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Budget revisions hail Assembly session end

The budget compromise won't fund two vacant judgeships in the Roanoke Valley.

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    From The Roanoke Times

    RICHMOND - The General Assembly brought down the curtain on its 2013 session Saturday with a frenetic finale that featured conflict and compromise.

    Lawmakers went home Saturday evening after approving revisions to Virginia's two-year budget that include a compromise framework for reform and potential expansion of the Medicaid program. The fragile compromise appeared close to unraveling Saturday morning after a surprise opinion issued by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. But House and Senate budget negotiators responded by amending the disputed provision, and then both houses passed the budget bill with lopsided majorities.

    The revised $87.4 billion spending plan includes funds to open the River North Correctional Center in Grayson County, a 1,024-bed facility that was completed in 2010 but never opened because of budget constraints. Under the bill passed Saturday, the prison would open in October - three months earlier than Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed in his budget plan.

    The budget bill also includes a grandfather clause for school divisions to keep state waivers that allow them to start classes before Labor Day. Roanoke County was at risk of losing its school calendar waiver because of a lack of weather-related closings, but approved a pre-Labor Day start date earlier this month after the House and Senate passed separate bills containing the grandfather clause.

    The budget also would fund the state's share of a 2 percent pay raise for public school teachers and support staff, and award 3 percent raises to college faculty and state-supported local government employees. Other state workers would receive 2 percent raises and a "compression adjustment" that will benefit more senior employees.

    Roanoke Valley legislators were disappointed that the budget compromise won't fund two vacant judgeships in the 23rd Judicial Circuit. The retirements of Judges Robert Doherty and Jonathan Apgar will reduce the number of judges in the circuit from six to four.

    "It'll take you three months to six months to ever get a court hearing," said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, who plans to ask McDonnell to amend the budget bill to fund at least one of the circuit vacancies.

    House and Senate budget negotiators appeared to have talks wrapped up Friday night after agreeing on conditions for reform and the possible expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law. Senate Democrats had sought an accommodation on Medicaid as a condition for supporting the budget and a separate transportation funding bill.

    But a written advisory opinion from Cuccinelli circulated Saturday morning raised constitutional questions about the Medicaid provision, which calls for a legislative commission to oversee reforms that could allow for expanding Medicaid to cover at least 250,000 more low-income Virginians.

    Under the provision, the commission could direct the state agency that administers Medicaid to expand enrollment if the panel determines that conditions for reform have been met.

    Responding to a request from Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, Cuccinelli wrote that the state constitution "prohibits the General Assembly from delegating final legislative authority regarding budget and other enactments to a committee composed of a subset of the members."

    Budget negotiators, who worked with lawyers on the Medicaid provision, said the state already empowers legislative commissions with similar conditional oversight powers.

    McDonnell has insisted that reforms be implemented before the state considers expanding Medicaid eligibility. And even some supporters of expansion have sought an escape clause in case the state retreats from its funding commitment. The federal government will cover the full cost of the expansion for three years before gradually reducing its contribution to 90percent.

    Cline voted against the budget bill because he wasn't satisfied with the Medicaid provision.

    Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, supported the provision because it gives the legislature oversight in a process that otherwise would be controlled by the governor.

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