State Lawmakers Adjourn Without Budget - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

State Lawmakers Adjourn Without Budget

Posted: Updated: Mar 08, 2014 08:01 PM

Virginia lawmakers are leaving behind some unfinished business at the state Capitol.  The 2014 regular session of the General Assembly adjourned Saturday without a deal on healthcare expansion or the state's two year, $97 billion budget. But they will be back to finish the job.

"A stalemate's a stalemate...and some get resolved quicker than others." said 35th District Senator Dick Saslaw (D).

This stalemate centers around a familiar, yet highly complicated issue: healthcare expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which Democrats say could insure as many as 400,000 Virginians and bring millions in federal tax dollars back to Virginia.

Democrats, including Governor Terry McAuliffe, say they won't pass a budget without healthcare expansion. House Republicans, who see expansion as just another extension of 'Obamacare', say they won't pass a budget that includes healthcare expansion.

"It's going to be a long summer perhaps, definitely a long spring," said 15th District Delegate Todd Gilbert (R).

As lawmakers closed up shop on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a budget deal still as elusive as it was 60 days before, there remained a sense of pride.

"If [the budget] is the only issue, think of all the other successes we've had here in Richmond. It bodes well for the commonwealth," said 32nd District Delegate Tag Greason (R).

Greason led the charge on one of the session's biggest bipartisan deals: reforms to Virginia's Standards of Learning tests. Soon, there will be fewer tests for students in grades three through eight, and a new "SOL Innovation Committee" will help oversee further improvements to the system over time.

"I mean when you talk to students and you talk to teachers and families, everybody feels like we're over-testing," Greason said. "We can still hold our accountability and reduce the number of tests to give students and teachers a little more flexibility."

Lawmakers also found compromise on ethics reform, thrust into the spotlight after last year's "Giftgate" scandal involving Bob and Maureen McDonnell, the former governor and first lady.

"We just wanted to make sure that, in terms of good government, we were also going beyond that to try and set limitations on what legislators can and can't do," said Gilbert.

Public officials will now be subject to a $250 individual gift cap, and required gift reporting for immediate family members. An ethics advisory council will also be put in place to ensure the effectiveness of the state's ethics rules for politicians.

Then, there's mental health reform.  Virginia lawmakers came together this session to respond to loopholes in the state's mental health system put on public display last November after the son of state Senator Creigh Deeds attacked his father and took his own life. Gus Deeds had been released from an emergency custody order (ECO) hours earlier due to a lack of psychiatric bed space.

The reform effort, led largely by Deeds himself, yielded positive results. The ECO time limit will be increased from six to 12 hours, and someone in crisis will be guaranteed a "bed of last resort" at a state hospital within eight hours.

Lawmakers will be required to revisit that ECO extension in four years to determine its effectiveness. A newly formed commission will also have four years to re-evaluate the way Virginia administers mental healthcare overall.

Lawmakers are also implementing a "real-time" psychiatric bed registry to help health professionals more efficiently find open treatment space for someone in mental crisis. It will expand upon an existing electronic registry rolled out earlier this week by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS).

"It actually is the one provision that has an emergency clause on it, so it has to happen when the bill is signed into law," said 24th District Delegate Ben Cline (R).

Deeds hailed the changes as a "paradigm shift" for mental health, but says much more still needs to be done.

But those and other major achievements have been co-opted by the threat of a continued budget stalemate and possible government shutdown.

"We have accomplished a great deal, and that is unfortunately being overshadowed here at the last hour," said Gilbert.

Governor McAuliffe will bring lawmakers back to Capitol Square March 24 to finish the job during a three week special session. But will a two week break followed by a three week special session be enough to break the gridlock? Some say no.

"I'd be surprised if you saw change before June," Saslaw said. "And possibly beyond."

Saslaw, one of the legislature’s longest serving lawmakers, says there's nothing unusual about this year's budget impasse. "It's not that big of a deal, we've done this numerous times," Saslaw said. "We've had budgets signed in May, a couple signed in June."

But here's the biggest concern: what if lawmakers don't find a compromise before the start of the next fiscal year July 1? Funds for state government would freeze, resulting in an unprecedented government shutdown. It's a fear both sides are playing up for the sake of argument, but it could actually happen if no compromise is reached.

"There is that danger," Gilbert said. "I think the House is fairly well dug in our position."

"Obviously there's always that possibility if we don't reach an agreement," Saslaw said. "The governor's made it clear that he won't sign a budget without it."

For now, it's wait and see.

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