Analysis: The Virginia state budget impasse endgame

state-capitol-headerRepublicans in the Virginia House of Delegates holding off the inevitable deal on Medicaid expansion need to declare whatever victory they can and get moving toward setting a state budget for 2014-2016.

Not that they’re going to get much of anything in the way of spoils out of the victory that they need to claim.

The pitched battle that has the General Assembly heading toward Month 3 of budget overtime was actually lost for Republicans last November when Terry McAuliffe won the governor’s race and Ralph Northam won the lieutenant governor’s race. That gave Democrats control of two of the three pieces of machinery that go into building a state budget, and Republicans control of one.

At that moment, the best that House Republicans could hope for was tamping down on what Democrats wanted to achieve. Instead, what the House GOP Caucus decided to fight for was the whole kit and caboodle, most notably blocking any expansion of the Medicaid rolls in Virginia, in the face of a push by Gov. McAuliffe and a bipartisan consensus in the State Senate to add 400,000 more Virginians to the state Medicaid system.

It would seem to stand to reason that House Republicans could have held firm on a smaller number – say, 100,000 – and gotten their way, but by sticking with zero they’ve made it more and more likely that Democrats are going to win the day when it’s all said and done.

If July 1 comes without a state budget, it seems pretty clear that McAuliffe is not going to allow state government to shut down, and will in fact keep government functions running under authority granted the governor in the Virginia Constitution.

Without shutdown as a bargaining chip, then, what do House Republicans have to hang over the head of the governor and their brethren in the State Senate?

At that point, the only bargaining chip left is state government aid to localities, which are already under the gun because of the lack of action in Richmond forced by this political gambit being played out by House Republicans. One could rightly expect that a budget impasse lingering into the summer and beyond will lead to a full-scale erosion of support for House Republicans even among the most conservative of elected local officials. Not good politics there for the House GOP.

So then what’s left? Maybe the strategy for House Republicans would be to ride it out all the way to next January, thinking, What the hell, we’ve already lost our own party’s moderate and conservative wings and support from the grassroots, so what’s the point of giving up then, right?

It’s hard to imagine that Bill Howell, Steve Landes and others in the leadership in the House GOP Caucus are really that dumb to play a bad hand out that far knowing that they’re going to lose and lose big. It’s not like there are many House Republicans who can rightly fear being primaried in 2015 from the right if they agree to any kind of compromise deal that would grow the Medicaid rolls by a number less than 400,000.

Republicans were far too effective at gerrymandering to have to worry about even coming close to losing control of the House anytime soon, even as Democrats have won the last four statewide races and the last two presidential races. But can it be the case that we might see some Republicans in districts carved out of deep blue Northern Virginia can be made more vulnerable? Oh, yes, without question.

They could’ve gotten 100,000 back in the winter; now Democrats will push for nothing less than 200,000 new names on the Medicaid rolls, and that number is only going to push closer to 400,000 as the days tick down to June 30.

Political memories being as short as they are, this has no impact on 2015 if it’s resolved soon.

Declare victory, Speaker Howell, however you need to word it, and move on.

– Column by Chris Graham