Virginia legislature restricts abortion funding

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B01

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.

Howell also said a McDonnell amendment that would have prohibited pounds from euthanizing dogs based only on their breed was not germane to an underlying bill that dealt with penalties assessed for animal cruelty. "I don't think you're getting invited back to the mansion, Mr. Speaker,'' House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) quipped.

House Republicans said they have not abandoned their governor.

"I don't know if it's saying no to the governor," said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who voted against one of McDonnell's health-care cuts. "It's just one of those things. Some of these amendments are technical, and others just needed more time."

Legislators agreed to add an additional $6 million to the Governor's Opportunity Fund, intended to help lure businesses to Virginia and to retain a tax break for Virginia manufacturers that McDonnell said would give the state a competitive edge over its neighbors.

To help pay for the additional spending, they agreed that fines for speeders should rise by $1 per mile-an-hour over the posted speed limit.

Outside the state Capitol, about 50 protesters including McDonnell's former brother-in- law, gathered under umbrellas at a rainy rally to push for a state law to provide protections for workers based on sexual orientation.

Robyn Deane, who is transgender, said she decided to go public to offer her former brother-in-law help in coming around on his views on gay rights.

"The governor wishes Robyn the very best," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said.

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