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Virginia Senate passes budget — with amendments

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The Virginia Senate passed a new two-year, $85 billion budget, despite the rejection of roughly $3 million in funding for mandatory ultrasounds that women considering abortions will have to undergo.

The budget includes an amendment supported by Sens. Janet Howell, Fairfax Democrat, and Mark Herring, Loudoun Democrat, that will provide $300 million in bonds to help control rising toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road. Funds generated by the toll road are helping pay for Phase 2 of Metro's $6 billion, 23-mile Silver Line project in addition to $150 million the state has already pledged to the extension.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said the funding likely would be removed when the budget is sent to the House, calling rail service to Dulles "the most irresponsible project I've come across."

"They're borrowing this money and they're not using the money to pay for the project, they're using the money to subsidize the tolls," he said.

The Senate multiple times rejected amendments that would expand on legislation passed during the General Assembly session banning state funds from going to contractors who favor project labor agreements. The agreements are used by contractors and labor groups to set the terms of employment for a particular project.

The state has been at odds over the issue with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the Dulles rail project. The airports authority recently voted to grant a 10 percent scoring bonus to contractors bidding on Phase 2 of Dulles rail that employ such mandatory labor agreements, drawing the ire of Virginia Republicans and construction interests.

The ultrasound amendment was defeated on a 20-19 vote. The measure would have provided about $3 million over two years to cover the cost of ultrasounds as the result of a controversial law passed by the assembly during its regular session this year.

"Since we've mandated an ultrasound procedure, I just simply feel we ought to pay for this," said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. "This amendment has nothing to do with abortions."

The money would have been made available only to facilities that perform five or fewer abortions per month or state-funded nursing hospitals — a concession to Republicans who do not want to see state money go toward Planned Parenthood.

But Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters, Virginia Beach Republican, said it went beyond mere dollars and cents.

"This is a matter, for many, of human life," he said.

The budget adds $18 million to assist Northern Virginia in offsetting the higher cost of living for education employees in non-teaching roles. Gov. Bob McDonnell's original budget had slashed $65 million from the so-called "cost of competing adjustment", and the Senate Finance Committee had already restored $42 million in an earlier version of the budget. The House budget restores $24 million, presenting one of many items that will still have to be ironed out between the two chambers.

The amended budget will head back to the Republican-controlled House, which is expected to reject the Senate's version. It will then be left to a group of six senators and six delegates who will meet to hash out the differences. The group consists of eight Republicans, three Democrats, and one independent.

Mr. Howell said the conferees have been meeting and are already "close" on major items like health and human services and education. Once those are taken care of, he said, lawmakers could be finished in about a week.

Once the conference committee budget clears both the House and the Senate, it heads to the desk of Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, who can sign, amend or veto it in whole or in part. Any vetoes or amendments will be taken up at a one-day "veto" session scheduled for April 18. A two-thirds vote is necessary to override a veto, while a simple majority can reject a gubernatorial amendment.

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