RICHMOND, Va. — 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 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.
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.
Opponents said 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.
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 Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County. “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. McDonnell trimmed that to $64, but it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Del. Scott Surovell.
“It punishes people for doing the right thing,” said 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 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 Ken Cuccinelli that regional tax increases breach Virginia’s Constitution. McDonnell remedied 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 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 14-25 to reject the amendments, sending the measure back to 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.