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Playing Chicken with the State Budget

This is the scenario. The Government has shut down. The two houses of the legislative branch are at odds with one another and the lower house, the most partisan of the two, has all but come to blows with the executive.

Sound familiar?

It should. That’s what happened to the federal government in October 2013. It was a disaster. However, showing that we rarely learn from our mistakes Virginia, following this very chain of events, is getting ready to do the same thing.

When the chatter about a state government shutdown began in January it was hard to take seriously. I offered a few words in this column, said I hoped we weren’t exporting Washington D.C. politics to Richmond and fully expected some compromise would have been crafted by now. But, no such luck.

Governor McAuliffe, who I viewed with considerable skepticism when he was elected, has proven an energetic and competent governor. But, I am a little worried about his political instincts when it comes to facing down the GOP House of Delegates on the Medicaid issue. McAuliffe wants to accept the additional federal government money to expand Medicaid in Virginia. The State Senate has approved it but the House of Delegates refuses. It’s all a part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and that, in all likelihood is the hang up in the House of Delegates. This chamber is very conservative, includes many passionate Obama haters, and almost to a person, is opposed to the ACA. That’s where my concerns about the governor’s political instincts come in.

In politics if you’re going to play chicken with the other side, particularly with a state budget, you either have to have enough leverage to force your opponents to concede or you have to be willing at some point to parlay and look for a compromise. In this case, it’s not clear the Governor has taken either course. He bet the farm on Medicaid expansion, hoped he could shame the House GOP caucus into supporting him, but they didn’t budge. And when it comes to votes, the House of Delegates, with apologies to my Democratic friends, is the GOP caucus. They have a two thirds majority, most come from safe seats, and no matter what the governor does, they aren’t in danger politically.

Also, for many of these Republicans, if they were to support the expansion, it would almost certainly translate into a Tea Party focused opponent in a primary. That might not be the noblest of reasons to oppose a piece of legislation, but that’s politics.

The question is where does this leave the Democrats and Governor McAuliffe?  Unfortunately, the governor doesn’t have much room to maneuver. He may be toying with the idea of a government shutdown, but this a dangerous business.  The Commonwealth does a lot more than most people realize.  A holdup in the state budget could affect our local school funding, highway maintenance, some safety functions, mental health care, public health, and various waterway and environmental projects.  The governor should also realize that a shutdown could backfire.  Instead of his hoped for outcome, which is a lot of voters who blame the GOP for the shutdown, he may just get angry voters. And such unfocused anger is never good for the party in power. While many Virginians support Medicaid expansion, myself included, most don’t want the drama of a Washington style shutdown. The best thing at this point is to find a face saving compromise, pass a budget and pick up the fight again next year.

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