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Democratic senator Puckett resigns, adding to state budget turmoil

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Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, will announce Monday that he is resigning his state Senate seat, suddenly giving Republicans a 20-19 edge in the chamber and dealing a setback to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s push to expand Medicaid.

Puckett’s stunning resignation throws Democratic budget strategy into chaos and opens the way for Republicans to seize control of the chamber and reorganize its committees with GOP majorities.

The resignation also may clear the way for the Senate to confirm Puckett's daughter for a full six-year term as a juvenile court judge in Southwest Virginia.

“I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially those in Southwest Virginia,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

“This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.“

Puckett may not be unemployed for long.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore, R-Scott, chairman of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, said he is interested in Puckett taking a job with the commission and has discussed it with him. Kilgore said he could see Puckett dealing with grants and community outreach.

Kilgore also said he believes the difficulty Puckett’s daughter, Martha P. Ketron, has had in gaining Senate approval for a judicial appointment given his status as a sitting senator “played a big role” in his decision to resign.

“Martha is fantastic, and I think he would hate to see her lose that opportunity, because she has done such a good job,” said Kilgore.

But Kilgore refused to speculate as to whether Puckett had cut a deal with Senate Republicans to tender his resignation at this time — a move that effectively enables Senate Republicans to take control of the chamber from Democrats, who had been holding onto the budget as leverage to win the inclusion of Medicaid in the spending plan.

As for the tobacco commission: “If he’s available I think he’d be great for us,” Kilgore said of Puckett, who has represented Southwest Virginia in the state Senate since 1998.

“He’d be a great asset because he knows the region, and he’s a former banker and [the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission] said we need more follow-up, so he’d be a perfect fit for us.”

Kilgore said the issue of Puckett’s employment — which would require approval of the tobacco commission’s executive committee — could come up at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday. That schedule could change, however, if lawmakers are called back into session in Richmond to take up the budget.

With the fiscal year set to expire June 30, the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates have been locked in a political stalemate over a new, two-year budget.

Democrats and three Republican senators have insisted that the new state spending plan include a provision to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured Virginians, while Republicans have opposed the plan, doubting the federal funding promise and saying the current program needs reforms before expanding.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said in a statement: “The caucus is disappointed that Sen. Puckett has chosen this time to resign, but we wish him well, Godspeed and the best of health to his family.”

Puckett could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sources familiar with Puckett’s resignation, submitted this weekend, said the longtime Southwest Virginia senator cited family reasons for his sudden departure.

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Puckett’s daughter, Ketron, who was admitted to the bar in October 2006, was appointed last July to serve as a judge in juvenile and domestic relations district court in an interim capacity by judges of the 29th District Circuit Court, which covers Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties in Southwest Virginia.

But her bid for reappointment to a full, six-year term was put off earlier this year in the General Assembly, in part due to a tradition against awarding bench appointments to family members of sitting legislators.

Interviewed about the flap in February, Puckett recalled a December conversation with Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, then the Senate majority leader, about what Puckett could do to “to help the situation. And he said, ‘If you weren’t a senator, it wouldn’t be an issue,’” Puckett said.

Puckett also said in February that he was not willing to leave the Senate. He said he had already discussed his position with his daughter “long before” she decided to seek the circuit court appointment to the juvenile court.

Judicial appointments and the budget are the two major issues remaining to be resolved by the legislature.

Puckett’s resignation sent shockwaves through the commonwealth’s political circles. Republicans said the resignation would allow them to move the budget process forward, though Democrats said that with three Republican senators in favor of including Medicaid expansion in the spending plan, getting a majority vote on the issue might not go along with organizational control of the chamber.

Under the state constitution, passage of the budget requires a majority of the elected senators — now 20 of the 39.

While Republicans now have the numerical edge, three GOP senators – Emmett W. Hanger Jr., of Augusta, John Watkins of Powhatan and Walter A. Stosch of Henrico — have expressed support for expanding health coverage.

“We have a bipartisan majority and it’s greater than one,” said McEachin.

For the moment, Senate Republicans were playing it straight when it came to the Puckett departure.

“Although Senator Puckett has decided to end his tenure in the Senate of Virginia, his legacy there will endure,” Norment said in a statement. “And, his commitment and service to the people of Southwest, (Virginia) who honored him with their votes in five successive elections, will continue.

“On behalf of the Senate Republican Caucus, I thank Senator Puckett for his service in the Senate and wish him continued success in all his future endeavors.”

During this year’s regular General assembly session, McAuliffe had helped Puckett and other lawmakers from Southwest Virginia by backing a bill to jump start a shopping mall project in Bristol.

The tobacco commission was formed in 1999 to manage a $1 billion endowment created from half of Virginia’s share of the national settlement with cigarette companies. The money overseen by the commission was earmarked to support economic development in the commonwealth’s tobacco belt.

State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, who serves on the tobacco commission, noted Sunday that Puckett previously served as a legislative member of the panel. He said Puckett would be a good fit in a new role.

“If Phil Puckett is willing to serve the tobacco commission, that would be the most qualified person you could ever get for that job,” Stanley said.

“That would be like getting Elvis Presley to sing at your daughter’s wedding.”

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan   (804) 649-6061


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