WASHINGTON — Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended his decision not to order an investigation of Planned Parenthood's Virginia clinics saying that he wouldn't turn the commonwealth into a "police state," but pledged to investigate if any evidence of illegal practices should arise.
McAuliffe was troubled by videos that surfaced earlier this month showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue donations and abortion techniques. But there is no evidence that Planned Parenthood in Virginia has violated any laws, he said.
"If I get one instance, one piece of evidence, one complaint, you bet we will investigate like you've never seen before," he said during WTOP's "Ask the Governor" program Wednesday. "But without any evidence and no complaints, I just don't think I should send our state troopers and our SWAT team into these clinics."
And he urged lawmakers calling on him to investigate Planned Parenthood to instead spend their time working to expand access to health care — a top policy initiative that the governor pushed for as a candidate but which was quickly rebuffed by the Republican-led General Assembly.
"How do we help those 400,000 Virginians that do not have health care today? How about helping women get more health care. Where is there press conference on that? I gotta tell ya, I get tired of the politicizing of this issue. I get tired of the fearmongering," he said.
McAuliffe also pledged as a candidate to protect the state's abortion clinics, many of which would likely be forced to close under regulations treating the outpatient facilities like newly built hospitals. He appointed several new members to the state board of health, which recently granted the clinics a reprieve from the regulations. When asked if he would return $5,000 Planned Parenthood contributed to his inaugural committee, McAuliffe repeated that there has been no evidence of wrongdoing. He also said that the clinics are licensed and "highly regulated" by the state.
Symbols of a Confederate past
McAuliffe also expanded on his stance regarding Confederate symbols and place names, which abound in Virginia.
He said he'd sign a bill renaming U.S. Route 1 if the legislature chose to find a new moniker for the highway named for the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
"It's up to the legislature to do it," he said of renaming the north-south highway that parallels Interstate 95.
But he doesn't want to see the state's Confederate monuments and memorials touched whether they are on state property or not.
"We aren't going to rewrite history," he said.
Still, the governor doesn't want the Confederate battle flag on state-issued license plates. He called the flag a divisive and hurtful symbol that is contrary to his efforts to make Virginia an open and welcoming state for new businesses and residents.
McAuliffe ordered the flags pulled from Sons of Confederate Veterans plates in June following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting states the discretion to determine what symbols will be depicted on the state-issued plates. The ruling superseded previous court decisions that had required Virginia to allow the flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have contested McAuliffe's order.
McAuliffe said he's seen progress toward hiring a new general manager for Metro during the past few weeks. But the hiring process has taken too long and he'd like the transit system's new leader announced within the next three months.
"This is ridiculous," he said of the yearlong delay.
He, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser need to be involved in the selection process, he said.
McAuliffe wants a dynamic leader with transit experience who can provide a vision to the transit system which is struggling to maintain a safe and reliable system and which isn't able to accept all of the federal funds it is due because of compliance issues.
McAuliffe said there is no appetite to expand Metro in Virginia, for example extending the Blue Line to Woodbridge, until Metro can properly maintain the existing system and spend its $3 billion budget wisely.
At the same time, he called Metro a "savior" for helping to move commuters around the region — 35 percent of Virginia commuters cross the Potomac River via Metro. Tackling congestion along Northern Virginia's interstates will be solved in part by increasing capacity along VRE, adding high speed rail and expanding local transit, he said.
But the governor also wants to add tolled express lanes to river crossings into D.C. and Maryland. McAuliffe said state transportation officials are negotiating to extend the 395 Express Lanes and address congestion as commuters enter the District.
Today the tolled lanes stop before the Arlington County line forcing cars that don't meet HOV restrictions back into the main lanes.
"We need to fix this problem because it's creating tremendous amount of congestion."
Drivers face a similar bottleneck where the 495 Express Lanes end, merging traffic back into the regular Beltway lanes before the American Legion Bridge, itself a notorious chokepoint. Virginia has suggested to Maryland that the states partner to extend the toll lanes across the bridge but negotiations have not yet begun.
But the express lanes would be a short-term solution: "We need to widen that bridge," McAuliffe said.