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After key vote, Va. senator got chopper ride home

Friday - 4/20/2012, 2:26am  ET

AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A state senator who was driving to his ailing wife's side when he was urgently summoned back to the Capitol to ensure Wednesday's surprise passage of the often-stalled Virginia budget got a state-funded helicopter ride to her Chesapeake hospital after voting.

The Virginia State Police helicopter round trip was just short of two hours and cost the state $1,530, said VSP spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, was indispensable to a power play Senate Republicans shrewdly orchestrated upon learning Wednesday afternoon that Democratic Sen. Charles J. Colgan would drop his opposition to the budget and vote with Republicans to pass it.

In a balkanized Senate where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats each, Colgan's reversal represented the necessary 21-vote majority to finally pass the $85 billion appropriations bill to fund state operations through June 2014. But it would work only with all 20 Republicans present.

Senate Democrats had blocked adoption of the budget on a party-line vote on Tuesday, just as they had done twice before during the previous two months. Seeing no break in the partisan impasse early Wednesday afternoon when he received word of his wife's hospitalization, Blevins headed home.

He had gotten as far as Petersburg, about 20 miles from Richmond, when Colgan told Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment of his change of heart, and Norment realized Blevins was gone.

Norment said frantic calls to Blevins cell phone did not immediately get through. Then, with the aid of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's office, state police troopers were put on alert for Blevins' car with instructions to flag him down and return him to the Capitol if they spotted him.

Blevins eventually got word he was urgently needed in the Senate, and he returned. With Blevins back in his seat, the budget bill was brought back to the floor quickly and without debate, and Colgan joined Blevins and the other Republicans in a 21-19 vote in favor of the budget. Unhappy Democrats said Colgan's turnaround blindsided them.

Blevins and Colgan, of Prince William County, both departed the Capitol for home shortly after the vote.

Blevins boarded the aircraft from the rooftop helipad of Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospital two blocks from Capitol Square in downtown Richmond and was dropped off on the helipad of the Chesapeake hospital, Geller said.

The Web site of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported Thursday that Blevins said medication had stabilized the irregular heartbeat for which his wife had been hospitalized on Wednesday.

Legislators rarely use the VSP helicopter, but it is routinely used by the governor. Geller said the Blevins flight was a humanitarian mission done at the request of the governor's office.

McDonnell's chief of staff, Martin Kent, authorized the flight, said J. Tucker Martin, the governor's chief spokesman.



The Virginian-Pilot:

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