AG's ruling circumvented, session meltdown averted

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Photo -   State Senators, Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, right, Charles Colgan, D-Prince William, back to camera, Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, left, Thomas Norment, R-James City County, second from left, and John Watkins, R-Powhatan, second from right, discuss proceedings during a break in the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
State Senators, Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, right, Charles Colgan, D-Prince William, back to camera, Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, left, Thomas Norment, R-James City County, second from left, and John Watkins, R-Powhatan, second from right, discuss proceedings during a break in the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The two largest measures before Virginia's General Assembly — the state budget and a landmark reform of the way Virginia funds its 58,000-mile highway network — won final passage Saturday, just before lawmakers ended a 2013 session that remained fractious and dramatic into its final hours.

The budget passed the House and Senate by comfortable margins, as did a transportation funding bill that had eluded governors of both parties for a dozen years, but only after senior budget writers on Saturday circumvented an 11th-hour meltdown resulting from a surprise overnight ruling by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli ruled that the most disputed and politically fragile item in the compromise budget, a legislative panel that would oversee reforms required to expand Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty line, was unconstitutional. That provoked a threat from Senate Democrats to doom the transportation bill and possibly the budget.

A last-minute edit to the final budget conference report before decisive floor votes took away the commission's discretion and makes its actions mandatory. Members of the 10-member committee said the alteration remedied the flaw Cuccinelli identified.

With that, the transportation funding reforms that would be Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's lasting legislative legacy passed the Senate 25-15, with most Democrats backing it and most Republicans opposed. It had similarly won House passage 60-40 Friday, with Republicans split but Democrats strongly for it.

Moments later, the House voted 83-17 to pass the budget conference report containing the retooled amendment, and the Senate followed with a 31-8 vote for the budget, wrapping up the 2013 session.

Democrats had demanded some guarantee of Medicaid expansion and used their numerical parity in the Senate, where each party controls 20 seats and 21 votes are required to enact revenue or appropriations bills, to make it stick.

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate helped broker a fragile agreement to establish the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission. McDonnell gave the panel his conditional approval in a letter to legislators at 7 p.m. Friday. Later that night, at the behest of Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, Cuccinelli issued his ruling that the commission was unconstitutional.

Cuccinelli — a tea party hero and the presumptive Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell — wrote that "the General Assembly is prohibiting (sic) from doing indirectly that which the Virginia Constitution prohibits it from doing directly."

To oversee Medicaid reforms as the commission is envisioned to do, Cuccinelli wrote, actions toward that end would require a vote of the entire legislature to comply with the state constitution.

Special legislative commissions with oversight and contingent powers similar to the proposed Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission already exist. The MIRC is patterned on the Major Economic Investment Commission, a 3-year-old panel of four senators and four delegates that vets companies looking to locate and expand in Virginia.

Similarly, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has power to negotiate rates for the state's centralized data processing and information technology agency.

Medicaid dominated the vote on the budget with Republican conservatives siding with Cuccinelli, arguing that the change made just before the vote still doesn't pass constitutional muster.

"There is a lot to like in this budget — there is very little I see that is objectionable," Cline said. "But due to the concerns that have been raised by many regarding the constitutionality of this language and the original language, I will be voting 'no' on the budget."

One opponent, Republican Del. Robert G. Marshall of Prince William, promised to sue and have the provision overturned.

But others disagreed, including some of the House's most stalwart conservatives.

"The House of Delegates and the Senate have a long history of delegating authority to commissions and bodies made up of members of both bodies, with authority to make decisions," said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta County.

Democratic Del Johnny S. Joannou of Portsmouth said the budget wasn't all he wanted, but reasonably represented as much as the House could get in negotiations with the Senate.

"If we're going to have a budget bill this year, it's important there be some kind of compromise and agreement with the body on the other side," he said.

Cuccinelli's office did not publish the ruling on the Attorney General's website Saturday, and he and his aides did not reply to requests for comment.

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Follow Bob Lewis on Twitter at (at)APBobLewis.

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