RICHMOND, March 29 -- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) signed a measure Tuesday that tightens laws prohibiting illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits, including Medicaid and public assistance.
On the last day the governor could act on the nearly 950 bills that passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Warner waded into an issue that divided the legislature this year: what public benefits and other services the state should offer to illegal immigrants, a population that has nearly tripled in Virginia since 1996, according to federal estimates.
With a bit of verse, Gov. Mark R. Warner signed a bill designating an official bat.
The legislation -- House Bill 1798 and Senate Bill 1143 -- requires state and local governments to verify whether anyone who requests non-emergency public benefits is in the United States legally. The General Assembly also considered bills that would have banned illegal immigrants from the state's public colleges and universities and barred them from receiving workers' compensation benefits, but those measures failed.
Supporters of the legislation said Virginia's public resources should be used only for legal immigrants, particularly as the cost of many services, such as Medicaid, continues to rise.
Warner said the pair of bills sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger (R-Augusta) merely codified existing federal law, which prevents illegal immigrants from receiving certain public benefits.
The legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, applies only to illegal immigrants 19 and older. Immigrants of any age still will be eligible for emergency aid, such as disaster relief and pregnancy tests.
"The bill that passed was dramatically different than the one" introduced at the start of the 2005 assembly session, Warner said in an interview with reporters at the Capitol Tuesday.
But Warner, who is completing his final bill-signing period as governor, acknowledged the concerns of many opponents: that the bills were engineered by lawmakers searching for an issue to run on this election year. All 100 seats of the House of Delegates are up for election Nov. 8. Many opponents also argued that there was very little evidence that illegal immigrants were raiding public services wholesale.
"There may have been some election-year activities surrounding the bill," Warner said.
Several activists said Warner's signing of the bill sent a dangerous message to the commonwealth.
"It's very disappointing," said Arlington County Board member Walter Tejada (D), who serves as chairman of the Virginia Latino Advisory Commission, which Warner established two years ago. "It serves no other purpose but to fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment . . . and that is simply wrong."
Tejada echoed the concerns expressed by opponents of the legislation and several local officials, who said it will create onerous red tape for people here legally.
In other action Tuesday, Warner vetoed legislation that sought to end a quarter-century-old federal ban on drilling for natural gas off the Atlantic coast.
SB 1054, sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), called on Virginia's congressional lobbyists to work with its U.S. senators and representatives to lift the ban on offshore drilling. In an interview this week, Wagner said Virginians need new energy sources. Lifting the ban would ease the way for drilling off the Hampton Roads coast.
Warner said in a statement that he was vetoing the bill largely on procedural grounds. The bill would interfere with the power of the governor to work with the state's Washington lobbyists. He pointed out that there were other channels for advocates to use.
"There is nothing to prevent individual legislators or groups of legislators from advocating for these or other policies," he said.
Environmental groups and local leaders in the Hampton Roads area had argued that drilling would have a disastrous impact on the state's shorelines. Trade groups hoping to lift the ban said offshore gas fields are a vital untapped source for a country dependent on foreign energy supplies.