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Virginia Assembly approves most of governor’s amendments

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RICHMOND — The Republican-controlled General Assembly accepted amendments Wednesday by Gov. Bob McDonnell that bar insurers in the federally run health insurance exchange that will operate in Virginia from covering abortion. Lawmakers also cut some costs from the transportation funding measure that will likely be his legislative legacy.

They also affirmed his amendments tightening the operational mandate for a legislative panel that will determine when reforms necessary to broaden Medicaid to an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians have been achieved, allowing the federal-state healthcare program to expand.

But four of the governor's amendments for the final year to Virginia's $88 billion biennial budget failed.
The House and Senate reconvened for a single day Wednesday to consider amendments Mr. McDonnell offered to 80 bills and vetoes to six bills passed in the legislative session that ended Feb. 23 — floor sessions that were likely the last for eight delegates and one senator who are retiring. Among them was 84-year-old Lacey Putney of Bedford, an independent first elected in 1961 whose 52 sessions are the most for any legislator in Virginia history.

By far, the Senate's 20-19 vote to sustain the amendment banning abortion coverage in policies sold through the exchange — a forum through which low-income people ineligible for Medicaid can purchase low-cost insurance — was the most visceral and passionate.

Opponents said Mr. McDonnell's amendment was so extreme that it will not only interfere with a woman's reproductive rights decisions, it takes the unusual step of dictating to private insurers' policies what they can't cover. It even prohibits selling separate abortion coverage riders through the exchange to people who would purchase it with their own money, not government subsidies.

"We've told insurance companies what kind of mandates you have to cover, but we've never told an insurance company that you can't cover something even if you want to cover it," said an incredulous Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.

Earlier Wednesday, the House had approved the amendment on a 55-37 vote with seven delegates not voting and one notable abstention that evoked the day's most explosive.

Republican Delegate Robert G. Marshall, the legislature's most ardent abortion foe, provoked gasps, groans and grimaces within the House chamber when he announced he would abstain on the vote because he opposed what he considered an overly broad exception allowing abortions to save a pregnant woman's life.

Delegate Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican and a fellow anti-abortion legislator, tried to persuade Mr. Marshall to vote for the bill by arguing that Mr. McDonnell's amendment does more harm than good.

"If he truly believes this amendment would not save one life, then I certainly understand that that is a valid argument, but if he believes it will save any lives, why then would he not attempt to do that?" Mr. Gilbert asked.

"Mr. Speaker, anybody here could go out in front of an abortion clinic and blow it up and probably slow down the number of abortions for a week. I'm not willing to use any means to achieve even a good end," Mr. Marshall shot back.

Now that the amendment becomes law, opponents will likely look to the courts in hopes of overturning the action. "I'd be surprised if there's not" a lawsuit challenging the provision, said Sen. John Edwards, Roanoke Democrat and a lawyer.

Two other high-profile McDonnell amendments found Republicans among their harshest critics.

His Medicaid amendment garnered three-fourths of the vote in each chamber, but only after conservatives intractably opposed to Medicaid expansion under the federal health overhaul law argued that it was merely a cosmetic contrivance to mask Medicaid expansion.

The first major overhaul in Virginia's failing highway funding formula since 1986 cleared both chambers by 2-to-1 ratios, but with his own party's conservatives denouncing it as the largest tax increase in Virginia history. The package will raise more than $1 billion a year from statewide and regional funding sources.

"This will take more money from our constituents," said Delegate Kathy Byron, Campbell Republican. "This will make Virginia less affordable for people who live here."

One provision of the bill that prompted protests was a $100 annual fee on hybrid and alternative-fuel cars.

Mr. McDonnell trimmed that to $64, but it still wasn't enough to satisfy Delegate Scott Surovell.

"It punishes people for doing the right thing," said Mr. Surovell, who voted for the bill but vowed to try next year to try to repeal the hybrid tax.

The Republican governor also reduced the titling tax paid at the purchase of a car from the 4.3 percent the bill specified to 4.15 percent.

But Mr. McDonnell's most vital amendment to the transportation package squares regional taxing provisions for perpetually gridlocked northern Virginia and Hampton Roads with a ruling a week ago by Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II that regional tax increases breach Virginia's Constitution. Mr. McDonnell remedied Mr. Cuccinelli's concerns by allowing taxing authorities in any planning district that meets certain population, vehicle count and transit ridership benchmarks.

Four of the 52 line-item amendments he offered to the state budget were rejected, including legislation allowing the state to take over perpetually failing public schools.

As originally passed, six schools currently would be eligible for takeover by a newly created Educational Opportunity Institute. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle of Hanover County, said Mr. McDonnell's amendments would tighten the criteria so that only four schools currently would qualify for takeover. The amendments also would allow a local school board to request that a school be transferred to state oversight.

The Senate voted 25-14 to reject the amendments, sending the measure back to Mr. McDonnell in its form as passed by the House and Senate. The House killed his amendment to boost funding for the initiative by $450,000.

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