Va. House Says No to 2-Term Governor
Succession Vote Is Latest Blow to Warner's Agenda
By Michael D. Shear and Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 5, 2003; Page A01
RICHMOND, Feb. 4 -- Virginia's House of Delegates today rejected Gov. Mark R. Warner's proposal to allow future governors two consecutive terms, despite his personal lobbying efforts to save a central piece of his program to restructure state government.
The Democratic governor and a bipartisan coalition of business and political leaders said Virginia's unique system of one-term governors limits accountability and visionary thinking. But skeptical lawmakers said Warner's move was an executive power grab that would disrupt the state's constitutional checks and balances.
The Republican-controlled House killed the succession measure by a vote of 51 to 49.
"Virginia remains alone in the nation with its people unable to reelect their governor," Warner said after the vote. "Allowing a governor to stand before the people for reelection promotes accountability and allows a leader the chance -- if the people concur -- to carry out a long-term vision."
Warner's defeat was the latest of several legislative rebukes for his signature initiatives as the 46-day General Assembly session reached its halfway point today.
As Warner was losing the House vote, Republican and Democratic senators joined to repeal the estate tax despite the governor's critique that doing so is "fiscally irresponsible." Both chambers repealed the tax with enough votes to override a veto.
Estate tax repeal would rid Virginians of the tax imposed on their assets when they die, bringing the state in line with the federal tax repeal. Virginia taxes residents on a scale that can go up to 16 percent on assets over $1 million. Repeal would cost the state about $130 million a year.
Earlier in the session, Warner lost his push for a mandatory seat belt law on a 10 to 10 vote in the House Transportation Committee. The Senate today passed a similar measure, but opponents noted that it is headed back to the House committee that rejected it.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have passed legislation strongly supported by conservatives that Warner said is a waste of the assembly's time. Bills that have been approved and could be headed toward Warner's desk include: new restrictions on abortions, requirements for teenagers to seek parental consent for medical treatment, and creation of a "Choose Life" license plate.
"It's like a football game at halftime," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a frequent Warner ally who voted for the gubernatorial succession measure. "The governor is trailing, but we still have two quarters to go and there are a number of issues that can accrue to the governor's benefit."
Rollison, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he expects Warner to try to revive the seat belt bill. Warner remains "engaged" on a host of other issues, including the budget and restructuring the Virginia Department of Transportation, Rollison said.
Warner said he was disappointed in the House vote on the succession measure and said he is considering the possibility of sending lawmakers a new version.
But he said he is pleased with his overall progress so far in the assembly, where bills aimed at making state government more efficient are advancing.
Warner has proposed a new information technology agency, changes in the way VDOT does business, more planning for state water supplies and new ways to treat the mentally ill.
"What I spent December talking about was the reform agenda," Warner said in a conversation with reporters today. "All these are moving through fine. Those are going to be about how we make this government more efficient."
The governor hailed a vote by senators today to pass legislation increasing access to unemployment insurance.
In reviving the decades-old issue of a two-term governor, Warner had been joined by a business and political coalition that included two Republican lobbying firms. He said part of the coalition failed in its mission to persuade enough Republicans to vote for it.
"Many of the supporters who were lobbying on behalf of this thought they had a much bigger margin" among Republicans, Warner said. "They had me get a certain number of Democrats, and I more than did."
Warner spent this morning lobbying seven Democrats who voted against the succession measure when it first came up for a floor vote Monday night, but he did not attempt to convince Del. Robert D. Hull (Fairfax), one of three Democrats who voted against the resolution during the final attempt to save it today. One of the Democrats said he accidentally voted to kill it.
Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who led the opposition, said he could support the change if Warner agreed to give up some of his appointment powers. "I don't care if we have a two-term governor. That's not the issue," he said. "We cannot do this without obliterating those checks and balances."
Several lawmakers said Warner must stem the defections from his party if he hopes to push an agenda through the assembly.
They noted that previous governors who faced opposing parties in the legislature have nonetheless managed to win approval for big changes in government by holding on to their own votes and picking up support from the opposition.
Some senior Democrats said they are frustrated by Warner's overall lack of engagement. Others said they felt no loyalty to the governor because he hasn't pushed for their priorities.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said views on the estate tax were cemented before Warner made clear his opposition.
Deeds said Warner has done a good job working with lawmakers to close a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. But he contrasted Warner with former governor George Allen (R), who also dealt with a legislature ruled by the opposing party. "He's not the bully that Allen was," Deeds said. "People do not fear Mark Warner."
Ten Senate Democrats joined the Republicans in voting to repeal the estate tax, including Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), who said he was worried that cash-poor farmers would be forced to sell their land to pay the tax.
But Saslaw indicated that his and other votes could change if the body faces a vote to override a veto. "I'm sure we'll see this again," he said. "Things can change."
Saslaw said that Warner did not lobby him on any of the issues that came before the Senate and that he hasn't "picked any [fights] yet. I think he'll be more combative as time goes on. It's a matter of feeling your way."
Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company