When Virginia Legislators arrived here for theGeneral Assembly R session two months ago, they found themselves in the middle of the worst budget crisis anyone could remember. Between the Reagan administration's budget cuts and a continuing financial problem in the state highway department, the lawmakers knew they had to do something--but what?
The solution they had reached by their adjournment this week was a time-honored political ploy. They boosted taxes by $360 million over the next two years, but managed to disguise that handiwork by scattering a handful of tax increases in areas where they would be least expected.
Some examples: Getting married in Virginia will cost $7 more starting July 1, thanks to increased fees for marriage licenses. Motorists will be paying an extra $5 to register their cars. The tax on hard liquor will go from 15 to 20 percent, raising the cost of a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey from $7.45 to $7.75.
And those are only the smaller tax measures passed by the 1982 assembly. Legislators used the same camouflage strategy on the year's biggest tax package when they approved a $174 million gasoline tax that applies only to wholesale gasoline sales. The lawmakers were hoping taxpayers wouldn't blame them when, as expected, the oil companies simply pass the higher tax along to consumers by raising pump prices as much as 4 cents a gallon.
When you put the new taxes all together, Del. George Jones (R-Chesterfield) concluded: "The only thing left to tax is sex."
The revenue-hungry mood in Richmond this session was so pronounced that liberal legislators didn't even make their usual annual attempt to repeal the state's 4 percent tax on food. The only significant tax-relief measure, a bill to "index" the state's income tax by pegging it to the rate of inflation, went down to defeat on the House floor.
"We've done a lot to the people this session, we've taxed them every possible way," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "It would have been better for them if we had never come down here."
The tax bills were a good barometer of political climate this year in a state where all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election in the fall. Republicans, who picked up a handful of seats in the House last fall, are threatening to make the new taxes an issue and proudly point to their solid vote in favor of the indexing measure.
Democrats counter that they were only trying to offset the impact on Virginians of $260 million in federal budget cuts, three-fourths of which were in human services programs.
In noneconomic issues as well, the specter of elections loomed. Democrats and Republicans alike rushed to back stiffer penalties for driving drunk, and approved a passel of politically popular anticrime bills--among them measures to increase mandatory sentences for use of a firearm in committing a felony.
Less politically popular, but equally necessary to legislators seeking fall campaign contributions, were two bills pushed by the state's banks and retail stores. The bills, both passed by overwhelming margins, lift interest-rate ceilings on charge accounts and permit banks to continue imposing membership fees on credit-card accounts.
Among the most hotly contested issues of the session was the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed for the ninth--and final--time to win the approval of conservative state lawmakers. The ERA will die this summer unless approved by three more state legislatures. A package of so-called "women's bills" was more successful in Richmond this year, handing a partial victory to proponents of women's rights.
Most notable among these was a divorce-reform measure that treats joint savings and checking accounts as equal property of husband and wife. Another bill successfully sought by women changes the state's policy on inheritance of property in cases where a spouse dies without a will. Under the bill, all the property will be awarded to the surviving spouse, unless the spouse has children from a previous marriage.
Black Virginians saw the legislators this session defeat several key measures, despite the presence in the governor's office of Charles S. Robb, who depended heavily on black voters for his election last fall. A bill to declare the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a state holiday died in one House committee, and another panel killed a measure that would have denied tax breaks to segregated schools.
For Northern Virginians, there was more than the perennial battle over increased state support of the Washington area's Metro transit system. The subject of condominiums emerged as an issue again this year, as Northern Virginians squabbled over how best to cope with the social consequences of thousands of housing conversions.
One controversial bill, pushed through by condominium developers, stripped Northern Virginia localities of the power to block such conversions through zoning. The bill was modified to allow local jurisdictions to enact ordinances requiring developers to pay the moving expenses of displaced tenants.
Another bill would allow local governments to require the offering of three-year leases to elderly and handicapped tenants of apartments to be converted.
The legislature also approved a bill to prohibit localities from taxing apartment complexes based on their condo development value. The bill was seen as a means of slowing condominium conversions, but local officials around the state opposed it because it could reduce property tax revenues.
For Fairfax County, where local officials had been concerned that a Supreme Court decision would limit their ability to award an exclusive cable television franchise, there was a relief measure. The legislature passed a bill that will allow Fairfax and dozens of other localities to award exclusive cable TV contracts without fear of antitrust lawsuits.
Fairfax also won the right to grant tax breaks to owners of small farms, an effort to preserve open space in growing suburban areas. The bill will allow county supervisors to tax farms of 25 acres or more according to their productive value, rather than the potential value of the land after development.
In budget battles, Northern Virginians came home with enough money to brag about during the fall campaign. They won more than $6 million for the construction of a new humanities building at the George Mason University campus in Fairfax City, and arranged for a 20 percent salary differential for state police working in Northern Virginia. Teachers at Northern Virginia Community College will receive an 8 percent salary differential.
The legislature also passed bills to:
* Permit Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases of rape, incest or gross fetal abnormality;
* Require a probation period for new teachers before they are granted permanent teacher certificates;
* Change the state's automobile inspection schedule from twice a year to annually and raise the fee from $4 to $7 per inspection;
* Require parents and legal guardians to use automobile safety seats for children 4 or younger;
* Allow courts to deduct child-support payments from the paychecks of parents found delinquent in the payments;
* Establish new regulations for uranium exploration and prohibit any uranium mining or milling until July of 1983;
* Allow the state to confiscate cash and property bought with the proceeds of illegal drug sales;
* Require smoke detectors in college and university dormitories;
* Prohibit water-skiing after dark;
* Exempt firefighters from jury duty, and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to join volunteer fire departments;
* Allow a tax credit for the installation of solar-energy equipment in homes and businesses;
* Exclude the written opinions of city and county attorneys from matters that must be made public under the state's Freedom of Information law;
* Urge localities to establish mandatory "workfare" programs for welfare recipients;
* Make milk the official state drink.
The legislators defeated measures to:
* End "social" grade advancements in public schools by requiring promotions from the seventh grade up to be based solely on academic merit;
* Allow evidence obtained illegally under current standards to be used in a trial if the police officer conducted the search in good faith;
* Establish a state lottery;
* Allow localities to impose a lower personal-property tax rate on subcompact cars;
* Allow counties to impose a 5 percent restaurant tax. Only cities have that authority.