RICHMOND, Jan. 11 -- Virginia's Republican legislative leaders return to the Capitol on Wednesday determined to avoid the internal strife of the 2004 General Assembly, but they will have to contend with GOP delegates who want to dismantle the historic tax plan passed last year.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), Senate leaders and breakaway Republican delegates forged an inter-party alliance last year that approved tax increases to fund popular initiatives on education, health care and public safety. The lengthy debate split the House Republican caucus, a majority in the chamber that includes many tax opponents.
Gov. Mark R. Warner will urge legislators not to back away from last year's budget agreement.
(Cindy Blanchard -- AP)
A Look at 2005 General Assembly
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Va. Politics: Transportation funding will be a key issue in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, campaigns are underway for House seats and the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Va. Legislature: 2005 Session: Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) was online to discuss the upcoming legislative session.
Now, at the beginning of an election year, the GOP leaders want voters to see a House united.
"By the time the session ends, we need to show as a caucus that we are getting the work of the people done," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (Salem).
In Warner's State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night, aides said, the governor will urge lawmakers not to turn back from the tax and spending plan they passed last year or to approve costly new programs as they decide what to do with more than $900 million in unanticipated revenue. The governor will embrace the bipartisanship that ended the budget stalemate.
Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) and his Republican leadership team will try to balance the aspirations of their complex group of 60 delegates, many of whom are still bitterly opposed to the tax increases, and present a unified front behind their expected gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.
"I think the speaker understands we need to do things that are realistic," said Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester), one of the members who broke with the House leadership to support the tax increases. "But in many ways, he's caught in the middle."
Students of Virginia politics said that House leaders are aware that the tax proponents cast them as obstructionists on the state budget, because they did not offer an alternative that gained broad support.
"If it becomes a replay of last year's very public battle, it could be very dangerous for the House leadership," said Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at George Mason University. "It could create an opening for Democrats to say, 'They don't know how to govern.' But I think [Republicans] realize that, and they'll work harder to bury those conflicts."
Lawmakers are likely to find plenty of other issues to debate among the thousands of bills to be introduced during the 46-day session. There will be attempts to address the state's telecommunication laws. There will be various proposals on changing the governance of the state's universities. And there will be a battle over a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriages.
But the Republican leadership will focus much of its energy on changing how state government funds and manages the Old Dominion through what lawmakers say are free-market solutions and public-private partnerships that do not rely on general tax increases. Howell has set up a leadership group chaired by his closest allies in the chamber, who have been tasked to find new solutions to problems with funding environmental and transportation projects and delivering health care.
"The Republican Party is the party of ideas," Howell said. "We have a tremendous opportunity . . . to show that there are new ideas and new ways of doing things to fund core government responsibilities."
Howell has introduced a $1 billion transportation package -- nearly $200 million more than Warner's initiative -- that over time could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for road and rail projects through funding from partnerships with businesses and specific fee increases.
Republican delegates said that the effort to rally the caucus around a clear goal would likely yield benefits in the November elections. "Good policy makes good politics," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).