The oldest legislature in the country will reconvene in Richmond Wednesday, with new furniture, a new governor, some new leaders, and a lot of the same old issues.
The biennial budget, pari-mutuel betting, the Equal Rights Amendment, funding for Metro, criminal law reform, annexation, government reorganization - the list of potentially controversial topics is remarkably like those from years gone by. Most of the proposed bills have been remodeled or slightly altered over the years, but the prospect of reruns in committee meetings and replays on the House floor seems likely, despite the 19 new legislators and a new, although still Republican, administration.
"Sometimes I get this overwhelming desire to argue and fight about something new," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arl.), normally a gungho legislator. He is facing his fifth winter in a Richmond hotel room, temporarily giving up family life and his job selling insurance, and all to listen to recycled arguments and juggle the often conflicting demands of lobbyists, constituents, fellow politicians and his conscience.
Not all legislators share Stambaugh's feelings (which he said trusts are temporary). Many eagerly await the debates on restructuring the State Corporation Commission, retirement benefits for teachers, and fishing licenses.
Too, in the coming session they will have - for the first time - their own offices. These come complete with $750,000 in new couches and hardwood Chippendale-style desks and cabinets, controversial furnishings that some legislators expect to turn into an issue in themselves.
There will be no lack of legislation to discuss. An estimated 2,000 bills are expected to be considered during the 60-day session. Already 14 House bills and 20 Senate bills have been filed, dealing with such things as a proposal to give churches a break on their electric rates and to provide license plate decals for handicapped people.
As surely as Robert E. Lee's statue will continue to stand in the state capitol, the centerpiece of the 1978 General Assembly will be the biennial budget. Some $8 billion must be appropriated, and though the pressure of prospective deficits is absent this year - indeed, Gov. Mills E. Godwin recently reported there will be a surplus - there will be controversy as numerous interests fight for a piece of the pie.
Legislators appear to agreed that there is no need to raise taxes and many are hoping to make good on campaign promises to "do something" about the property tax rate. "Property taxes are a real hardship on a lot of people," said Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arl.). "Property taxes killed Newark (N.J.): I think we've got to lower them somehow."
At the same time, there will be efforts to authorize a regional tax to pay for the Metro system in Northern Virginia, Marshall said. It is unclear at this point what kind of tax - sales, income, payroll or gasoline - will be proposed.
Fights over state funding for abortions for Medicaid clients are likely, several legislators said. Although the state Board of Health has voted to halt the payments, which come to approximately $450,000 a year, the Department of Health and the Medicare Medicaid Advisory committee disagree on this issue.
Then there is the Equal Rights Amendment.
"I wouldn't write it off this point," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alex.), an ERA supporter. "But I'm not sure the prospects are very bright."
This year the fight will be in the House, which has never voted on the proposed constitutional amendment because the privileges and elections committee has never reported it out to the floor of the House. There are seven vacancies on that committee; of the existing 13 members only there are known ERA supporters. The new members will be appointed by Speaker John Warren Cooke, who is opposed to the ERA.
"That committee will be pretty safe as far as the ERA is concerned," predicted minority leader Jerry H. Geisler (R-Carroll) at a recent caucus. Geisler opposes the ERA.
Another issue that stirred up as much controversy as the ERA last year was a complex bill dealing with the problems of annexation - cities annexing county land to increase their tax base and, in some cases, maintain a racial balance.
The bill proposed, among other things, to set up a system of revenue sharing that, in effect would mean counties would pay to be immune from annexation.
After lengthy and passionate debates, the Senate passed it, but the House killed it and voted instead a ten-year moratorium on annexations, meanwhile promising to study the problem all year and come up with a solution.
The annexation problem has been around for more than 20 years.
This year, the bill will be reintroduced without the revenue sharing provision. At the same time, a companion package of bills will be introduced in the Senate to deal with the problem of unequal funding in different areas.
"We did an exhaustive study of what causes cities to annex," said Mitchell, a member of the task force working on the problem. "The primary reason we found is the economic desire to expand the tax base. At the same time, a study of how the state treats various jurisdictions found inexplicable and gross inequities in the distribution of state funds."
As an example, he said that the state pays for two-thirds of the costs of sheriff's departments, but while in rural areas these departments are the sole law enforcement agencies, in more densely populated areas the locally funded police department has major responsibility for law enforcement. It will be proposed that the state fund two-thirds of the cost of all law enforcement.
Other bills are expected to deal with inequities in road maintenance, health care, education, and other funding. "This could mean between $35 million and $50 million for urban areas," Mitchell said.
Prospective issues also include a proposal to redefine the crime of rape, making penalties stiffer for rape committed while armed, rapes resulting in physical injury, or rapes committed by more than one assailant. Penalties for "simple" rape would be reduced slightly.
"This is part of a package of important reform of the sexual assault laws," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax).
These are just a few of the issues facing lawmakers. Senate majority leader Adeland L. Brault says there will be 29 bills dealing with government reorganization, for example, including a controversial proposal to remove executive functions from the State Corporation Commission and another to create a Secretary of Transportation with authority over ports and aviation.
Mitchell hopes there will be some movement toward reforming Senate procedure so that such things as conference committee meetings occurring during important votes, or amendments not being read don't occur. Also, Mitchell points out, "ten per cent of the entire session immediately goes down the tube because committee assignments aren't made until after we get there. So we'll be sitting there for a week before we get any bills. Then there's a big bottleneck at the end."
"You know the story about the day they hung (former Lt. Gov.) Henry Howell's portrait? They spent 40 minutes hanging the portrait and 10 minutes passing 40 bills," he pointed out.
Another unknown is the legislature's relationship with the new governor, John Dalton. Most are predicting a fairly placid relationship. "It's certainly going to be a change," Stambaugh said. "John Dalton is just another politician who happened to get elected. He doesn't have that imperial aura, that stately presence that Godwin has, I mean, Mills Godwin was Junior God. When he seat down the word, people jumped."