RICHMOND -- Santa's helpers are toiling furiously around Capitol Square this week, completing work on taxpayer-paid gifts for some of those fiscal conservatives we heard so much from during the recent legislative campaigns.
In the spirit of the season, some presents apparently are meant to be surprises.
At least that's what some members of the Senate Finance Committee are saying about the $464,000 renovation of the committee quarters on the 10th floor of the General Assembly building.
"If I voted to do it, I wasn't aware of it," said Senate Minority Leader William A. Truban of Shenandoah, a twinkle in his Republican eye.
It's not suprising that Truban doesn't remember voting to spruce up the finance committee digs. The project was authorized April 8, a month after the legislators had quit for the year.
The money came from the budget of Senate clerk J.T. Shropshire, who, faced with the bureaucratic reality of "use it or lose it," transferred the "unexpended funds," known in the real world as a surplus, to the General Services department for the renovation.
A major beneficiary of the spending spree is Finance Committee Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), who will get a new office, his third, out of the holiday spending spree.
Andrews' two other offices, one on the sixth floor of the assembly guilding and a smaller one in the Capitol, are the fruits of his position as Senate majority leader.
The new quarters for Andrews might help salve his ego, which was bruised earlier this month when -- despite solid support from the Northern Virginia delegation -- his Democratic colleagues overrode his choice for president pro tempore, former segregationist Howard P. Anderson of Halifax. The backbenchers' candidate, Stanley Walker of Norfolk, won the largely ceremonial position instead.
Having flexed their muscles in defeating Andrews' once, some senators are now talking about trying to dilute the heart of Andrews' power, the finance committee.
The next move might be an attempt to follow the pattern of the House of Delegates, and the Congress, and divide the responsibility for financial decisions, the heart of the legislative process, between two committees.
The 15-member Senate Finance Committee now decides both how money is appropriated (taxing power) and authorizes how it is spent, while in the House, its finance committee raises the money and an appropriations committees divvies it out.
An attempt to change the rules probably would occur shortly after the new legislative session convenes Jan. 13, in a Senate that will include six new members.
Gone are such Andrews' stalwarts as President Pro Tem William F. Parkerson Jr. of Henrico, defeated by a Republican rising star, Edwina Dalton; Norfolk's Peter K. Babalas, who retired after his censure for unethical conduct, and was replaced by Yvonne B. Miller, who becomes the first black woman in the Senate; and William T. Parker of Chesapeake, a loyal Andrews' trooper, who was beaten by Republican Mark Earley.
The new lineup is distinguished from previous senates in several ways: It has a record high of three women, a record high of three blacks, and a modern-day low record of 17 lawyers.
Creating another 15-member committee that would share in decisions of how the money is spent would most likely have great appeal to the 25 senators who are not on the finance committee, and especially among the newcomers, who face years of waiting for an opening.
Under the existing system, established by the late senator Edward E. Willey of Richmond, who must seem like the ghost of Christmases past, senators not tapped for the finance committee must, like kids outside a candy store, sit with their noses to the window and watch helplessly as the Big Boys -- formerly the Good Old Boys -- decide how to divide the pot.
The challenges to Andrews are not personal, according to the dissidents, who say if they were, they might seek to topple him as majority leader. Rather, the changes are designed to bring "democracy" to the chamber, to use the description of Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. of Botetourt, the consummate outsider who engineered Walker's victory.
If you think the year-end spending spree is limited to the legislative branch, you don't understand the meaning of balance of power.
The state's chief executive is, by law, limited to a single four-year term, but that hasn't stopped Gov. Gerald L. Baliles from constructing a throne-like structure in his suite in the Capitol.
It's not for a midterm coronation of Baliles, however, but for the queen.
The structure will double as a divider in the waiting room and as a frame for a large portrait of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, for whom the state is named.
That renovation is supposed to cost $628,000.
It fell to Senate Clerk Shropshire, in his role as chairman of the state compensation board (does everyone down here have two state jobs?) to play the role of Scrooge.
On Monday, he denied requests for office furniture for the prosecutor in his hometown of Martinsville, and the treasurer of Virginia Beach, saying there was no money left in that budget category.
The petitioners, having heard about the renovations in the Holy City of the Commonwealth, invoked Bob Cratchit-like inquiries about whether there might have been something left over if Andrews' renovation hadn't included such "necessities" as $950 loveseats.
Shropshire shrugged, and disappeared up the nearest chimney.