Commentary: State Budget, Federal Grand Jury and Court Challenges

Commentary: State Budget, Federal Grand Jury and Court Challenges

The last two weeks in Richmond have been unusually busy.

First, ethics are back at the forefront. in the wake of the resignation of state Sen. Phil Puckett and change in control of the State Senate, the new state budget was written under one-party control. A $1.6 billion shortfall due to lagging income tax collections forced cuts which I detailed two weeks ago: K-12, higher education, affordable housing, healthcare, and funding for continued planning for improvements on U.S. 1 was removed from the budget.

Last week, press reports suggest a Federal grand jury was summoned to investigate the resignation of Senator Puckett and allegations that a judgeship for this 33-year-old daughter and a six-figure job at the Virginia Tobacco Commission were offered in exchange for his resignation. The lack of any state investigation spotlights the weakness of the ethics reforms we just passed.

In my August, 2013 column, I wrote that we needed to create an independent ethics commission that was empowered “to investigate and prosecute ethical violations, including alleged violations of campaign finance, political campaign and financial disclosure laws governing all elected officials. We should not rely on politically-elected Commonwealth’s Attorneys, our criminal prosecutors, to be put in the position of policing fellow partisan elected officials with virtually no support from law enforcement. There are too many conflicts of interest and political pressures in play.” Perhaps my recommendation will be taken serious now. The Constitution of Virginia does not delegate the enforcement of Virginia’s ethics laws to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Over the weekend, Governor McAuliffe also issued eight line-item budget vetoes. One related to a Petersburg-Chesterfield school partnership, one restored funding to ameliorate the effects of federal budget cuts, one restored the Attorney General’s ability to control settlement funds, and one had to do with Governor's budget submissions. These were not contested.

The Governor vetoed $350,000 of staff for the new Ethics Advisory Commission arguing it was irresponsible to create a new ethics bureaucracy when the law we passed was so weak and requires changes he intends to introduce next session. This veto was overridden in the House and sustained in the Senate.

Next, the Governor vetoed $8 million of funding for approximately two dozen unfilled judgeships including a Circuit Court position in Fairfax County because the General Assembly attempted to condition the appropriation on the judges being elected by the General Assembly. This is unconstitutional given our Constitution explicitly gives the Governor that right to appoint judges in certain courts when we are not in session. The Speaker ruled this veto unconstitutional — more on that in a minute.

There were also two vetoes regarding Medicaid. First, the Governor vetoed the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) which was set up to come up with “Medicaid reforms” before we moved forward with expansion. The MIRC has done nothing. The Governor called it a “sham.” I do agree with him and this veto was not contested.

Lastly, the Governor line item vetoed language explicitly prohibiting a Medicaid expansion (aka “The Stanley Amendment”). The Speaker ruled that veto unconstitutional because, like the judgeships appropriation, he held the language was not a separate “item” capable of being vetoed. I believe these rulings were wrong. Feel free to watch my floor speech on my You Tube Channel for my legal rationale.

The Clerk of the House will now enroll a final law as if the Governor’s vetoes of the judgeships and Stanley Amendment did not happen creating a legal gray area. The Governor has announced he is also moving forward with expanding healthcare to low income working Virginians. He will announce a plan around Sept. 1.

This sets up a court challenge which will be decided by the Supreme Court of Virginia. A court challenge has happened twice since the line item veto was created in 1840 (as best anyone can tell). To make things more interesting, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has announced her retirement.

We now have a state budget, but healthcare for low income Virginians including about 7,000 people here in Mt. Vernon is far from resolved.

If you have any feedback, feel free to email me at It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.