOP to cause a government shutdown. Now, Republicans can pass their budget which does not include Medicaid Expansion.
Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who is pushing the expansion, still believes that Medicaid Expansion could pass the upper chamber. He points to three moderate Republicans based in the NoVA suburbs who have indicated some support for Expansion.
Puckett represented a strongly conservative district (D-38) in the SW tail of the state and had a fairly moderate voting record. He survived the 2011 state senate elections largely by campaigning on social issues and fiscal conservatism. Puckett said he supported Medicaid Expansion but it is very plausible that he did not want to vote for expansion and be defeated in 2015 but instead go out a winner and also acquire a job be coveted.
Democrats are sure to lose the seat in the special election to replace him. Any leverage Democrats would have to push the GOP into supporting expansion would disappear. In a stand-off between the full legislature and the Governor nobody wins. If the legislature is split and the Governor is pushing a policy item, usually the minority party loses in the court of public opinion.
The GOP dominated House of Delegates has already sent a budget to the Senate that does not include Medicaid Expansion. Senate Democrats have tried to court GOP support by having the Medicaid Expansion be handled by private entities but unlike in other states with divided government (AR, NH) the move has not enticed Republicans. Instead, Republicans have actively been trying to find ways to sink the budget. They may have just done so with Puckett.
Due to Virginia’s unique one term limit for Governors and biannual budgeting process, McAuliffe only gets one shot at a budget to expand Medicaid. Governors are elected in the first off-year after the Presidential election (09, 013, etc.) while budgets are established in even years (08-010, 010-o12, etc.). This means for the last year McAuliffe has had to operate under former GOP Governor Bob McDonnell’s budget really giving him only nonr shot at passing a budget with his priorities in it.
Republicans in the moderate Senate and more conservative House have split over several issues in prior years including the massive transportation funding bill passed in 2013 under McDonnell. However, on Medicaid Expansion they have been in lockstep opposition from the start. Democratic hopes to court moderate Republicans will likely go nowhere. The public is split on the idea and overall the Affordable Care Act is unpopular in the state.
Puckett’s retirement gives the GOP the edge they need in the budget debate. Republicans are expected to call all members back to the chamber (only 9 need to do so to initiate the action) and call for a vote on their budget. The same moderate Republicans Democrats hope to court have indicated support for the Senate GOP budget without Medicaid Expansion. Ultimately, Puckett’s retirement likely indicates Medicaid Expansion in Virginia is dead for the next two years.
Addendum: Puckett has withdrawn his name from consideration for the Tobacco Commission slot after Democrats accused him of selling out and engaging in political gamesmanship. However, the state AG has said no investigation is warranted.