Virginia Republicans took their long-awaited place as the majority in the General Assembly today while Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) put the finishing touches on his annual address to lawmakers eager to refine his two-year, $48 billion state budget.
After a century in the political wilderness, the GOP consolidated control of the state Senate and House of Delegates in noontime ceremonies that elevated Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a lanky 22-year assembly veteran, to the powerful post of speaker. Wilkins, from the Lynchburg area, will preside over the House's 100 members, 52 of whom are Republican following the historic Nov. 2 elections.
Meanwhile, Gilmore worked until 1 a.m. today polishing the 40-minute speech he will deliver tonight to a joint session of the legislature, his second such address since assuming office in January 1997.
As he did last year, Gilmore will endorse legislation making Virginia's abortion law more restrictive, requiring women to wait 24 hours after requesting an abortion and having information about risks of the procedure before it is performed.
Other highlights of the speech include a strong emphasis on closing the "digital divide" between Internet users and less affluent Virginians who may not enjoy access to high technology, a spokesman said.
Gilmore will tell the assembly he wants to create dozens of new Internet-ready centers and an innovative program called "Power Up," that uses a dozen non-profit groups, corporations and federal agencies to send high-tech services to disadvantaged communites.
The governor also will remind lawmakers he has set aside $23 million in his budget to elevate George Mason University as a national high technology center.
Virginia, like many of the three dozen states that begin their legislative sessions this month, is awash in revenue. In recent years, the state surpluses nationwide have totaled about $30 billion annually.
The Old Dominion has about $2.4 billion in revenue beyond the state's original expectations that the legislature will allocate in this session. But the centerpiece of Gilmore's agenda is to spend about $1 billion of state revenue to support the continued phasing out of the car tax.
He also will seek legislative approval for a plan to spend $2.5 billion over six years on statewide transportation improvements.