MUCH OF THE legislative backing and hauling that goes on during the better part of a Virginia General Assembly session is only the overture, awaiting results that emerge from less-than-open huddles in the waning hours. This year the chances of productive strides in the stretch are microscopic. Partisan rancor, intraparty scuffling and a governor with a mixed bag of priorities and little stomach for roughhousing have turned this short election-year session into a pageant of legislative distractions and bad ideas: debates over concealed weapons in eateries; another tax break for the wealthiest Virginians, with no real consideration of other changes to address the state's antiquated, favor-the-rich tax structure; and much ado about sexual orientations and mergings of church and state.
The budget battles will go down to the wire as usual, with pork fights; but the scrambling is over scraps, with no serious thoughts in this election year of raising revenue -- not even by increasing the state's lowest-in-the-country cigarette tax -- to stem the decline in state support for education, transportation or health care. The Republican majority, free of any great gubernatorial presence, can reject most of the governor's limited agenda. Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch noted the other day that he had worked with Gov. Mark R. Warner only once: "We are certainly not seeking to derail his agenda. We are not exactly sure what the totality of the agenda is." House Speaker William J. Howell calls the governor "a nice fellow" who communicates little.
Mr. Warner says that he meets regularly with the leaders, and that the speaker cannot be seen working closely with him because the GOP caucus has its own political problems. Besides, how much clever negotiating can the governor do with Republicans in firm control of both houses? More than he does, say many Democrats, who wish the governor had more skilled political operatives working the halls. Yet too many of these same Democrats have yet to figure out how to work as an effective minority, with some semblance of a cohesive agenda. With only days to go before adjournment, most of the lawmakers in either party will leave Richmond with little to crow about to the voters.