Virginia GOP allegedly bribed Dem. Sen. Puckett to block Medicaid expansion

Republicans in Virginia have allegedly bribed Democratic state Sen. Phil Puckett to resign in exchange for lucrative, prestigious jobs for him and his daughter, and handing the GOP the state Senate. Bribery, it seems, is only wrong when it’s someone else doing the buying.

Virginia has been embroiled in a budget standoff for months. Republicans, who control the House of Delegates, refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats, who control the Senate thanks to a tiebreaker, and who also hold the governor’s office, insist on Medicaid expansion in the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

The stalemate threatens to shut down state government, a sad reenactment of the federal shutdown drama.

Former Virginia Sen. Phil Puckett says talk to the hand.

Former Virginia Sen. Phil Puckett says talk to the hand.

Puckett’s resignation changes that dynamic. Republicans now hold a one-vote majority in the Senate. They can pass a Medicaid-free budget and challenge the governor to veto it. It’s all about whom the public would blame for a shutdown. As long as the legislature couldn’t move a budget, blame lay there. If Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoes a budget, blame will fall on him (at least that’s the plan).

In Sen. Puckett, Republicans found a doting father with profound moral flexibility. Puckett scores a cushy deputy director position at the state tobacco commission, salary to be determined later. His daughter will be confirmed as a circuit court judge by the General Assembly. Who could ask for anything more?

In return, the GOP takes over the state Senate, and scores a huge political win on the Medicaid fight, succeeding at denying health care to hundreds of thousands of poor Virginians. Such are the high-minded priorities of modern Republicans.

The party might even retain control of the Senate if it wins a special election in Puckett’s conservative, coal-friendly district. Virginia then could return to the days of transvaginal ultrasounds, hybrid vehicle taxes, and discrimination against gays and women at state universities.

Democrats cry foul at Puckett’s treachery, but they can’t do much about it. In Virginia, corruption is in the eye of the beholder — or at least in the hands of federal investigators and lawmakers who like their palms greased, thank you very much.

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Virginia legislators had an excellent opportunity to pass meaningful ethics reform this year. Both major parties were unified in their disgust with Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been accused of accepting bribes by federal prosecutors. When lawmakers convened in Richmond, they discussed ways to crack down on the graft that the state’s lax ethics rules allowed.

It was all talk. Ultimately they passed only timid ethics rules that leave the spigot of cash and gifts wide open. Even if they had passed stronger legislation, it would not have addressed the Puckett scenario. As long as lawmakers get to write their own ethics rules, they aren’t about to prevent themselves and their families from enjoying profitable futures.

Virginia isn’t unique in this. Such despicable yet legal political wheeling and dealing takes place in every state and in Congress. This just happens to be the most brazen example in recent memory.

Pollyannaish editorial writers and commentators in the commonwealth no doubt now will call for more reform. They might urge voters to remember this craven behavior when the next legislative elections come around in 2015.

Good luck with that. Voters’ memories aren’t that long. Even if they were, bitter partisanship and expertly gerrymandered electoral districts ensure incumbents return year after year.

Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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