By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said Friday he will veto a Medicaid amendment to the state budget advanced by a Republican-dominated legislature that could prevent him from expanding access to the program through executive action.
Expanding Medicaid, a federal-state healthcare program for the poor, has been the Democratic governor's top legislative objective since taking office in January, as well as the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign against a Tea Party-backed opponent.
McAuliffe said he objected to some other measures - including language that would have stopped him from appointing judges outside of the legislative session and planned funds to renovate legislative offices - but overall would approve the rest of the two-year budget.
"Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth know that the lack of healthcare is hurting families, stunting economic growth, damaging hospitals and clinics and causing too many of our citizens to suffer needlessly," McAuliffe told reporters.
He said 20 other states have Medicaid-expansion programs.
"It is unconscionable that one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations on the globe is not providing care for its citizens," McAuliffe said.
His administration estimates that Medicaid expansion would provide healthcare to 400,000 uninsured Virginians and create 30,000 jobs.
Republican legislators have been steadfastly opposed and inserted last-minute language in the budget to block it.
The most conservative Republicans apparently were emboldened to add the language by the defeat of Eric Cantor, the former majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, who was overwhelmed by a Tea Party rival in a Republican primary.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor has several options to expand Medicaid through executive action.
State House Republican leaders said in a statement they believed the governor’s vetoes exceeded his authority.
"We are prepared to challenge this blatant executive overreach through all available avenues, including the court system," the statement said.
The nearly $96 billion state budget will now go back to state legislature, which will meet Monday.
To cover a projected $1.55 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years, the budget contains $842 million in spending cuts but also plans to tap a "rainy day" fund for an additional $707.5 million to make up the difference.
With 10 days left in the fiscal year, the budget must be approved quickly or risk a government shutdown and loss of Virginia's "AAA" bond rating.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)