Va. lawmakers end annual session with increased spending on schools, health care

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 9:21 PM

RICHMOND - The Virginia General Assembly adjourned its annual legislative session Sunday evening after adopting revisions to the state's two-year budget that provides the first spending increases for schools and health care since the economic downturn began.

After working into the early hours of Sunday morning, a divided legislature reached a compromise on budget amendments that mollified Republicans bent on paring government to its core services and Democrats eager to restore spending on schools, health care and other priorities as the economy improves.

The deal ended a stalemate that forced the 47-day session to end a day late. But it was in keeping with a legislative term marked by hard bargaining - and more than a little posturing - in an election year in which all 140 seats are up for grabs. And it was also the last session before decennial redistricting, which is expected to alter the historic balance between Virginia's urban and rural communities.

The parties returned to familiar battlegrounds. Republicans, mindful of the tea party's watchful presence, sought to fend off intrusions by the federal government and tighten rules on illegal immigration. Democrats pushed for broader protections against discrimination for gay state workers and attempted to rein in Ken Cuccinelli II (R), Virginia's conservative attorney general.

Many measures passed the Republican-held House of Delegates, only to die in the Democrat-led state Senate, or vice versa.

But the session ended with a dramatic fight over the emotional issue of abortion rights, as Republicans maneuvered the Senate into an unwanted late vote on a bill that requires abortion clinics to be regulated as hospitals.

Democrats were unable to stop two of their conservative members from voting with all 18 Republicans to approve the bill, handing antiabortion activists a victory they had sought for two decades. The move, abortion providers said, could force some clinics to close if the new regulations prove too costly.

"Incredibly significant," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said of the abortion measure, which he supported.

"A terrible tragedy," countered Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), who voted against it.

'Different dynamic'

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) scored significant legislative wins, including the approval of a plan to accelerate $2.9 billion in bond funding for new roads and a bill to reshape how the state funds its colleges and universities.

But legislators rebuffed McDonnell's signature proposal to privatize state-run liquor stores and did little with his suggestion that the state employee pension system should be reformed. He has pledged to make both priorities for his remaining two years in office.

The General Assembly's last order of business was a hard-fought battle over adjustments to the state's two-year, $78 billion operating budget.

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