The Virginia General Assembly convenes this week for its yearly legislative session, and before the daffodils bloom and the bourbon runs out, lawmakers will broach thousands of initiatives. Many will be political puffery -- i.e., "House Resolution No. 666 honors Agnes Flapsaddle for making the finest tomato relish in Caroline County." But a few will have the potential to make substantial improvements or cause significant harm.
Again this year, lawmakers will have to decide what is more important: their political survival or the safety of others. Last year the lawmakers caved in to advocates for illegal immigrants and rejected legislation to make legal residency in Virginia a requirement for obtaining a driver's license. They should rectify that mistake.
A driver's license is the principal tool for entree into American society. It enables a person not just to drive a car but to board an airplane, open a bank account, rent an apartment, get a credit card and do many other things -- all without incurring suspicion, because the holder is presumed to be a citizen. If all states outlawed driver's licenses for undocumented foreigners, terrorists would face a major obstacle. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican representing Virginia's 7th District, introduced such a bill in the House last year, but Congress did not act on it.
Granted, most immigrants -- even those here illegally -- are sympathetic figures. Who can begrudge industrious people the chance to work for a better life? But sentimentality should not supplant law. Lawmakers ought to follow Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's advice and require public universities to deny admission to illegal immigrants and report those already enrolled. For school administrators to balk at Kilgore's recommendation -- knowing that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were perpetrated by terrorists exploiting lax oversight of foreign students -- is unconscionable. Moreover, why should Virginia taxpayers subsidize those who are violating federal law?
While enacting genuine reforms to improve safety, lawmakers should reject symbolic measures designed chiefly to raise revenue --
such as Gov. Mark Warner's proposals to make enforcement of Virginia's seat-belt law a priority and to jack up traffic fines on the state's busiest highways.
Does anyone really believe it would promote public safety to divert police from the crackheads barreling along I-95 to the lady eschewing her seat belt to avoid wrinkling her blouse on the way to a job interview?
Making it more lucrative for cops to write tickets on busy interstates -- the safest of Virginia's roads -- also might draw them away from patrolling secondary roadways, where motorists are in much greater danger. During the Thanksgiving holiday, for example, Virginia had eight fatal car crashes -- only three of which occurred on interstate highways.
Republican legislators should press forward with their plans to repeal Virginia's estate tax. For government to stake a claim on assets that have already been taxed crosses the line into confiscation.
The argument made by Democrats, such as state Sen. Charles Colgan (Prince William), that the state "can't afford" not to demand a share of estates presumes that the state has first claim on all assets. A vote on the estate tax would reveal which Virginia lawmakers share that view.
Additionally, the legislature should reject Warner's proposal to move more patients from state mental institutions into community treatment programs. The deinstitutionalization movement is one of this nation's greatest failings. In theory, many psychiatric patients can function outside institutions if they get regular doses of psychotropic drugs. But the assumption that mentally incompetent people will cooperate with treatment has proven unrealistic and has been a major cause of homelessness. It may be less expensive to have mental patients on the streets than in hospitals, but the cost to them is insupportable.
The governor's strength is applying effective business principles to state government, and here the legislature should follow his lead.
Warner's plan to require evaluations of all new initiatives before their funding is renewed is a good one, as is his suggestion that any new board or commission be subject to a sunset provision. Both of these measures represent what ought to be the General Assembly's overriding consideration in the perennial contest.
Let the games begin.