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Virginia’s General Assembly sustained several legislative and budget revisions promoted by the governor.
Sen John Watkins, R-Powhatan (left) speaks about the governor’s abortion funding amendment while other senators confer Wednesday. In the background are Sens. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier County. Seated (from left) are Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
RICHMOND — After an intense floor debate Wednesday, when one lawmaker invoked the image of bombing abortion clinics, Virginia lawmakers upheld Gov. Bob McDonnell’s move to restrict abortion coverage under certain insurance plans.
The governor amended measures aligning state policy with the federal health care act to prohibit abortion coverage under insurance plans offered through a health benefits exchange operating in Virginia.
McDonnell’s modifications had been the focus of feverish lobbying efforts by both abortion-rights groups and abortion opponents preceding the General Assembly’s return to the Capitol to take up legislative and budget revisions.
By day’s end, the Republican governor had prevailed in his effort to curtail abortion and saw sustained several other significant amendments he offered.
Lawmakers agreed to McDonnell’s alterations on the $6 billion statewide and regional road funding plan that raises the state sales tax to 5.3 percent and converts the per-gallon gas tax to a wholesale levy, among other financial wrinkles.
Responding to complaints, the governor lowered the alternative fuel vehicle annual fee in the bill to $64 from the previous $100 proposal. And he refined regional revenue language proposed for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia in HB 2313 to insulate it from possible litigation.
Policy makers also affirmed his adjustments to a tougher texting-while-driving law. The governor reduced to $125, down from a proposed $200, a fine for first-time offenders under legislation that still enhances penalties on violators.
McDonnell further directed police undergo training regarding the new powers granted them to stop violators on suspicion of texting and driving, authority they lack under current law.
The legislators gave McDonnell perhaps his toughest defeat in the afternoon, when he endured nearly simultaneous rejections in the House of Delegates and Senate on his legislative recommendations to have the state take over failing schools.
The proposal in SB 1324 is a key piece of McDonnell’s education reform agenda that establishes an appointed panel empowered to oversee supervision of habitually failing schools.
Several education interests groups oppose the bill and question the constitutionality of a measure that would apply to at least two schools in Norfolk, according to state officials.
The Senate dumped McDonnell’s changes to the takeover bill, while the House turned back his attempt to put $450,000 in additional seed money into the program.
Still, the underlying bill remains alive and McDonnell plans to sign it into law, his staff said.
That was a prelude to the abortion clash in both legislative chambers over McDonnell’s amendments to prohibit insurance coverage for abortion under health benefits exchanges with limited exceptions. Central to the debate is whether it’s proper to tell private insurance carriers which type of coverage they can’t provide.
That left Democrats arguing against what they said is government meddling in a marketplace decision, a position generally more common among fiscal conservatives.
“It is blatantly obvious to me that the purpose is to decrease access for women to reproductive health care,” said Norfolk Sen. Ralph Northam, a physician who opposed the abortion amendment.
Added Roanoke Sen. John Edwards: “It’s not a serious amendment. It is a political statement. That’s all it is.”
Countering, Republicans said that since public money is backing aspects of the federal health care overhaul, it is appropriate to impose restrictions on taxpayer dollars from subsidizing abortion.
The governor’s amendment to HB 1900 comfortably passed the House 55-37, with one abstention and seven delegates listed as not voting.
Explaining his reason for abstaining, ardent abortion foe Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William County, denounced the amendment as a feel-good proposal that does little to block abortions.
Asked why he’d oppose a bill that would curb some abortions, Marshall offered a vivid metaphor:
“Anybody here could go out in front of an abortion clinic and blow it up and probably slow down the number of abortions for a week,” he said. “I’m not willing to use any means to achieve even a good end.”
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