The 2014 session of the Virginia General Assembly entered an especially critical phase with this week’s release by the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees of their respective versions of the state budget for the 2015-2016 biennium.

Yesterday, the House and Senate each approved their own committee’s budget proposals. Next week, the House will amend and pass the Senate budget, and the Senate will amend and pass the House budget. Then, a joint budget conference committee will formally begin its task of negotiating differences.

The House and Senate budgets both feature several Virginia Catholic Conference priorities.  The House budget includes key pro-life language that would restrict funding of abortions and Planned Parenthood and would prevent the state’s abortion clinic regulations from being suspended. The House budget also includes $500,000 to compensate victims of Virginia’s forced sterilization program, which much to our shame operated between 1927 and 1979. Under this Conference-supported proposal, each eugenics victim with a verified claim would receive $25,000. Unfortunately, the House budget also cuts funding proposed by outgoing Governor McDonnell for the Housing Trust Fund and for new adoption and foster-care initiatives. In the Senate budget, meanwhile, two positive features are a proposal to enable the lowest-income Virginians to purchase private health insurance and a proposal to enable badly needed cost-of-living increases for TANF recipients. In days, weeks, and perhaps even months to come before a final budget is ironed out, the Conference will continue to pursue these priorities with the budget conferees. A top priority will be to advocate for healthcare that covers and protects every life, born and unborn.

The Conference is also disappointed by weak efforts to provide services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the budget proposals. The House budget provides just 50 ID and 15 DD waiver slots above the 700 ID slots and 50 DD slots proposed by then-Gov. McDonnell.  Unfortunately, the Senate budget cuts 225 ID waivers and 10 ID waivers from McDonnell’s proposal, claiming that last year’s budget provided more funding than required for ID/DD waiver slots.  In reality, neither the House nor Senate budget adequately funds disability services.  Currently, more than 8,100 Virginians are on waiting lists for Medicaid ID/DD waivers.  The Conference will continue to advocate for the provision of 1,000 ID and 400 DD waivers to fully meet the need and prevent further growth of waiting lists.

The House budget debate also featured several important floor votes:

Abortion: In the House, the three pro-life amendments were each challenged on the floor. Fortunately, House members voted overwhelmingly to preserve each measure.  The amendment to prohibit the appropriation of state funds for Planned Parenthood and its affiliates passed on a vote of 67-31.  The amendment prohibiting the use of state funds to waive or suspend the abortion clinic regulations finalized last year passed 67-31.  The amendment eliminating funding of Medicaid abortions in cases of “gross or incapacitating fetal abnormalities,” thereby conforming state policy to the federal Hyde Amendment, passed 64-33.

Human Trafficking: A Conference-supported floor amendment offered by Delegate BaCote that sought to fund human trafficking training for Virginia law enforcement officers was defeated 67-30.

Housing Trust Fund: The House budget included a Conference-opposed amendment to defund the Housing Trust Fund, which provides money for housing assistance for homeless and displaced individuals.  The amendment passed 70-29.

Conscience Protections for Adoption Agencies: Delegate Scott Surovell offered a budget amendment to undermine conscience protections for faith-based child-placing agencies enacted two years ago. Outrageously, Surovell tried to sell his amendment by claiming that the conscience law allows agencies to discriminate on the basis of race, failing to note that such discrimination is explicitly prohibited by federal and state law. Fortunately, most Delegates did not buy Surovell’s factually inaccurate claim and its offensive insinuation about the work of faith-based agencies.  Instead, they rejected his amendment 69-30. The Conference thanks Delegate Todd Gilbert for standing up on the floor to defend the good and compassionate work done by faith-based agencies across Virginia.

Appointment of Counsel to Defend State Laws: A Conference-supported floor amendment offered by Delegate Gilbert instructs AG Herring to refrain from any and all involvement in litigation pertaining to Virginia’s marriage statutes, and instructs the Speaker of the House to appoint special counsel to represent the Commonwealth in Bostic v. Rainey, as well as all future cases in which the AG declines to defend state law.  The amendment passed 66-32.

In addition to budget matters, the last several days saw important developments on legislation as well:

Defeat of Ultrasound Repeal: Last Friday afternoon, after the Conference’s weekly update had already gone out, a House subcommittee spiked SB 617, which sought to repeal Virginia’s ultrasound informed-consent law and which had passed the Senate only by a procedural fluke.  The subcommittee’s voice vote against this Conference-opposed bill preserved this important pro-life law and ended debate on the issue for the year.

Death Penalty: Conference-opposed legislation, HB 1052 (Delegate Miller), provides that electrocution shall be used to administer the death penalty if the Department of Corrections certifies that lethal injection drugs are not available.  The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services committee voted 10-5 to continue the bill to 2015, effectively killing the measure for the year.  Previously, another committee had voted to continue to 2015 a companion bill, SB 607 (Senator Carrico).

Scholarship Tax Credit ProgramConference-supported legislation, SB 269 (Senator Stanley), would allow donations to scholarship foundations to be claimed for a Scholarship Tax Credit in the taxable year the donation was made.  Currently, a one-year delay between the tax year in which the donation is made and the tax year in which the credit can be claimed has made the program less attractive to some potential donors.  Approved much earlier in session by the full Senate 21-17, it was passed by the House of Delegates on Wednesday 68-31.  The bill now goes to Governor McAuliffe’s desk.