Virginia 2013 legislative session begins

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia General Assembly opened Wednesday with bills on transportation funding, guns, teacher pay and uranium mining on the horizon, but rallies outside focused solely on the contentious issue that dominated last year's session - abortion.

Before the 46-day session's noon opening, hundreds of anti-abortion activists gathered on Capitol Square to celebrate last year's passage of hotly contested legislation requiring women to have an ultrasound before an abortion. Among the bills anti-abortion activists are backing this session is one to grant the full legal rights of personhood to a fetus.

Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, urged supporters to stop legislators as they arrived for the session to thank them for voting for the ultrasound bill. The legislation last year prompted protests, including one in which 30 abortion-rights supporters were arrested, and was the subject of ridicule and parodies on television shows.

"It is our pro-life legislators who need to hear from you. They have been the subject of intense criticism," Cobb told supporters, many wearing stickers saying "Abortion Hurts" or "Unborn Babies Feel Pain."

Meanwhile, dozens of abortion-rights supporters staged their own demonstration a few yards away, carrying signs saying "Keep politics out of the exam room" and "We're baaack."

Led by a woman shouting through a megaphone, the protesters chanted: "When women's rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"

Those activists are supporting legislative efforts to repeal the ultrasound mandate.

"Last year, a group of legislators, most of whom were men, passed legislation that forces women to have an unnecessary and expensive ultrasound prior to an elective procedure against the woman's will and against the better judgment of her physician," Democratic Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk said in a statement. The physician is sponsoring the repeal bill. "The last thing that we need in Richmond is legislators interfering with a woman's personal medical decisions," he said.

Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun, also is sponsoring a bill to repeal the strict abortion clinic regulations previously mandated by the General Assembly. Critics say the requirement that clinics meet the same building standards as newly constructed hospitals could put most abortion providers out of business.

Other matters that will compete for lawmakers' attention include Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal, unveiled on the eve of the session, to eliminate the state's gasoline tax and replace it with a less-than-a-penny increase in the state sales tax. The proposal is one of five components of a five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding plan.

Lawmakers also will consider the Republican governor's plan to give teachers more money but less protection against being fired.

In addition, guns are expected to be an issue in the aftermath of last month's Connecticut school shooting, and legislators will weigh a proposal to lift the state's ban on uranium mining.

The assembly won't adopt a new two-year budget until 2014, but will make adjustments to the current spending plan.