Senate uses budget to sidetrack airbnb policy, raise lawmakers’ per-day pay

2/25/16

By MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Virginia Senate is using its version of the two-year state budget to sidetrack a policy it already had adopted to allow Airbnb rentals, to raise pay per day for legislators, and to boost the office allowances of its leadership.

The budget the Senate adopted on Thursday on a 38-1 vote now goes to the House of Delegates, which approved its own version of the two-year spending plan on a 98-2 vote. Each chamber will reject the other’s budget, sending both documents to a joint conference committee to reconcile in the remaining two weeks of the General Assembly session.

In its only recorded vote on an amendment to the budget Gov. Terry McAuliffe introduced, the Senate narrowly approved a maneuver by Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, to direct the state housing commission to study how to regulate the thriving Airbnb rental business.

The maneuver came despite a legislative compromise that passed both chambers to allow the practice to operate legally in Virginia. The Airbnb legislation could not become law unless the legislature adopts it again next year.

The 21-19 bipartisan vote was “incredibly disappointing,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, who had sponsored the Airbnb legislation in the Senate and helped broker a compromise in both chambers on how to regulate and tax the business.

“However, it is not in the House budget,” Vogel said after the final budget vote. “It’s not over until it’s over.”

The decisions about what was included in the $107 billion budget were cast in contrast with what both chambers left out — $3 billion in federal funds to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act to provide health coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, made the comparison explicit before the Senate approved an amendment that allowed legislators flexibility in providing state insurance coverage to their aides, as well as themselves, as the only part-time state employees to be offered state health insurance.

“We are turning our backs on the working poor,” charged Deeds, who said the Senate amendment “provides benefits for the people we know,” but not for working Virginians who cannot afford health insurance.

The Senate also approved, by voice vote, a trio of amendments that would: raise the per-day pay of legislators from $200 to $300; increase the office allowances for Norment, as majority leader, and Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, by $300,000 a year; and add $20,000 a year for a secretary to reflect the shared chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.

A divided Republican caucus decided last fall to re-elect Norment as majority leader and elevate him as co-chairman of Senate Finance with Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta. The committee also was led by co-chairmen last year — Sens. Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, and Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, who both retired.

The proposed increase in per-diem pay for days when legislators perform state business was condemned by freshman Sen. David R. Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Norment defended the per-diem increase as compensation that does not represent a salary increase and reminded members that the pay has not changed since 2000. “I do not think there’s any potential backlash on this,” he said.

Vogel, who chaired the general government subcommittee that recommended the increases, said the per-diem pay is important to members who don’t have great personal income to offset the demands of the legislative job.

“I’d like to create an environment where you don’t have to have a lot of independent wealth to run for this office,” she said.

In the House, advocates of Medicaid expansion called the proposed budget “a missed opportunity” to use federal tax money that Virginians already have paid under the Affordable Care Act to expand health coverage while generating $157 million in net savings in state tax funds that McAuliffe included in the two-year budget.

“That is the great missed opportunity in this budget,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who also focused on amendments that would not have been necessary, such as improved benefits for people with serious mental illness, if the House Appropriations Committee had adopted McAuliffe’s proposal.

But Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said some of the 31 states that have expanded their Medicaid programs under the health care law now face major pressures in their state budgets. He cited Kentucky, which just reported a projected $611 million shortfall in its two-year Medicaid budget.

Landes said “it’s not fiscally prudent” to expand the program because it would “consume more and more of our budget” at the expense of other state services.

The House voted 66-34, on a strict party line, to remove Medicaid expansion from the budget, but it also approved an amendment for an additional 150 slots for services to intellectually and developmentally disabled Virginians under Medicaid waivers that provides the most expensive care in the program.

The House also supported the governor’s proposal for 855 waiver slots, in part to comply with a Department of Justice settlement to move people out of state institutions if they don’t need to be there.

Hanger, who helped to lead an unsuccessful effort to expand insurance coverage two years ago, said the time is not right to renew the fight with a presidential election looming that could determine the fate of the federal health care law.

“At this point in time, I’m yielding to the political realities of the moment,” he said. “I think that’s where we need to be.”

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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