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Economy, Partisan Politics Play a Role in Lawmakers' Inability to Finish Tasks

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

RICHMOND, March 13 -- The failure of the Virginia General Assembly to complete its work on time this year can be traced to the downturn in the economy, a bitterly partisan fall campaign and a surprising state Supreme Court decision.

Despite the lack of a defining issue, lawmakers were unable to finish in the scheduled 60 days. They adjourned Thursday night and planned to return for a special session to wrap up what they couldn't complete.

"It's less than satisfying," Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) said of leaving Thursday with unfinished business. Returning to Richmond, he said, "is directly indicative of the difficult economic times and representative of the very difficult political climate. The political underpinnings were very, very difficult."

Going into the session in January, lawmakers knew that the grim financial outlook would greatly limit what they would be able to accomplish. Four months earlier, they had learned that the state budget was short hundreds of millions of dollars.

The slowdown in the national economy left the General Assembly with little money to start ambitious programs. A contentious fall campaign split control of the legislature between the two parties, which led to more partisan fights than in recent years. On Feb. 29, the state Supreme Court ruled that part of last year's landmark transportation plan was unconstitutional, injecting a last-minute issue into the session.

Lawmakers were not able to agree on a host of issues, including banning smoking in restaurants, cracking down on illegal immigration and creating an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. But they are credited with overhauling the state's mental health system in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting last year and passed strict regulations on high-interest, short-term payday loans, even though supporters said the legislation did not go far enough.

"It's been a quieter session than I ever remember," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who was elected in 2001.

The lack of a big issue shifted most of the attention to the state's two-year, $77 billion spending plan that goes into effect July 1. The session was extended twice to provide House and Senate negotiators extra time to finish the budget. But they were still not able to agree Thursday on a plan to borrow more than $1 billion for construction projects at colleges and universities and state parks and will need to return.

"The biggest overriding concern this year was the budget," Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said. "It's driven a lot of things. Any legislation that cost money ended up dying because of the budget."

Legislators had already started writing the budget when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced last month that the shortfall would reach more than $2 billion through 2010. Kaine and legislators agreed that that would mean deep cuts to state agencies, local governments, schools and new programs, but resolving specifics led to weeks of arguments, even insults.

Budget negotiators said one of the reasons for the delay in the budget is that different parties controlled the chambers, and lawmakers spent hours debating their differing philosophies about government spending.

Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he thought that time was not wasted. "In the past, we've never had the level of discussions we've had," he said. "We've met more this year than we have in the past."

The state's 140 legislators came to Richmond in early January after a bitter, costly legislative election that gave the Democrats control of the Senate and more seats in the Republican-controlled House. For the first time in modern history, different parties controlled the two chambers with no preexisting agreements on how to share power.

Even before the November election, when Republicans still controlled the legislature, there were often disagreements between the moderate, customarily dignified Senate and the conservative, frequently rowdy House. That dynamic escalated this year with the chambers clashing on judge selections, taxes and spending, among other issues.

The partisan rancor was even more evident within the chambers where Republicans, for the first time in a decade, were more unified.

In the Senate, Democrats were slow to settle into their new position as leaders. Some committee chairmen struggled to send bills to the Senate floor, where votes on many controversial bills, including the budget, were 21 to 19, along partisan lines.

In the House, Democrats, who now have 45 seats, demanded more of the debate, though they were consistently on the losing side of controversial votes. Once, angry Democrats contemplated walking out of the chamber but instead abstained from voting on a controversial labor bill.

"Unfortunately, it's a lot more partisan than last year. It's not even an election year," said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who is completing his second session. "That's a disappointment. It certainly makes it more difficult here."

Democratic leaders in the House don't dispute that.

"You want to leave knowing you advanced the cause," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Lawmakers from both chambers and both parties said it's sometimes difficult to alter existing law in a state such as Virginia, where some changes are considered for years before being passed. Payday loan reform, for example, had been debated for four years before it cleared both chambers this month.

After a five-day extension, weary legislators were to leave town Thursday knowing their work was incomplete.

"So much of what this session could have been about remains outstanding," Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said.

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