Virginia's lawmakers will return to the state capitol on Wednesday to resolve disputes with the governor over taxes, abortion rights and the budget in a one-day session that will set the stage for their election campaigns.
The General Assembly will respond to Gov. Mark R. Warner's vetoes and amendments to bills passed during the regular winter session. Warner, a Democrat, vetoed the Republican-controlled assembly's repeal of the estate tax and the creation of a "Choose Life" license plate. He amended two bills that would restrict abortions and offered 67 changes to the legislature's $50 billion, two-year budget.
But even as the lawmakers attend the session here, their campaigns are ramping up back home. Some have primary battles to fight, and almost all are raising money in anticipation of challenges from the other party.
"The governor has chosen some bills that can distinguish quite clearly the differences between Republicans and Democrats," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the Democratic caucus in the House. "He's cast the die for an election where Democrats can emphasize fiscal responsibility and social moderation."
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he expects campaign strategists for both parties to highlight the votes taken Wednesday on abortion, the estate tax and other much-debated issues.
"Both sides always look for votes you take that they can use against you," Howell said.
"When you run every two years," he said of the House delegates, "it's always a struggle. We'll get through the veto session and then we'll think about it." Senators are up for election every four years. All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the Nov. 4 ballot this year.
Lawmakers said the outcome of Wednesday's debate on the estate tax is likely to become a key campaign issue statewide. Warner has spent weeks rallying support for his veto, especially among Senate Democrats.
It would take two-thirds of the 40 senators and two-thirds of the 100 delegates to override the governor's veto.
If Warner's veto holds, Republicans say that will fuel anti-tax sentiment already building in many parts of the state. If lawmakers override Warner's veto, the governor and some Democrats are determined to cast the elimination of a tax that raises $130 million a year as fiscally irresponsible in a time of economic uncertainty.
"We can't continue to make these promises we may not be able to keep," Warner told radio listeners in the Richmond area last week. "My hope is the legislators will come back, sustain this veto and say we ought to do this next year, after this war is behind us."
He added later that "the idea of being straight with the voters, not making promises you can't keep . . . are going to be themes that I am going to keep talking about throughout this year and into the next."
Proponents of the estate tax repeal say the 16 percent tax on inheritances of more than $1 million is unfair to the owners of small businesses and farms. Their heirs are often forced to liquidate those businesses to pay the taxes, the proponents of repeal say.
"It's thousands and thousands of people" affected, Howell said. "The threshold is $1 million. If you own a nice house in Fairfax County, you are three-quarters of the way there."
Opponents of the repeal argue that the estate tax is paid largely by very wealthy people, not by the vast majority of taxpayers.
"It applies to 1,700 taxpayers in an average year, out of 21/2 million," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the minority leader. "After we have taken care of the public schools and higher education, then come talk to me about the estate tax."
In addition to the estate tax, Warner has made sure lawmakers will confront abortion, an issue he said has "played a role in every election, federal and state, for the last decade."
The General Assembly, which has been growing more conservative on abortion, passed a ban on late-term abortions and a requirement that minors obtain parental consent for abortions. Each passed with enough votes to override a veto. Warner, who generally supports abortion rights, amended the late-term bill to allow abortions when the mother's life is in danger, and he changed the consent bill to drop the requirement for notarized consent.
Lawmakers said they expect many of their colleagues to take exception to Warner's actions.
"I haven't heard of anyone in my caucus who is supportive of those amendments," said Senate Majority Leader Walter Stosch (R-Henrico).
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who has championed abortion restrictions, promised that the legislature will reject the governor's amendments on those bills.
"We have the votes to do that," Lingamfelter said. Less certain, he added, is the vote on the "Choose Life" license plate. "We'll see. That's a tighter vote at this point."
Moran, who voted in favor of the ban on late-term abortions, said Democratic candidates will suffer if the issue remains alive during the coming campaigns.
"The Republicans have used it as a wedge issue," he said. "Taxes and abortion are two issues that will be used by both sides."
Wednesday's debates about the state's budget will center on Warner's decision to insist on a pay raise for teachers and state employees. The Republican-led legislature had said the raises should be held back if the economy turns down.
Republicans also may criticize Warner for his attempts to increase spending by raising some fees and using one-time fixes to generate more money. But Warner left most of the budget just the way the legislature sent it to him, changing only a tiny fraction of the spending plan.
"Generally, I have no problem with what the governor has done," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the chief architect of the budget in the House. "We sent him a pretty good product. He's just refined it further."
Lawmakers are scheduled to convene at noon. But Howell and Stosch said they expect long speeches about the war in Iraq before the legislature gets to the business at hand. Most lawmakers predicted a more somber session because of the war.
"I think, unquestionably, the support of the House and the Senate and the governor is 110 percent behind the troops," Howell said.
Warner said the action overseas makes the action on legislation less predictable.
He said his effort to reject an estate tax repeal seems to have gotten a boost because the war adds to the uncertainty of the economy.
But Warner said he worries that amendments he proposed to allow the children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at colleges in very limited circumstances might be opposed because of anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the war and terrorism.