Virginia legislature restricts abortion funding

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith and Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark confer at the Capitol.
House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith and Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark confer at the Capitol. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 22, 2010

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday accepted proposals from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to restrict state funding for abortions, expand spending on economic development and raise fines for speeders, but lawmakers resisted some cuts he had sought for social services.

On a 20 to 19 vote, the Democratic-led Senate agreed to an amendment proposed by McDonnell (R) that would limit state funding for abortions to those performed in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. Nothing in state law previously prohibited Medicaid-funded abortions in instances when the health of the mother was in jeopardy.

In Virginia, governors have wide latitude to propose amendments to bills passed by the legislature during its annual winter session. The General Assembly returned to Richmond on Wednesday for one day to consider his proposals to amend 122 bills and make 96 changes to the state's two-year budget.

The abortion vote was a victory for McDonnell, a Catholic who has long opposed abortion and who had been lobbied by social conservatives to restrict funding for the procedure. McDonnell argued that his proposal would bring Virginia into line with federal law on the issue, recently restated by an executive order signed by President Obama.

Abortion rights supporters said they thought the amendment would have far broader impact, affecting state employees seeking abortions under their state health plans. They said they thought it would restrict all abortions at public hospitals, except a very few performed for Medicaid patients in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.

Those arguments were rejected by three conservative Democrats in the Senate, where their party holds a two-vote majority, as well as by all 17 of the chamber's Republicans who were present.

"This is much ado about a simple measure," said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg). "This simply says that state funding will be used only for certain categories of abortion . . . but that it's not going to be used more expansively."

The drama surrounding the close Senate vote was heightened because the chamber's tie-breaker, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), was absent, stranded in Italy after a Tuesday flight home to Virginia was canceled because of ash from an Icelandic volcano. But his vote was not needed to decide the issue.

On a number of other proposals, Republicans in the GOP-led House of Delegates parted ways with McDonnell, joining Democrats to resist several spending cuts he had recommended to health services in the state's two-year, $78 billion budget.

Although he has tangled with Democrats in the legislature, McDonnell had found Republicans to be fairly steadfast allies. But Wednesday, they rejected a proposal that would have capped state spending on comprehensive services for at-risk and troubled children, a suggestion that would have put more responsibility for providing federally mandated services for at-risk children on local governments and reduced funding for the programs by $9.9 million.

In addition, members of both parties refused to accept a proposal to shift the state's Medicaid program for mental health and other behavioral services to a managed-care plan. Mental health advocates argued there was not strong evidence the state would save money from the switch, which they said had been hastily conceived. Seventy-seven delegates from both parties opposed the amendment, including House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) .

Public broadcasting also got a break, as legislators resisted a proposal from McDonnell to cut nearly $600,000 from public TV and radio programming and $1.6 million in state aid to public broadcasting earmarked for education. Broadcasters say that previous budget cuts have forced them to use nearly all state aid for programs in public schools.

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