The overwhelmingly Democratic Virginia legislature, in a rare display of partisanship, gave final approval today to a bill that would strip Republican State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman of his principal patronage power.
Republican Gov. John N. Dalton is considered certain to veto the measure, an action that could become an major issue when the General Assembly reconvenes March 3 for a one-day veto-overriding session.
The assembly, moving toward a scheduled Saturday night recess, sent Dalton the measure stripping Coleman, the state's first GOP attorney general of his power to assign highway condemnation cases to private law firms.
Shortly after he took office last year, Coleman angered many Democrats and former Highway Commissioner John E. Harwood by replacing many longtime Democratic condemnation lawyers with Republicans. The bill approved by the assembly today would require that highway condemnation cases be turned over to the legal staffs of Virginia's city and county governments in the future.
After a sometimes raucously partisan debate, the Senate gave final approval to the bill by a 23-to-14 margin. If the bill is transmitted to Dalton by Saturday night, he will have to veto it within seven days. That means the assembly can, by a two-thirds vote in each house, override his expected veto at its March 3 session.
Several Senate Democrats argued as strongly as GOP members against the highway lawyer bill. Sen. William F. Parkerson (D-Henrico) said, "To change the rules because of an election is not the proper way to proceed. The best way to deal with this is to go out and elect a Democratic attorney general next time."
Sen. Dudley J. Emick (D-Botetourt) argued that many city and county attorneys have protested that they do not want the highway work and lack the staffs to handle it.
However, Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), chief patron of the bill, said he is unimpressed by such statements. "It does not shock me that city and county attorneys want no more work," he said. "That's like asking an angel in heaven if he wants to go to hell."
Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) said the county attorneys in both Arlington and Fairfax counties are willing to undertake the work. Local governments have the power now to assign full-time attorneys to condemnation cases, but none has done so.
Coleman said in an interview after the vote that he is not sure the bill is a serious proposal. "I put this in the category of the annual pages' bill -- full of good humor but devoid of merit," he said. (The pages' bill is a facetious measure submitted at the end of assembly sessions on behalf of the young legislative aides.)
"The Democrats in the assembly have finally become accustomed to appointments by Republican governors," Coleman added, "but I don't think they have adjusted to the idea of a Republican attorney general yet. It's a matter of growing pains."
In actions on other controversial measures, the House of Delegates accepted Senate amendments to a bill limiting future operation of oil company-owned service stations, sending the legislation to Dalton
The House rejected Senate changes in a bill toughening restrictions on bingo games, leaving the issue to be decided by a House-Senate conference committee.
The Senate voted to limit bingo games at any site to three times a week and to ban instant bingo, a game in which players determine immediately from symbols on a card they purchase whether they win a prize. The House opposes putting these restrictions into a bill intended to put an end to abuses connected with legal bingo games.
The House refused to drop an amendment it had added to a Senate bill requiring that doctors advise women in writing of the physical and psychological risks of abortion before such an operation. The issue will go to a conference committee on Saturday.
The dispute over chain-link fences called "The Berlin Wall," which block two residential streets on the Fairfax County-Alexandria border, fell into a parlimentary tangle when the House refused to meet with the Senate over the issue.
The House on Thursday postponed until next year consideration of a bill intended to resolve the conflict over fences in Dowden Terrace that Alexandria officials erected last June. But in the Senate, Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) persuaded his colleagues today not to accept the postponment. The normal procedure in such disputes is to send the bill to a joint House-Senate conference committee.
Since the House refused to discuss the problem, Brault said today he wasn't sure what he was going to do. The bill would have allowed the feuding jurisdictions to go to an impartial circuit court judge to find out whether the fences must come down.
Several Alexandria lawmakers, who want the fences up, said they were delighted by the House action that they said means Brault's bill is dead.