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Column: Fighting Controversial Bills, But Finding Common Ground

While the overwhelming majority of legislation we work on in Richmond draws no controversy, we are entering the phase of the General Assembly session where some of the most difficult and divisive issues come up for debate. As a long-standing member of the committee that hears health care and social services issues, I had the opportunity this week to weigh in on three such issues: HPV vaccinations, abortion funding for pregnancies with severe fetal deformities, and "conscience clause" legislation for state-funded adoption and foster care agencies.

Virginia's current HPV law does not require girls to get the vaccine. Rather, it requires the Virginia Department of Health to send parents of sixth grade girls information about the vaccine so they and their daughters can make that choice for themselves. It also gives poor girls free access to the vaccine so they have the same access as girls whose families have health insurance. Science and medicine tells us that the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective and prevents cervical cancer. Therefore, to ensure families continue to get information about the vaccine and to ensure poor girls have access to the vaccine, I strongly opposed repealing the current law.

Another bill heard in committee this week would block abortion funding for poor pregnant women whose babies have severe fetal deformities. We heard emotional testimony from mothers who very much wanted the babies they were carrying and who were devastated when they learned their babies could not live. The women who testified all had private health insurance that covered their procedures, but this legislation would force poor, uninsured women to carry to term babies who are too deformed to live. Aside from being morally unconscionable, it's fiscally shortsighted, since the cost of providing care only goes up the farther along these doomed pregnancies progress. For those reasons, I fought against the bill in subcommittee and on the House floor.

A third bill would create a "conscience clause" allowing adoption and foster care agencies that receive state funds to discriminate in adoption and foster care placements as long as they have written policies outlining their religious or moral convictions. As a champion of religious freedom, I respect any private faith-based entity’s right to provide services in accordance with their religious tenets, even if their views are anathema to my own. However, when state funding, state-sponsored placements, and foster children (who, by definition, are under the state's care) are involved, it’s a totally different matter. This legislation would allow a state-sponsored agency to, for example, refuse adoption to same-sex couples, refuse to place Protestant foster children with Catholic parents, or even refuse adoptions and foster care placements based on political affiliations. Worse still, language in the legislation would prevent the state from taking action against a foster parent who severely abused a child, so long as that abuse derives from a written statement of religious conviction or conscience, which actually happened in Richmond some years ago. This was another bill that I worked hard against. Unfortunately, the conservative Republican majority in the House had the votes to move all of these bills forward.

Lest people think liberals and conservatives in Richmond always lock horns, last week I hosted a joint news conference with the co-chairman of the Conservative Caucus, Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge) about our joint effort to institutionalize transparency and accountability requirements on tax preferences. We both acknowledged that it’s rare for both ends of the political spectrum to find such common ground, but liberals and conservatives agree that Virginia needs more transparency and accountability for all of the tax preferences, loopholes, and giveaways that cause us to lose billions in revenue. According to a recent draft report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s auditing arm, Virginia’s 187 tax preferences cost taxpayers $12.5 billion in lost revenue in 2008, the most recent year of available data. The report showed that only 20 of those tax preferences include reporting and evaluation of what they cost and whether they achieve their intended purpose, and 131 of the preferences receive no regular oversight at all. Our legislation would require a five-year sunset on all new tax preferences and would require the Department of Taxation to analyze and report information about the revenue impact of those tax preferences so legislators can properly scrutinize and evaluate whether they should remain on the books. Our effort seems to be gaining bipartisan traction, so I am hopeful it will move forward.

By David Englin

State Delegate (D-45)