New Year to Spotlight Familiar Issues
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Virginia legislators will return to the state capital next week for a 60-day session likely to be focused on the budget, illegal immigration, abusive-driving fees and reforms to the state's mental health system.
The session could also produce more than the usual share of political drama.
It starts with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) seeking to leave his imprint as he begins the final two years of his term. He will have support in the Senate from the new Democratic majority, which has a 21 to 19 advantage.
The leadership change after the November elections has produced an unprecedented shift in power to women, minorities and lawmakers from Northern Virginia. Of the 11 Senate committees, seven will be chaired by women. There will also be four African American chairmen. Seven of the committee heads are from Northern Virginia.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) will be the new majority leader, which will ensure that the state's most populous region benefits from its new prominence in Richmond.
But with Republicans in firm control of the House of Delegates, some analysts predict that the General Assembly is headed for gridlock.
The first real test of how the chambers work together could come in this year's budget deliberations. Last month, Kaine introduced a two-year, $78 billion spending plan that increases money for public education, health care and environmental protection.
The governor isn't calling for a tax increase, but he is proposing a $10 increase in the $20 driver's license renewal fee, which state motorists pay once every five years.
Many of Kaine's initiatives are modest because the downturn in the housing market has slowed growth in tax revenues.
He wants the state to partner with small businesses to extend subsidized health insurance to 5,000 of the estimated 1 million Virginians without coverage. Kaine also calls for enrolling an additional 7,000 low-income children in pre-kindergarten, at a cost of $56 million over two years.