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

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Fredrick Kunkle
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.

Unlike last year, when gloomy legislators adopted a budget that slashed more than $4 billion from every area of government, they were greeted by the news that tax revenue has been better than expected, allowing them to reverse some previously adopted cuts.

"Last year was painful," Houck said. "This is year is difficult, but it's a difficulty in agreeing how to spend. It's an entirely different dynamic."

The House and Senate clashed in the session's waning days over how to spend the unexpected money.

The Senate won $75 million more for public schools. Hospitals and doctors faced with possible deep cuts in the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate will also get some relief. And the state will continue to provide some funding, although reduced, for public radio and television, another priority of the state Senate.

The House got $64 million more to replenish the state's rainy-day fund and $46 million to unwind a budget gimmick that requires some businesses to remit their sales tax collections early. Legislators agreed to eliminate a $43.5 million line item to revamp a shuttered prison to house sex predators, as the House urged. Taxes will not rise, and lawmakers agreed that they would add no new fee increases to the budget.

But they approved spending $30 million to help speed the transition of people with severe intellectual disabilities out of state-operated institutions and into community-based care. That was in response to a searing report about the conditions of Virginia's facilities delivered this month by the Department of Justice.

And lawmakers decided that state employees should begin making annual payments to their retirement fund for the first time since 1983. They negated the potential cost savings of the change by agreeing to give employees an offsetting 5 percent pay raise, their first increase in four years.

'Don't increase taxes'

In other areas, the parties also cooperated for major breakthroughs.

With Howell's backing, the legislature agreed to a longtime Democratic priority - a mandate that some companies' health-insurance plans must cover some services for autistic children.

The General Assembly also agreed to require public elementary and middle schools to offer 150 minutes of physical education each week, in an effort to curb childhood obesity.

Other measures include a bill making illegal the possession and distribution of synthetic marijuana, known as spice, and one that will make it easier for people in dating relationships to take out restraining orders against abusive partners.

Delegates said conversation in their chamber was flavored by sentiments of tea party activists.

"They've said, 'Don't increase spending. Don't increase taxes,'" said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). "I think that has really influenced the overall debate."

But a number of tea party-supported measures that emerged from the House were rejected by the Senate.

They included a call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow federal laws to be overturned by two-thirds of state legislatures and a bill to prohibit Washington from regulating goods manufactured and sold in Virginia.

Democratic Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) termed it the "nullification agenda" and said he thought voters would credit his party with killing it.

In coming weeks, McDonnell will have to sign, veto or amend all of the nearly 1,600 bills adopted by the legislature. He will face pressure to veto some bills, notably the autism and physical education measures, as some conservatives urge him to reject a new mandate on private insurers and school officials argue that they don't have the money to pay new gym teachers.

The Virginia General Assembly holds one of the shortest state legislative sessions in the country. But having completed this year's 6 1/2-week-long sprint, the legislature will take a brief break.

Just after the House and Senate gaveled to a close Sunday night, each chamber immediately opened a new special session to deal with drawing new legislative maps in response to the 2010 Census numbers delivered in early February.

They immediately recessed their new term but agreed they will return to Richmond April 4 to take up their political tussle anew.

heldermanr@washpost.com kunklef@washpost.com

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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