Justin Fairfax made history last fall when he was elected Virginia’s second African-American Lt. Governor, a job that gains political importance when the General Assembly is in session.
Fairfax presides over the State Senate, and just in case there is a tie, on any legislation other than the budget directly, he can exercise one of few important political duties.
He can vote to break a tie on the budget, if an amendment is used to change or add something to the spending bill proposed by a legislator or the Governor.
This week, the Virginia General Assembly is back in Richmond to reconcile their differences on the state budget, and at the same time, expand Medicaid to allow 400,000 Virginians to use the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Over 50,000 people in Hampton Roads could qualify to gain coverage if it happens. This includes 10,600 in Virginia Beach; 12,600 in Norfolk; 7,300 in Newport News; and 5,200 in Hampton, according to The Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services.
Prior to this session of the General Assembly, Republican lawmakers have stood against expansion.
But two Senate Republicans may be joining the 19 Democrats in the Senate to support such a move, creating a 21-21 tie that the Lt. Governor said he is eager to break, giving the Democrats a political prize which has eluded them for six years.
The Commonwealth will be able to join the 33 states and the District of Columbia which have expanded Medicaid.
Republicans Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. of Augusta and Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach say they may join Democrats to make that happen.
Hagar was the lone Republican to openly support expansion during the 2018 session of the legislature.
Thanks to the Democrats picking up 15 House seats during the blue wave election of 2017, the GOP now has a slender 51-49 margin.
GOP House leaders fearing further erosion of support, have backed a budget approving the Medicaid expansion.
The GOP, which rules the Senate thinly 21-19, crafted a budget which did not.
The 2018 session ended March 10 without a budget being approved. If not approved before the July 1 deadline, the state’s government will shut down.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, supports expansion and listed it as a top priority during last year’s elections. He called the General Assembly back into session this week to work out a deal to pass a budget and make good on his prime campaign promise.
Unable to agree on the rivaling budgets, a “conference” committee was created, by the leaders of the House and Senate. It is composed of two Democrats and two Republicans and was tasked with working out a budget deal.
Hagar and Wagner were on that panel.
The Governor amended the Senate Budget plan to expand Medicaid and despite heat from GOP leaders in the Senate, Hagar and Warner were poised (at New Journal and Guide press time) to side with Democrats, creating a tie, which Fairfax will break.
Before the vote is taken, Senate Democrats say they will be working to recruit other Republicans in that body to their side which may spare the Lt. Governor from delivering this important vote.
Wagner came out last week in support of the expansion but said he wants to make the provisions of the law in the budget as “conservative as possible.”
House Republicans leaders said they supported a budget plan to expand Medicaid, only if there was a requirement that people have to work to receive the benefit. Democrats adopted that provision on the way to approving the House spending bill.
Wagner said he would support the Medicaid expansion, but wants the plan structured so recipients do not suddenly lose coverage if their earnings rise. And he wants a tax credit or some other help for middle-income people who already have insurance but are struggling to pay soaring premiums and co-pays.
Hanger, for his vote, wants the elimination of a hospital “bed tax” that would be used to pay for the state’s share of the expansion, preferring to pay for it out of existing tax revenue.
Northam, a Norfolk pediatrician and former Army doctor, has called expansion a moral and economic priority of the state. He said it would create a healthier workforce, encourage the poor to seek primary care rather than expensive emergency-room treatment and create 30,000 health-care jobs.
(This story may be updated for our web coverage.)
By Leonard E. Colvin