Senate Approves New Budget for Virginia

March 26, 2012

Virginia's Senate on Monday approved a new budget to fund state operations for the next two years, something that it failed to do during its regular session.

The 35-4 vote came after the Senate, on an almost party-line vote, rejected a Democratic amendment that would have compelled either insurance companies or the state to pay the costs of pre-abortion ultrasound exams that

Monday's passage now sets up negotiations with the House of Delegates to resolve differences over several conflicting spending priorities and ideologies in an $85-billion spending blueprint.

The floor amendment that would have required insurers to cover the ultrasounds and the state to pay for uninsured women failed on a vote of 19-20. One Democrat, Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Prince William, sided with 19 Republicans. Republican, Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier, was away from her seat during the vote.

Heading into Monday's session, Senate Democrats had insisted on the amendment and were confident they would pick up enough Republican support to prevail.

"We didn't pick up the support we expected from the other side. I am not surpised that we didn't hold all 20 (Democrats), but I am surprised I didn't get any help from the other side," said Senate Democratic Caucus leader A. Donald McEachin of Henrico. Now, the divisive social issue becomes an issue to use against the GOP in this fall's presidential and senatorial races and in the 2013 race for governor.

The bitter debate over the Republican-backed ultrasound bill was one of several issues that divided a Senate where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats each.

Having seized organizational control of the Senate in January thanks to Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote, Republicans muscled through a conservative package of bills, including the ultrasound mandate, further vexing Democrats.

Television comedians, bloggers and cable-television pundits scorned and ridiculed Virginia's Republicans who pushed the bill through the House and Senate before Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it on March 7.

Democrats made the budget their last stand because Virginia's Constitution denies the lieutenant governor a vote on appropriations bills. Unable to pry a 21st vote away from unified Democrats, two budgets were died on the Senate floor during the 60-day regular session.

That changed Monday.

Only two Democrats and two Republicans voted against the overall budget at the end of a four-hour session that saw Democrats win on some of their priorities and lose others.

Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said the passage of the mandated abdominal ultrasound legislation obligated the state to compel insurers or the state to cover the costs.

"This amendment is not about abortion," Saslaw argued in arguing for his amendment. "It's not about abortion; it's not about informed consent. That part, that issue, already got settled and got signed by his excellency a couple of weeks ago."

Republicans countered that the cost of the ultrasound procedure is minimal and is offered for free to those who can't afford it at health departments across the state.

Democrats were able to influence other areas of the budget.

They were able to reverse a plan favored by McDonnell and the House to redirect about $110 million in sales tax collections to transportation, provide about $300 million to extend the Washington, D.C., area rail transit system to Dulles International Airport.

The Democrats were able to delay tolls on motorists using two tunnels linking Norfolk and Portsmouth under the Elizabeth River until 2014 and add $56 million to local public schools from Virginia's share of the national settlement of a lawsuit against major mortgage lenders over foreclosure abuses.

Their amendments also provide millions more in Medicaid funding and restores Medicaid eligibility for about 1,500 of the more than 4,500 recipients who would become ineligible under McDonnell's proposed budget.

Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment opposed the tolling moratorium, and a poison-pill alternative he offered as a floor amendment that would have waived tolls all across Virginia was rejected.

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