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The General Assembly on Wednesday narrowly approved an amendment by Gov. Bob McDonnell that will prohibit certain health insurance companies in Virginia from providing coverage for women seeking an abortion.

McDonnell (R) added the anti-abortion amendment to House Bill 1900, sponsored by Herndon Del. Tom Rust (R-Dist. 86). The assembly passed the bill in February to comply with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Under the system, Virginians who cannot afford health insurance will participate in a federally operated health insurance exchange.

McDonnell’s amendment will prohibit insurers participating in the exchange from covering abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or if the mother’s life is in danger.

Legislators reconvened Wednesday to vote on the Republican governor’s recommendation and other matters. The Republican-dominated House voted 55-37, with one abstention, to approve McDonnell’s recommendation. But the vote was much closer in the Senate, which is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

After more than an hour of deliberation, the Senate voted 20-19 to approve McDonnell’s amendment. Democratic Sens. Phillip Puckett (Dist. 38) of Tazewell and Charles Colgan (Dist. 29) of Manassas joined 18 Republicans in voting for McDonnell’s recommendation. The other 18 Democrats and Republican Sen. John Watkins (Dist. 10) of Powhatan voted against the measure.

Watkins said publicly he did not support the governor’s amendment. On the Senate floor, Watkins questioned whether the anti-abortion amendment was germane and urged the Senate to block it.

“I don’t believe adequate attention has been given to its potential impact,” Watkins said.

Democratic senators also voiced opposition to the amendment.

“This is just a further attempt to expand the assault on women’s reproductive health rights in this commonwealth,” said Sen. Ralph Northam, (D-Dist. 6). “It needs to stop.”

Sen. Mark Herring (D-Dist.33), who represents part of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, agreed. “Women should be able to make decisions about their own health care without interference from politicians here in the state Capitol,” he said.

The governor’s amendment states:

“No qualified health insurance plan that is sold or offered for sale through an exchange established or operating in the Commonwealth shall provide coverage for abortions, regardless of whether such coverage is provided through the plan or is offered as a separate optional rider thereto, provided that such limitation shall not apply to an abortion performed (i) when the life of the mother is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, or (ii) when the pregnancy is the result of an alleged act of rape or incest.”

The General Assembly passed a similar measure in 2011 when Virginia was planning to operate a state-run exchange for health insurance coverage. But the assembly had to vote on the issue again after McDonnell opted for an exchange operated by the federal government.

Late Wednesday, the Virginia Society for Human Life, an anti-abortion group, praised the General Assembly for supporting McDonnell’s amendment.

“Without this amendment, starting in 2014 Virginians would have been forced to pay for all abortions on demand done in the Commonwealth through the new federal health care law. Virginia taxpayers owe a debt of gratitude to Gov. McDonnell and the General Assembly for taking this reasonable action today,” said Olivia Gans Turner, the society’s president.

– Mark Robinson, Capital News Service

State Budget Increases Funding for Education

During the final hours of Wednesday’s reconvened session, the General Assembly approved a state budget that boosts funding for Virginia’s public schools next year.

Legislators considered changes that Gov. Bob McDonnell wanted them to make to House Bill 1500, which lays out the state budget for the remainder of the 2013-14 biennium. The assembly had passed the bill in February, but McDonnell recommended 52 amendments.

The House and Senate approved most of the governor’s recommendations, including three that provided $2.35 million in additional funds for education.

For example, the General Assembly adopted McDonnell’s recommendation to add $2 million to his Strategic Compensation Grant initiative, increasing that pool of money to $7.5 million for next year. The governor said the additional funding “will allow more school divisions to participate in this program, which rewards effective teaching.”

The initiative allows school districts to provide additional compensation to teachers who take jobs at more challenging schools and help students succeed academically.

Legislators also approved McDonnell’s request to boost funding for the Virginia Community College System by $100,000 next year. The additional money will help develop the Governor’s Academy for Student Apprenticeships and Trades. The academy will target high school students looking for full-time employment after graduation.

The General Assembly rejected two of McDonnell’s education-related budget amendments.

One would have provided $450,000 next year for the Opportunity Educational Institution, a new state-level unit to oversee public schools that have received accreditation warnings for three consecutive years.

Legislators also rejected McDonnell’s recommendation to award $1 million to the Hampton Roads Proton Beam Therapy Institute at Hampton University. The university is a private institution that has historically served African Americans, and some legislators objected to funding a private university.

— Amber Shiflett and Blake Belden, Capital News Service

Texting while driving bill gets final passage

Legislation that will increase the penalties for texting or emailing while driving is now expected to go into effect July 1.

The Virginia General Assembly approved amendments by Gov. Bob McDonnell on Wednesday, meaning the bill is just awaiting final signature by the governor.

The bill, which will go into effect July 1, makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning drivers can be pulled over just for texting. Currently they can only be stopped and ticketed if they committed a different infraction, such as speeding or running a red light.

Fines for texting while driving will increase from the current $25 penalty to $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.

The primary purpose of McDonnell’s amendments was to cut the fines in half from what legislators had originally approved, $250 for the first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. McDonnell said the lower fines were more in line with other penalties such as reckless driving.

Assembly approves anti-abortion amendment