They call it the Kings Dominion Relief Act, a bill that proponents said would help Virginia's multimillion-dollar tourist industry by delaying the opening of all public schools in the state until after Labor Day.
Today, to the shock of some educators, the measure moved close to passage in the state legislature when a Northern Virginia Republican switched his vote and revived the measure. The action sent the House-passed bill to the Senate floor, where it is expected to face a close vote Monday.
The bill, strongly backed by the tourist industry, initially died today on an 8-to-7 vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee.
Then state Sen. John W. Russell (R-Fairfax) declared that the bill, which he had opposed, was so important that the entire Senate should be allowed to vote on it. With that Russell changed his vote and supported the bill.
Russell's flip-flop was made possible when another committee opponent of the bill, Sen. Frank W. Nolen (D-Augusta), refused to support a second motion, routinely adopted after any negative vote, that would have killed the measure for the year.
Nolen's action placed the bill in limbo, and gave its sponsor, Del. Alson H. Smith (D-Winchester), time to work on waffling senators. The sight of Smith, one of the legislature's more accomplished wheeler-dealers, whispering to Russell and Nolen brought snickers from some committee members.
Half an hour later, Russell moved to reconsider the action. Nolen was out of the room and with Russell's flip-flop, the bill passed on a vote of 8 to 6.
"What did you offer them?" reporters asked Smith as he left the hearing room. "That's for you to decide," he shot back. "Ask the ones who voted."
Russell, 62, the former mayor of Fairfax City, said he would have supported the bill the first time if he had known his vote was the deciding one. "But I lost track" of the count when his name was called, he said.
Despite his switch, Russell said "it's a bad bill," and said he will speak and vote against it Monday.
Russell's explanation evoked guffaws from Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), a committee opponent of the bill.
"Our schoolchildren should come first . . . before one segment of our economy," Andrews pleaded with the committee.
Before the voting, Smith told the committee that "the bottom line is the money it [the bill] generates." He said delaying the start of school until after Labor Day would add $164 million in tourism revenues, and produce an extra $8 million in sales taxes.
"Kids are turned down for jobs now because they can't work through Labor Day," he said. Opponents countered that students would miss out on summer jobs the following year because school wouldn't get out until mid-June.
Ben Howard, speaking for the State Board of Education, said 97 of the state's 140 school divisions began clases before Labor Day last fall. The board "opposes interference with local school calendars," he said.
Del. Ralph L. Axselle Jr. (D-Henrico), another opponent, attempted unsuccessfully to get the senators to amend the bill, in the event it passes, so that school systems that schedule more than the minimum 180 teaching days would be exempt.
"I don't think schools should stay closed so Kings Dominion can stay open," said Axselle.
Nolen said he did not support the motion to "pass by indefinitely" -- legislative jargon for killing a measure -- because he had promised Smith that "I wouldn't be responsible for killing it."
The senator denied that he "took a walk" on the second vote. "It was innocent," he said, saying he went into the hallway to talk to two constituents "who ironically are teachers." After the vote "someone stuck their head out and said, 'You can come back now, Nolen.' "
Was he trying to protect an appropriation for his pet project, a state-supported horse center in his district?
"It is in the House," he said, adding, "What I really was trying to protect was my own rear end."