Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner yesterday signed into law a measure that denies illegal aliens public benefits, including access to Medicaid, welfare and local health care services.

“I have signed this legislation into law but will ask the Latino Advisory Commission to study and monitor the legislation to ensure that it is fairly implemented and does not impose undue costs on local governments,” said Mr. Warner, a Democrat who is in his last year in office.

Delegate David B. Albo, a sponsor of the measure, applauded the governor’s decision.

“It will help the state,” the Fairfax County Republican said yesterday. “I expect it will save us millions and millions of dollars. This bill stops subsidizing the behavior of illegal immigration.”

There is no official local or state estimate of how many taxpayer dollars would be saved, since the agencies do not track how many illegals currently receive such benefits.

Virginia spends about $2 billion on Medicaid and an estimated $60.5 million on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program annually.

Lawmakers and immigration experts have said there are an estimated 200,000 illegal aliens in Virginia, which has an estimated population of 7.4 million.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires state and local governments to verify the legal presence of those seeking nonemergency public benefits. It applies only to aliens 19 and older. Illegals of any age still will be eligible for emergency aid, such as immunizations and pregnancy tests.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly approved the measure by a veto-proof majority earlier this year. The measure also was sponsored by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., an Augusta County Republican who is seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor.

To verify legal presence, government officials will require an applicant to provide the same immigration documents now needed to obtain a Virginia driver’s license.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Planning and Budget released a report that estimates it will cost Virginia more than $12 million to hire and train 226 new workers to process the more in-depth benefits applications.

Mr. Warner’s action yesterday angered some local government officials, who said the law erodes their local authority.

The Washington Times first reported yesterday that officials from Arlington and Fairfax counties and the city of Alexandria recently had asked Mr. Warner to offer an amendment that would exempt localities from the measure. Mr. Warner had until midnight yesterday to sign, veto or offer amendments to bills the legislature passed this year.

Local government officials had said the state should not tell them how to spend local taxpayer dollars and that the measure could prevent them from allowing illegals into homeless shelters or free health clinics.

Yesterday, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly called the new law “yet another unfunded mandate from Richmond.”

“Its motivation is dubious at best, and if it were that important, if we felt that we needed this kind of protection, we would have asked for it,” said Mr. Connolly, a Democrat. “The local taxpayer will bear the burden of the cost of implementation.”

Supporters of the law said it’s unfair that taxpayers pay for the services that illegals use.

“It’s a good thing to help these people, but we need to prioritize,” said Brian Hampton, chairman of Protect Virginia NOW, a group that works to help homeless veterans.

Mr. Connolly also said he worried that many immigrants, including those who are here legally, might fear their local government and avoid seeking preventive health care, which could cause the spread of disease.

“That puts the public health and safety at some risk,” he said. “I am not an advocate for illegal immigration at all, but I am worried about the implementation of this kind of legislation, whatever its motivation.”

Local governments did not provide their figures for local public benefits, and many officials said they were not clear on which benefits would be singled out under the law.

Mr. Warner yesterday also signed into law a bill that creates a permanent Latino Advisory Commission. The 21-member commission will oversee the new law’s implementation, Mr. Warner said.

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