RICHMOND -- Having poured record sums of money into transportation and education in recent years, members of Virginia's General Assembly open their 60-day session Wednesday poised to make far-reaching improvements in long-neglected health and human service programs.
No one is yet calling 1988 the year of the have-nots, but there is a growing consensus -- from Gov. Gerald L. Baliles on down -- to spread at least some of the proceeds of a booming state economy among those who need mental health assistance, housing and other services.
As was the case for the education enhancements enacted during the administration of Charles S. Robb, who preceded Baliles, and Baliles' transportation initiative of 1986, the time is ripe and the state has ample funds for significant advances in human services, according to legislative leaders from the two major parties.
Those improvements will be but one facet of the more than $22 billion budget Baliles will present to the assembly for the 1988-90 biennium. The record two-year spending plan, the first real opportunity Baliles has to leave an imprint on a broad spectrum of state programs, is sure to dominate the assembly's work during the next two months.
While the budget and other money issues -- chiefly what to do with a $154 million surplus and possible changes in the sales and income taxes -- will color the 1988 session, legislators also will be grappling with complex social issues such as AIDS, sex education and the homeless.
And on many evenings between now and the March 12 adjournment, some of the 140 part-time legislators will take a break from those weighty issues and gravitate to favorite restaurants and bars where, along with lobbyists and journalists, they will assess the performances of colleagues and other elected officials who are jockeying for future roles in state politics.
Two leading players in this political sideshow will be Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who, as chief competitors for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year, have their own legislative and less visible political agendas.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who have all but conceded to Robb the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Trible, will have little trouble finding gubernatorial candidates to challenge the Democrats, whose nominee may be either the first black or the first woman nominated for the job. Leading the GOP pack are former state attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, who lost a squeaker to Robb in 1981, Rep. Stan Parris, and Trible.
But before they turn their undivided attentions to 1989, Democrats, especially those in the state Senate, must work out internal differences in the upcoming session.
The most powerful member of the legislature's upper chamber, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, suffered a defeat last month at the hands of his Democratic colleagues, who rejected his choice for the largely ceremonial post of president pro tempore.
There are signs that Andrews' critics may try to take him down another notch or two: The next test may be over whether the Senate Finance Committee, of which Andrews is the chairman, will, like its counterpart, the Appropriations Committee in the House of Delegates, be forced to share its power with a second fiscal committee. Andrews might be able to avert that by agreeing to add several members to his Finance Committee.
The momentum for human services funding has been building for several years as Baliles, Robb and their predecessors applied the resources of their administrations to more visible -- and politically popular -- programs, several legislators said. Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax) said that for the past few years, Virginia's constitutional requirement for a balanced budget forced governors and legislators "to make cuts in human resources" so the state could catch up on critical education and transportation needs.
This year, McDiarmid said, money for human resources "needs to be raised."
McDiarmid, the chief holder of the purse strings in the House, said she hopes Baliles will give the assembly more leeway in deciding how to apportion state funds.
"The last time he left us only $5 million" in undesignated funds, she said, "and that caused unhappiness, because we are under pressure to do all sorts of things."
McDiarmid told a recent legislative breakfast meeting in Northern Virginia that additional funds are needed for Medicaid and child day care.
State Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on human resources, said that increasing Medicaid reimbursements for indigent families must be addressed. An attempt may be made to put a fee on hospitals and nursing homes to help pay the state's share of health costs for the poor, he said.
Proposals are expected to be introduced concerning AIDS, the fatal syndrome that frequently is sexually transmitted.
Some legislators have indicated that they are eager to enact laws that would make it a crime for a known carrier of acquired immune deficiency syndrome to donate blood or engage in sexual activity, but those proposals raise thorny legal questions with which state lawmakers are just beginning to grapple.
A proposal expected to get early attention would raise the speed limit on certain interstate highways from 55 miles per hour to 65 mph, bringing Virginia into line with 38 other states.
Housing issues will include addressing problems for the growing number of working poor, and "selling rural people on the problems of the homeless, and that they're not solely a big-city problem," said Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (D-Newport News), chairman of the House General Laws Committee.
There may be attempts to change regulations governing a state lottery, approved by voters in November, although many legislators are likely to follow the advice of Baliles, who wants to give the existing rules a chance.
Some lottery supporters say the language that restricts advertising to informational purposes will make it difficult for Virginia to compete against aggressively advertised lotteries in Maryland, the District and West Virginia.
The success of the lottery referendum may prompt efforts to put the question of parimutuel betting on horse racing on an upcoming ballot.
On the environmental front, Baliles is expected to seek additional funds for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. He may press for development curbs in counties that border the polluted estuary. Last year, the governor won legislative approval for a ban on phosphate detergents, which took effect Jan. 1. He has since signed a bay accord requiring Virginia to go far beyond that antipollution measure.
In education, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the assembly's accounting arm, has recommended allocating more state funds to poorer school districts in an attempt to equalize educational opportunities, an idea that may be opposed by representatives from wealthier districts such as those in Northern Virginia.
Conservative legislators are gearing up to fight the planned kindergarten-to-graduation sex education program recommended by the state board of education, which is seeking $5.5 million in start-up funds.
Other education issues include pay raises for teachers, whether to permit the election of school boards and whether to extend the experiment that requires schools to open after Labor Day.
A pair of "parental notification" proposals, defeated in close votes last year, may be revived. They seek to require teachers and school administrators to notify parents when students are seeking abortions or are suspected of using drugs.
There also may be attempts to water down the financial disclosure section of the state's conflict-of-interest law, whose revision last year was fought down to the closing moments of the session.
Wilder will limit his legislative package to two bills, each of which has the larger potential of enhancing his planned candidacy for governor next year: one portrays him as an advocate of the poor; the other takes a hard line on crime.
The first measure would remove the sales tax on nonprescription drugs and could save the average family $200 to $300 a year, while costing the state about $27 million in annual revenue.
Wilder said that proposal, ridiculed by one opponent as seeking to remove the sales tax on nonnecessities "from cough drops to condoms," may not have the active support of the Baliles administration because it lends credence to Republican claims that the state has more money than it needs and that even greater tax cuts should be made.
A related debate will be over how much of the state's $154 million surplus is attributable to changes in the federal tax law -- and which, under the terms of a state law enacted last year, must be returned to taxpayers -- and how much is the result of the state's healthy economy.
The other Wilder-backed measure would remove the possibility of parole for individuals convicted of any of the nine or so crimes that carry a possible death sentence. Juries returning guilty verdicts in capital murder cases would be limited to two possible sentences: death in the electric chair or life imprisonment without parole.
Under present law, Wilder noted, a person convicted of a capital crime could be released from prison after as little as 13 years.
Terry plans to unveil her legislative package on Thursday.