There was no debate about the matter of uppermost interest on the opening day of Virginia's 1985 legislative session:
The Senate's new flashing, blinking computerized board with the little red, green and amber squares, what else?
The $250,000 innovation can describe a measure on the floor, including amendments, tick off how long debate has continued, flash messages ("Welcome to the Virginia Senate," was today's), record how each senator voted and keep track of who is in line to speak next.
Del. David Brickley (D-Prince William) predicted wryly from his seat in the House that by the end of the 46-day session the computerized sign will also "give the scores of the University of Virginia-Virginia Polytechnic Institute basketball games."
The Senate's new device also provided fresh evidence that the upper chamber "has an ego that's about three times as big as the House, that's why they need this fancy machinery," said Del. Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk), the House majority leader. It captured the attention of everyone, from the lowliest legislator to the most influential. "I'm waiting for the daily double to go off," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), surveying the board from his seat.
Otherwise, legislators said, it was an average kind of opening day.
Much of the time was taken up with getting reacquainted, as a lobbyist and legislator did over lunch in the General Assembly Building restaurant. "You've lost weight," said one. "You got a divorce," the other countered.
Meeting briefly, the House waited for the Senate while it debated a procedural matter, something "we spend half our life doing," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "They would prefer to have us in white coats and towels," said Del. Chip Woodrum (D-Roanoke).
In fact, the delegates sat idle so for long that Woodrum and his colleagues in the back row of the House chamber decided either the state Constitution or an obscure legislative rule must dictate "a certain, specified milling-around time."
Shortly after noon, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) appeared briefly in the House with the customary message that "the Senate is ready to conduct business," while Del. Gladys Keating (D-Fairfax) sang under her breath: "Tradition. Tradition."
Then the House and the Senate sent a committee of eight to the governor's office with the message that the session was beginning, a procedure that legislators in the back row decided could be greatly shortened by the modern convenience known as a telephone.
Majority Leader Moss kicked off calls to order with a thumbs up sign to House Speaker A.L. Philpott and warned delegates about the long afternoon break between adjournment and the governor's televised speech at 7 p.m. Some legislators interpreted the comment as an admonition not to get drunk and chuckled appreciatively, though Moss said he meant they shouldn't stray too far.
Other legislators warmed up with a little tug-of-war. Del. Kenneth Calvert (R-Danville) stopped Del. Frank Medico (R-Fairfax) to say politely that he, too, was introducing a resolution for a study of whether the state should contract with a private firm to handle some areas of corrections.
"Well, my resolution is already prepared," Medico objected. "Well, I'm going forward with mine," Calvert responded.
"Well, I did two months of research," Medico continued. "I've got all the big guns from corrections coming down."
"I checked with them, too," Calvert countered.
In the end, the two agreed that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn't each introduce essentially the same bill. "You can sign mine and I'll sign yours," Medico concluded happily.
Though many legislators were preoccupied with matters such as finding desk keys and getting telephones for their apartments, some substantive work did take place. A Senate subcommittee considered a bill by Stambaugh that would overhaul the commitment system to try to protect the due process rights of mental patients. All four senators on the subcommittee indicated that they were opposed to the measure but agreed to give Stambaugh another week to try to work out a compromise.