Virginia Dems Cry Foul After State Senator Quits

Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe has been battling the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates for months over expanding Medicaid coverage in the state. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

An epic Obamacare battle, a looming government shutdown, and now reports of a state senator whose resignation is raising questions—Welcome to Virginia.

An already explosive political landscape in Richmond received a major shock late Sunday with reports that Democratic State Senator Phillip D. Puckett would resign Monday, handing control of Virginia’s state Senate to Republicans amidst a battle over the budget and whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.

Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe has been battling the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates—the lower chamber in Virginia’s bicameral legislature—for months over the expansion question. Until Monday, the state Senate was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor tipping the scales in favor of the Democrats.

The House of Delegates, which must approve all expenditures, has passed a budget that does not include funding for the expansion, while the Democratic-controlled Senate’s budget includes the funding. If a new budget isn’t agreed upon by the end of June, Virginia will face a government shutdown.

Amidst this raging battle comes the unlikely turn of events of a Democratic state senator handing control of the upper chamber to Republicans. After resigning, Puckett was going to be considered for a plush job as deputy director of the state tobacco commission while his daughter will be confirmed to a state judgeship, according to the Washington Post, igniting accusations of a quid pro quo.

“It’s astounding to me. The House Republican caucus will do anything and everything to prevent low-income Virginians from getting health care,” Democratic Virginia Delegate Scott A. Surovell told the Post. “They figure the only way they could win was to give a job to a state senator.”

But on Monday afternoon, the Post reported that Puckett had withdrawn his name from consideration for the commission job amid outrage over the situation.

Puckett’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, has a temporary appointment as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge in Southwest Virginia, but her nomination for a full six-year term has stalled in the state Senate, where there is a tradition of not appointing judges who are related to sitting lawmakers. With her father’s resignation, Ketron’s nomination is expected to be confirmed by a GOP-controlled Senate.

“It should pave the way for his daughter,” Republican Delegate Terry G. Kilgore told the Post. “She’s a good judge. . . . I would say that he wanted to make sure his daughter kept her judgeship.”

Before reports that Puckett withdrew his name, Kilgore, who is also the chairman of the state tobacco commission, had confirmed that the commission would consider Puckett for the deputy director job as early as this week, but denied that the post would be in exchange for his resignation.

“It’s pretty damaging to Democrats,” said Geoffrey Skelley, who has been monitoring Virginia’s Medicaid expansion saga at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political blog run out of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “McAuliffe already had a difficult task at hand, now it’s just even more difficult to see him accomplishing this.”

Skelley now envisions a situation where the state Senate, now in Republican hands, could pass a budget that excludes the expansion. “You have to imagine the pressure would be on McAuliffe at that point” not to veto a budget, he said. “It would be really easy to blame him for stopping a budget from happening.”

On the other hand, three Republican state Senators favor the Medicaid expansion, and that could mean that even a Republican-controlled Senate would fail to approve a new budget. Either way, the clock is ticking toward a government shutdown on July 1 if no deal is reached.

McAuliffe’s only option to move forward on his top priority at this point might be to claim executive authority to unilaterally accept the expansion, which could provide health care to up to 400,000 low-income Virginians. The Democratic state attorney general’s office has been investigating the constitutionality of such a move, and it’s not yet clear if it has found sufficient legal basis for expanding unilaterally.

“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially those in Southwest Virginia,” McAuliffe said of Puckett’s resignation in a statement Sunday. “This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.”