RICHMOND -- If the length and intensity of the floor debate in the House of Delegates was any indication, House Bill 424, sponsored by Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), was controversial and complicated.
The subject of Byrne's legislation, however, was neither death nor taxes, but "informed consent" for dogs and cats. It would require animal hospitals to notify pet owners in writing if medical care at the facility is not available around the clock.
"It was all I could do to keep from laughing," said Byrne, whose bill finally won preliminary approval on a voice vote Friday after 15 minutes of debate.
Sen. Emilie F. Miller (D-Fairfax) was in a similar situation with a bill that would amend the Fairfax City charter so the American Legion could erect a tent on the Fourth of July without paying a fee. It was debated for 10 minutes in the Local Government Committee before winning unanimous approval there and on the Senate floor Friday.
With virtually no money available for new programs, and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder threatening to veto any bill that even hints at a tax increase, legislators in this election year have been reduced to doing more than the usual amount of wrangling over minor legislation.
Although there have been the usual 2,000 or so proposed bills sent to the department of legislative services for drafting, some legislators say that hundreds of those requests may be dropped before tomorrow's deadline for introducing legislation.
Many of the more contentious issues are still in the talking stages. Among them are efforts by Northern Virginia legislators to return to local governments a greater percentage of real estate transaction taxes, a measure approved two years ago but subsequently deleted from the budget. Lawmakers also are discussing possible assaults on Wilder's $200 million rainy-day fund, which many lawmakers say should be released to reduce proposed cuts in education and other programs.
Even if such efforts are successful, initiatives used by Wilder's predecessors in the fast-growth atmosphere of the 1980s are unlikely. About $2 billion in spending proposals are scheduled for elimination or have already been deleted by Wilder, who sees the economic downturn not as a crisis, but as an opportunity to prove that his highly cultivated image as a fiscal conservative was more than campaign propaganda.
Sen. J. Granger Macfarlane (D-Roanoke), one of Wilder's staunchest supporters in the assembly, blames his fellow legislators for the malaise that permeated the first 10 days of the 1991 session.
"If we had saved some of the money when we had $600 million and $700 million surpluses, instead of spending every last dime, we'd have something to play with this year," Macfarlane said.
"The lack of money is a deep concern," Byrne said, adding that the challenge is "to find money that no one else has found" or "justifying what you want to do in light of what already has been cut."
"Anything with a budgetary impact, and even some things without, becomes a fight to get through," she said.
So with little money to throw at problems, legislators are giving extra attention to routine matters. Attempts to exempt worthy causes from the sales tax, such as property used by Radio Emergency Associated Communications Teams, routinely approved in flusher times, have become "a real fight to get through," Byrne said.
One way to get around Wilder's opposition to tax increases, according to Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), is "to find a bill that taxes any kind of drug use."
As an example of that technique, Emick pointed to a bill offered by Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington) that would tack on an extra $50 fine on misdemeanors and $100 on felonies for persons convicted of drug offenses.
Emick, who made no attempt to hide his cynicism about such bills, said their beauty is that they "read well in the body politic and are not viewed as a tax, but as a user fee on people who can't vote, and an idea to help stamp out drugs."
Almand rejects the tax label on his bill, which he estimates would raise about $1 million a year. "It's a way to get people who create a costly problem for society to make a modest contribution to the costs of the problems they are creating," Almand said.
Emick said he wasn't picking on Almand's bill because "there are hundreds like that one." The bill was rejected on a 20-19 vote in the Senate on Friday, but will be reconsidered this week.
The Wilder administration is guilty of similar sleight-of-hand, according to Emick. For example, he said, the governor reduced appropriations for colleges but allowed them to raise tuition, "which is a tax on people with kids in college."
Emick also pointed to a bill backed by the secretary of education that would impose a $6 fee on soil tests conducted by Virginia Tech.
"It's a service that's now free," Emick said, "but to the landowner who needs the service, it's another user fee, a tax put on by Virginia Tech, not by Governor Wilder."
Legislators dissatisfied with Wilder's handling of the budget crisis want greater participation in the process for lawmakers..
"It's no secret," Byrne said, that legislators "are having a hard time getting information from the administration. Staff people who were willing to talk to us last year won't talk except through their department head this year."
One resolution, drafted but not introduced, contemplates moving the deadline for the governor to submit his budget amendments from January back to the previous November, which would give legislators two months to study them before arriving in Richmond.