Senate adjourns without voting on highways bill

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Photo -   Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, gestures as he talks about the conference committee report on the transportation funding bill on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. The House passed the bill. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, gestures as he talks about the conference committee report on the transportation funding bill on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. The House passed the bill. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A definitive vote on landmark Virginia transportation funding reforms will await the General Assembly's final, hectic day Saturday after Senate Democrats promised to sink Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's centerpiece initiative without his written promise not to block Medicaid expansion.

The state Senate adjourned abruptly Friday evening without a vote on the $880 million-a-year transportation bill that had passed the House hours earlier on a bipartisan, 60-40 vote. Senators had languished in recess much of the day Friday, negotiating with the McDonnell administration. McDonnell issued his written response around 7 p.m.

"It's good. We're heading in the right direction," Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said after reading the governor's three-paragraph statement.

In it, McDonnell offered general approval of the direction of the compromise but said he looked forward to reviewing it further. He left open the prospect of amending the Medicaid expansion line item in the budget.

McDonnell's promise to muster at least $800 million a year to maintain and repair Virginia's aging, 58,000-mile network of state roads is at the core of a transportation overhaul bill he introduced the day before the 2013 session began. It remains his best hope for a significant and lasting legislative legacy.

But Friday's 11th-hour standoff over Medicaid expansion provisions in the state budget leaves in limbo a transportation vote that had been a toss-up at best.

"We have to have assurance that he will follow the conference committee report on Medicaid, or the votes aren't there for transportation," said state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County and one of the Senate budget and transportation negotiators. "There's some dissatisfaction with the transportation plan anyway."

Aside from seeking leverage to ensure Medicaid expansion, Democrats were unhappy with the transportation plan's diversion of sales tax revenues from the general fund, which pays for services such as public schools, health care and public safety.

McDonnell sent a two-page ultimatum late Wednesday to senior budget writers, warning them not to expand Medicaid until vast federal and state cost and efficiency reforms are finalized. The move angered Democrats and dismayed Republicans who had worked for weeks privately negotiating a politically fragile compromise on both transportation and the budget.

House and Senate negotiators along with Dr. Bill Hazel, McDonnell's secretary of health and human resources, worked out a compromise that establishes a 12-member commission to oversee and approve reforms demanded by McDonnell. Expanding the program would extend benefits to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty level.

Senate Democrats wanted a letter from McDonnell to confirm his acceptance of that compromise.

McDonnell's letter was addressed only to Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment and not to any Democrat. In it, he wrote that the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission "will institutionalize a process in state law whereby thoughtful discussion and meaningful system reforms are an integral part of any process as the commonwealth moves forward" in negotiating waivers for cost-cutting and efficiency reforms with the federal government.

"I look forward to reviewing the final language that is agreed upon ... when the budget reaches my desk," McDonnell concluded.

But the administration insisted there was no link between the Democrats' threat to destroy his defining legislative initiative and the letter.

"Medicaid and transportation are two completely separate and independent issues," spokesman J. Tucker Martin said.

Earlier Friday, the transportation package passed the House thanks to strong support from the Democratic minority.

Twenty-five House Democrats supported the bill; only seven opposed it.

Republicans, who control more than two-thirds of the House's 100 seats, were almost evenly split, Thirty-three anti-tax Republicans opposed it, while 34 Republicans supported it. It was also supported by the chamber's only independent, Del. Lacey Putney, who organizes with the GOP.

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, called it a massive tax increase that would negate any economic benefit from upgrading and maintaining the state's roads.

"I hear my colleagues say, 'We've got to do something, we've got to do something.' Well, this bill does something, but I will tell you that it is the wrong thing," Cline said. "See what happens when we raise just about every tax dealing with transportation, and some others that don't deal with transportation, and see what happens to our business rankings and our business reputation."

The outcome was assured, however, as one Democrat after another blessed the compromise in floor speeches.

"There are times when you have to look beyond yourself and look at the whole, and that's what governing is. That's why you're down here. Yes, you're down here to protect your individual piece of the pie, but the puzzle doesn't work 'til you put it all together," said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke. He was the lone House Democrat on the team of five delegates and five senators who brokered the transportation compromise over four days of negotiations.

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Follow Bob Lewis on Twitter: (at)APBobLewis

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