In 2010, Virginia joined the ranks of Republican-run states with the election of Bob McDonnell. McDonnell wasted no time to turn back many of the legislative policies of the usually blue state. When the Supreme Court ruled part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Virginia immediately sought to impose strict voter ID requirements that were on hold due to being a preclearance state.
After SCOTUS ruled that states were not required to comply with the Medicaid expansion requirement of the Affordable Care Act, McDonnell announced that his state would not be participating in the expansion or setting up its own health insurance exchange. He even went as far as signing a law that limited, and sometimes prevented, consumer assistance and outreach by health insurance navigators trained to help with the ACA.
Over the next two election cycles, Virginians became frustrated with McDonnell’s policies and in 2013, elected Terry McAuliffe for governor, part of a democratic sweep that also gave them them majority in the General Assembly.
Governor McAuliffe vowed to change many of the policies, including reversing the voter suppression laws and expanding Medicaid. The Virginia legislature has been in an intense sessions the past few months to hammer out budget details in time for the July 1 deadline. A previous vote had easily passed the Medicaid expansion and was awaiting a final budget vote. For several weeks, Republicans were delaying the vote, refusing to allow passage until the Medicaid provision was dropped.
Now some are claiming they have resorted to bribery.
In an unexpected twist, longtime Democratic Senator Phillip Puckett resigned without warning on Monday. This immediately put Republicans temporarily in control of the Senate because the chamber had been evenly split. This will remain until Puckett’s seat is filled by a special election. Since Puckett was elected in 1998, his southwest Virginia district has turned more conservative and will prove to be difficult for Democrats to hold on to the seat.
As word of Puckett’s resignation began to leak over the weekend, reports surfaced that the job for Deputy Director of the Virginia State Tobacco was waiting for him. The commission confirmed that they had a meeting scheduled on Wednesday to discuss formally offering him the position. Furthermore, it was well known that a permanent judgeship in a Virginia county juvenile court for his daughter had not been approved because of his position in the senate. All agree that his daughter is qualified for the position and she is currently serving in a temporary capacity. However, it is Senate policy to not make such appointments for family of members of the Senate.
According to the Washington Post, Republicans let Puckett know that the tobacco commission position, as well as the permanent appointment of his daughter would occur – if he would resign in order to prevent the expansion of Medicaid.
On Thursday evening, just three days after Puckett’s resignation, Virginia Republicans used a rule that has not been exercised in at least 40 years and called a special session of the Senate. Under the rule, they only needed nine Senators to sign on for the session – 21 did, including one Democrat. They amended the proposed budget to require General Assembly approval of any increased spending on Medicaid and passed the budget without the expansion in the late evening hours.
In his resignation letter, Puckett attributed his sudden departure to unspecified serious family issues that had to be dealt with immediately. He strongly encouraged the General Assembly to pass Medicaid expansion and felt that it could still be possible as two Republicans had joined him in his previous vote of approval. He did acknowledge that his presence in the state Senate was an obstacle for his daughter’s permanent appointment and that he no longer wanted to hamper his daughter’s career. However, he denied that he was offered employment with the Virginia Tobacco Commission.
That afternoon, the tobacco commission canceled the planned Wednesday meeting with the sole agenda item of “discussion and consideration of a prospective candidate for employment.” It is expected that Puckett’s daughter’s permanent placement in the judgeship will easily pass the senate.
In the meantime, Virginia Republicans have successfully prevented the Medicaid expansion that would benefit an estimated 400,000 Virginians for at least the next two years.