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  •   Va.'s True Debate to Come in Election Posturing

    By R.H. Melton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page B01

    RICHMOND—Virginia's General Assembly begins a 45-day sprint this week to lavish a nearly $900 million state budget surplus that both parties will use to establish their platforms in the most important legislative election in generations.

    A year after a bruising session that introduced Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to the rigors of governing and netted his party a historic power-sharing agreement in the House of Delegates, lawmakers are gearing up for a session whose rhythms will be dictated by anticipation of the November elections, when all 140 seats in the legislature will be on the ballot.

    And with Republicans on the verge of taking over the legislature for the first time since the late 1800s, the next seven weeks here could represent a transition. Several longtime Democratic lawmakers are edging toward retirement, their leadership posts coveted by a new generation of tax-cutting, government-reducing Republicans whose priorities already have transformed the legislature's.

    "It's not going to be the legislation but the election" driving the session, said Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., of Fairfax, 51, one of the rising GOP stars often mentioned as a possible successor to House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk). "It will be the most important election in a century. . . . I think [the session] is going to be rancorous, but I'm not sure over what yet. We're going to overreact all the way through."

    Rust and many other lawmakers believe that the sheer size of the surplus – courtesy of increased tax revenue from Virginia's booming economy – could eliminate many of the traditional squabbles over funding programs. There probably will be enough money available to pay for scores of programs to satisfy Democrats and Republicans alike.

    But with the elections looming, there will be minefields everywhere.

    Democrats, mindful that Gilmore did not include teachers in his proposal to give raises to public employees, will push more than $100 million in raises and cash bonuses for teachers who perform well and get new training or certification.

    There also could be contentious debates over how much the state lottery should send schools each year and whether the money should be designated for school construction or available for general educational use. Republicans want to send $123 million a year to schools to use as they see fit; Democrats favor directing $300 million specifically to school construction.

    It's likely the assembly will cut the state's 4.5 percent sales tax on food, but the pace of the cut may be much-debated.

    Gilmore, who is wary of endorsing any item that undermines the state's ability to afford the $1 billion that his car-tax cut will eventually cost each year, supports lowering the food-tax rate to 2.5 percent over five years at an eventual cost of $245 million a year.

    Democrats, who first proposed the idea, want to phase in the plan more quickly, if not eliminate the sales tax on food altogether.

    Another clash could come over abortion rights. Conservative Republicans, who in recent sessions have had success in restricting teenagers' access to abortions, this time are backing a 24-hour waiting period for women who ask their doctors to perform the procedure.

    Additionally, there will be a variety of issues that reflect the state's growth. The surge in out-of-state trash to downstate landfills, suburban sprawl, right-to-die laws and the wholesale deregulation of utilities all may be addressed this winter.

    A small army of lobbyists for private industries as well as county and municipal governments also will be scrambling for their piece of the budget surplus. Growing counties in Northern Virginia, for example, want the authority to levy fees on developers to help pay for new roads and sewers.

    In recent months, Gilmore has shrewdly tried to nullify Democrats by offering up more than $700 million worth of budget amendments, supporting the food-tax cut, lower college tuition, mental health programs and other initiatives traditionally backed by his political opponents.

    Gilmore enters the session worried that Democrats, whom he called "desperate to hang on" to power in the legislature, "may create friction where there isn't any need for it."

    Other Republicans weren't so sure.

    "This is the session where it's going to be difficult to find disagreement," said state Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), a Gilmore ally.

    But the prospect of a pain-free session that gives both parties more than enough money to sprinkle public works around their districts actually concerns other Republicans, who believe that such a session would blur the distinctions between the parties and hurt the GOP's chances of winning the House in November. Republicans already control the Senate and enjoy near-parity in the House, which has 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and an independent who tends to vote with the GOP.

    "There is a risk in accomplishing what we have," one Gilmore confidant said. "If we have no issues to run on between now and April, are we all just the same shade of gray?"

    This year's session will serve as a bridge between the 1998 ascendancy of Gilmore, who swept into office on his pledge to repeal the car tax, and what could be a Republican high-water mark this fall.

    Already, the state GOP has rewritten the rules of political business in the capital, demanding – and in most cases getting – shared power on legislative committees and a measure of new respect.

    Younger Republicans are grabbing the levers of power because older Democratic members are retiring, some after more than 20 years in the assembly. Many Democrats have seen their districts – once reliably Democratic, suburban enclaves – change under their feet through the years. For example, in Prince William County, the senior state senator, Charles J. Colgan, 72, used to preside over a majority-Democratic county delegation but now finds himself outnumbered by Republicans.

    With Gilmore having proposed budget amendments to fund several Democrat-backed programs, "it's going to be difficult for us as Democrats to remind voters [of] our banner issues," said state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria). "He has noticed this is a political year."

    Del. C. Richard Cranwell, of Roanoke, the fiery Democratic leader in the House, was uncharacteristically mild in his outlook on the session.

    "We're not going to be fighting over whether we have a pizza pie, but whether we have it with pepperoni or green pepper or sausage," Cranwell said, adding that Gilmore's budget proposals have "taken a lot of the acrimony out of the process, which tickles me to death."

    Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said that although "there will be general harmony with the governor," lawmakers in his party will strive to "be different enough to position themselves for the fall."

    They'll try to do that through proposals such as the plan to offer incentives to teachers, a measure that could move education toward the heart of the assembly's agenda.

    Supporters of the incentives say they are needed to raise teaching quality at a time when tougher education standards and statewide testing are demanding more work and expertise from teachers than ever. The proposals follow a national trend of states offering cash incentives to teachers who improve their skills.

    "We have to compensate people more," Cranwell said, "but I think there's got to be accountability."

    The package of education proposals is still a work in progress, but the teacher raises of 6 percent alone would cost $120 million – an amount difficult to pass in a single year even with the surplus, supporters acknowledge. Virginia, with an average salary of $37,332, ranks 26th among states in teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

    Chris LaCivita, Bieber's Republican counterpart, said he expects the governor's antagonists to press for expensive programs and to push for more spending in those that Gilmore already supports.

    That way, "they're going to try and depict Republicans as cutting," LaCivita said. "They need their traditional base in November, so that means a sharp turn to the left now."

    Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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