The Virginia General Assembly adjourned today after quarrels over what were mostly minor matters, ending an abbreviated 38-day session that many lawmakers called the most partisan, bitter and unproductive in recent memory.
After putting the finishing touches on bills aimed at reforming Virginia's rape laws and further restricting the sale of drug paraphernalia, some legislators had hoped the session would end by noon. But petty disputes over the appointment of a Southside Virginia judge and sheriffs' budgets dragged on through the afternoon and adjournment didn't come till 8:50 p.m.
For many, those debates symbolized a session that had long ago gone out of control. "we might have been better off not to meet at all," complained Del. David Brickley (D-Prince William), a tax-cut advocate who saw a last-ditch House effort to repeal the state's 4 percent sales tax on nonprescription drugs die today. The Senate, which had killed two other major tax-relief bills this session, refused to even consider the measure.
"This session started off with such promise but it's ended up a disgrace to ordinary citizens." said Brickley. "Except for aid to local education, we accomplished nothing but special interest legislation."
"If the object of government is to represent the will of the people, it hasn't worked very well here in this session," agreed Fairfax Sen. Richard L. Saslaw. "we failed to adopt any legislation to benefit the rank and file population."
Some lawmakers blamed their leaders for limiting the session to 38 days, the shortest in recent years, while others held that the prospect of reapportionment and this fall's state elections for governor and 100 House of Delegates seats had made legislators more partisan and fractious.
"It was absoulutely outrageous that we simply weren't given enough time to conduct the business of the state," said Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault, dean of the Northern Virginia delegation. Many good bills failed, Bault contended, for lack of adequate consideration, while others that passed contained numerous technical erros and many will be back next year for correction.
"We'll have to repeat a lot of this work and go through the same trauma again," he said.
Unlike the past assembly will have the opportunity to correct some mistakes in a special one-week session beginning March 30. It then will reconsider bills vetoed by Gov. John N. Dalton and take up what promises to be an equally bitter task as the lawmakers carve out new electoral districts for themselves and the state's 10 U.S. representatives following results of the 1980 Census.
The mistakes resulting from the time shortage were evident these last few days. Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly approved a Saslaw-sponsored bill adding multiple murder to the list of crimes punishable by death. But the bill contained a provision that some lawyer-legislators predicted could render Virginia's entire death-penalty statute unconstitutional and today the lawmakers had to amend the measure before sending it to Dalton.
The time shortage also put intense pressure on committees to act on bills without adequate information. Earlier in the session, the House Finance Committee -- and later the full House -- approved a bill to totally revamp the state's income tax structure, only to find a week later that its impact on individual taxpayers, especially in Northern Virginia, was virtually the opposite of what supporters had originally contended. The bill was killed in the Senate.
"I don't know what the committee was smoking when they reported that bill," said Del. David Speck (R-Alexandria) who labeled the session "bizarre" and blamed the committee action largely on "election year fever."
Partisanship was often a factor in the House, which passed our major measures cutting in half the percent sales tax on food, putting a constitutional lid on state spending and the income tax revision -- all proposals that had remained in committee for years. All were designed to give Democratic lawmakers, many of whom are running scared in the face of recent GOP electoral victories, something to take home to the voters this fall.
All of the House seats will be up for election in November along with the officies of governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. The Democrats, who last elected a governor in 1966, are expected to nominate Lt. Gov. Charles S. (Chuck) Robb of McLean to run against Republican State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman of Richmond for governor in what is now seen as a very tight race.
Some Democratic legislators say they fear their party missed a golden opportunity to embarass Dalton and other Republicans by failing to enact any of the three major tax-cut bills. While the Democratic-controlled House passed all three, the Democratic-controlled Senate killed each one And some senators contended those defeats are exactly what conservative House members had counted on all along.
"The House Democrats could have their cake and eat it too knowing full well that none of those bills would pass the Senate," said Sen. Ray Garland (R-Roanoke).
The Senate's actions contributed to an atmosphere of vindictiveness between the two legislative houses. Brault said he believed "retribution" was a factor in the death of several of his bills this week.
While special tax breaks and other bills designed to aid restaurant owners and the coal, steel and banking industries breezed through the assembly, most tax measures proponents said would help the poor or elderly failed. In the past two days, for example, the House killed two bills that would have helped low-income Northern Virginian apartment dwellers retain their homes after condominium conversions by authorizing localities to make low-interest loans available to them.
An exception was a bill to advance the effective date of a repeal of the state's tax on home heating fuels, which passed the house today and would make the repeal effective in july.
To many Northern Virginia lawmakers, the death of the two bills was a fitting end to a session that approved little constructive legislation.
"Part of it stemmed from a vindictiveness to Northern Virginia this year among a few people that I believe I've never seen before," said Del. Elise Heinz, (d-Arlington) who also ascribed the bills' defeats to legislative insensitivity to the poor. "we very cheerfully passed all these tax incentives for business but when local governments wanted to spend a little taxpayer money on people we said, 'No.'"