Details May Be the Difference in Session
By Craig Timberg and R.H. Melton
Leaders of both parties largely agree on the top issues. Expect the General Assembly to pass -- and Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III to sign -- bills to cut the sales tax on food, bolster school funding, trim college tuition and tighten regulations on garbage being brought into the state.
But with the 1999 legislative elections looming and Democrats in danger of losing the House of Delegates for the first time since Reconstruction, leaders of both parties expect fierce debate over the details -- and perhaps more importantly -- over who gets credit for successes. "If it weren't for the election, it might be the session of the Great Agreement or the Big Consensus," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. But, he added, "the Democrats realize this session is really legislative Armageddon."
That's because after decades of dominating state politics, the Democrats have lost control of all three statewide offices and the state Senate. The House of Delegates, long a bedrock of Democratic power, is split between the parties and runs on a power-sharing agreement.
Next November, the thin measure of power Democrats retain will be tested in elections for all 140 state legislative seats -- elections that are particularly important because afterward, the legislature will conduct the once-a-decade task of redrawing congressional and state legislative districts. By taking over the House, the GOP could put itself in a position to control state politics for the next 10 years.
Such stakes have the Democrats hunting for issues that lure voters on Election Day. But the huge state surplus -- nearly $870 million and counting -- has given Gilmore a way to fulfill his expensive campaign promises while claiming several Democratic proposals as his own.
Democrats battled Gilmore during the last legislative session over his plan to phase out the state's property tax on cars, successfully pushing for a school construction program the governor initially didn't want. But so far they have offered little resistance to his core programs for this session, which begins Jan. 13.
"The debates this session will be about the fine points of legislation, rather than on philosophical disagreements," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William).
New proposals may yet emerge to sharpen the distinctions between the parties. Transportation funding, teacher raises and curbing abuses by health insurers are potentially defining issues, some Democrats hope.
But most legislative leaders expect debate to focus on Gilmore's program of tax cuts, popular spending proposals and restrictions on garbage. Among the key issues:
The car-tax cut, Gilmore's signature issue from last session, will not be debated this time. The first two years of the planned five-year phaseout of the tax were approved last year, meaning the matter will return to the assembly's agenda in 2000. The state surplus has eased doubts -- for now -- about whether Virginia can afford Gilmore's overall plan, which eventually could cost the state $1 billion a year.
This time, tax-cutters will focus on the state's 4.5 percent levy on groceries. Democrats proposed cutting the food tax last session but Gilmore opposed it, primarily because he thought it might threaten the "No Car Tax!" platform that swept him into office last year.
In this year of plenty, Gilmore can afford to back a food-tax cut and nullify Democrats' efforts to cast themselves as backers of a reduction that would benefit working-class residents more than the car-tax cut. The governor has proposed cutting the food tax by 2 percentage points over the next four years, a plan that eventually could cost the state $245 million a year. Democrats plan to fight for a faster cut.
Gilmore has proposed sending $123 million in lottery profits to school districts. Democrats initially complained that the money in Gilmore's plan should be designated only for school construction and renovation, but they are backing down on that point.
"As long as [Gilmore] restricts it to education," said Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick), "I don't think it's going to be a fight."
But there will be debate on the funding formula, which could determine whether the amount going to school districts is what Gilmore forecasts or, as some Democrats propose, closer to $300 million.
Virginia residents have long paid more to attend state public colleges than residents in most states. Both parties favor lowering this bar to higher education.
Gilmore's proposal is to trim tuition for in-state students by 20 percent, for an average annual savings of $578 for students at four-year colleges and $286 for students at two-year colleges. The cost to the state: $75 million a year.
Democrats propose restoring a funding formula in which in-state students pay a quarter of their college costs, while the state pays the rest. The results and costs would be similar to Gilmore's plan, and some compromise between the proposals is likely to emerge during the session.
Momentum has been building for new restrictions on Virginia's booming garbage business. Huge dumps, mostly privately owned ones in poorer rural counties, have made Virginia the country's second most popular dumping ground, raising concerns among many residents about whether the state is doing enough to protect groundwater and prevent runoff into waterways.
Gilmore has imposed a temporary moratorium on construction, expansion or operation of new landfills. He also favors beefing up landfill inspections. A committee led by Sen. William T. Bolling (R-Hanover) wants to go further by prohibiting the importation of trash by barge, permanently curbing dump expansions and tightening restrictions on the types of trash coming into Virginia by truck and rail.
Key divisions on this issue are likely to be regional, rather than along party lines, because some areas get much-needed revenue from the garbage business. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited states' ability to restrict garbage imports, but many lawmakers in both parties want to be seen as supporting more restrictions on the industry.
Several Northern Virginia lawmakers are joining Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) in calling for $100 million of the state surplus to be put toward projects here, including the new Springfield interchange, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge and improvements to Route 1 and Telegraph Road. Gilmore has said that existing revenue sources provide enough for the region to meet its transportation needs.
Monday: what the 1999 General Assembly session could mean for Northern Virginia.
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