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Catholics Celebrate Legislative Wins

February 28, 2011

By Jillian Quattlebaum
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As the 2011 General Assembly session drew to a close, leaders of the Virginia Catholic Conference celebrated their victories and prepared for next year’s fights.

Jeff Caruso, the conference’s executive director, said two of the session’s victories were the passage of Senate Bill 924, which would regulate abortion facilities, and the defeat of SB 1200, which would have expanded the death penalty in Virginia.

Caruso said that since the conference’s founding in 2005, it has lobbied the General Assembly seven times for similar abortion clinic regulation legislation.

“It’s certainly a very positive development and something we felt very good about,” Caruso said. “It’s always encouraging to see some progress.”

He added that last Thursday’s passage of SB 924 was a collaborative effort of many groups.

“Given the efforts of so many groups and so many public officials over the years to require abortion clinics to adhere to common-sense safety standards, this year’s passage of SB 924 is indeed an history moment,” Caruso said.

Another success was the defeat of SB 1200, which would have redefined the “triggerman rule” in capital murder cases in Virginia.

Under that rule, the only person eligible for the death penalty in a capital murder case is the “triggerman” – the actual perpetrator of the killing. SB 1200 sought to broaden the rule so that accomplices could be eligible for the death penalty as well.

Chris Ramos, the conference’s associate director, said it was important this bill did not pass because it could lead to false convictions and because it is morally wrong.

“A majority of the expansions of the death penalty that have been proposed in the past couple of years have been stopped, and that has been a huge success,” Ramos said.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-6 to kill SB 1200 this year.

Though the Virginia Catholic Conference had some successes, Caruso said there is still a lot of work to be done.

For example, he said the conference will push for tax credits for businesses that fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private elementary and secondary schools.

“That is an important initiative because certainly any low-income students should have the same options and opportunities as their peers,” Caruso said.

This session, legislators considered House Bill 2314, which would have provided such tax credits. It passed the House, 54-45, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Next session, the conference also will seek legislation to ensure that taxpayer money is not used to fund abortions.

“Prohibiting plans in health exchanges from covering abortions is essential to ensure that people are not forced to pay for other people’s abortions,” Caruso said.

Two bills proposed during the 2011 legislative session sought to exclude abortion coverage in health plans. Those measures – HB 2147 and SB 1202 – both failed in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Meanwhile, HB 2436, which would have explicated allowed abortion coverage in health plans, died the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee.

In 2012, Caruso said, the conference will pursue approval of bills like HB 2314 that passed one legislative chamber but not the other this session.

“I think we’ll have to see what the landscape is next year,” Caruso said. “November is an election year, so we’ll have to see what the membership looks like in 2012 and who has control.”