RICHMOND, Va. – State Sen. Phillip P. Puckett- D-Russell has resigned his seat, leaving Democrats one vote shy of the majority they need to control the chamber.
Puckett's stunning resignation throws Democratic budget strategy into chaos and opening the way for Republicans to seize control of the chamber and reorganize its committees with GOP majorities, the Richmond Times Dispatch said in a report issued late Sunday.
“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,” Gov. Terry 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.”
With the current 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.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. A. Donald McEachin said in a statement: “The caucus is disappointed that Sen. Puckett has chose 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. At least two sources speculated that one of the family reasons involved Puckett's daughter, Martha P. Ketron.
Ketron, who was admitted to the bar in October 2006, was appointed last July to serve as a judge in Juvenile and Domestic relations 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.
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.
"If he's available I think he'd be great for us," Kilgore said."He'd be a great asset because he knows the region, and he's a former banker and JLARC said we need more follow-up so he'd be a perfect fit for us."
Kilgore said the issue of Puckett's employment could come up at the Tobacco Commission's 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.
Kilgore said he believed the difficulty in Puckett's daughter, Martha P. Ketron, 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, becaus 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.
"I don't know what goes on over there," he said. "For me to predict what's going on over in the Senate would be way out of line."
Interviewed about the flap in February, Puckett recalled a December 2013 conversation with Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, then the Senate Majority Leader, what he could do to “to help the situation. And he said 'if you weren't a senator, it wouldn't be an issue.'“
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 Circuit Court appointment.
It was unclear what role Ketron's potential appointment played in Puckett's decision. Judicial appointments, and the budget, are the two major issues remaining to be resolved by the legislature.
The 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.
“We have a bipartisan majority and it's greater than one,” said McEachin, who noted it takes a majority of the members elected to pass a budget.
Puckett, 66, has represented the 38th Senate district in Southwest Virginia since 1998.
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.
Senate Bill 673 was McAuliffe's first introduced piece of legislation in the session. Puckett introduced the bill, which clarified a previous tax collection law.
The new bill, which McAuliffe later signed, allows the city to collect sales tax revenues from the project as each business begins operating, instead of at the center's completion.
State and local officials said the clarification was important for the city's ability to sell revenue bonds to pay for the project.