The gentility and decorum that are supposed to be hallmarks of the Virginia General Assembly took a beating today in the Senate Finance Committee.
Four members of the committee shouted at each other, and one of them, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), also chastised reporters and a lobbyist for asking questions about a complicated tax package.
During the often heated discussion, the formal "Will the gentleman yield?" was dispensed with in favor of "Take your seat," and "I'll vote the way I please" and "No one's going to run over me."
Committee Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) interrupted committee colleague William E. Fears (D-Accomack) and told him, "You've done a lot of talking . . . . Let somebody else do the talking."
Fears: "I'm not through."
Willey: "Take your seat."
Andrews and Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt) also clashed, with Emick yelling, "When the majority leader raises his voice, I'll vote the way I please."
Even after the hearing, Andrews' tirade continued.
He told Fears, "You never apologize. You've never done anything for me." Fears shot back, "I supported your nomination for the U.S. Senate once, but I'll never make that mistake again."
"I'm sure you won't," answered Andrews.
"No one's going to run over me," muttered Fears.
Andrews then scolded a female reporter for inquiring about a detail in an inch-thick report on highway funding that had been distributed during the hearing. "It's right here on page nine," he said. "Now do you understand, sweetie?"
Andrews still wasn't finished. In the hallway, he stopped a lobbyist for the Virginia Ethanol Association. "We don't have to confer with you before (changing a bill) . . . and I resent it."
Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax), a committee member who sat quietly through the hearing, said, "It got a little out of line. That's usually not permitted by the rules."
DuVal said decorum "slips a little on occasion, but it's still pretty genteel. If someone lost his temper regularly, he'd be told to fly right."
All of the shouting was for naught. The committee postponed action for a day on a package of bills to increase the tax on gasoline, vehicle titles and certain licenses, and phase out a tax break for ethanol. Willey is the chief sponsor of the package, which would raise $789 million for highway construction. allowing the state to build in three years what now is scheduled to take six.
Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, whose performance as presiding officer of the Senate epitomizes the civility the body seeks to emulate, said he would be "chagrined" if the public thought there was "a breakdown" of manners.
Just a week ago, Wilder chastised senators for occasional slips of language. Wilder's comment came after Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), during floor debate about teen-aged drivers, said "My momma was a helluva lot stricter than my father."
Wilder said today he "didn't mean to single Mitchell out." But he said it is "disturbing" that some senators "get testy, and give the wrong impression, especially to young people."
During today's session of the Senate, Andrews put his arm on Fears' shoulder in the traditional good ol' boy fashion, and apologized.
After the session, Fears called it "a mutual apology. Nothing serious. It was in the heat of battle; we kiss and make up."