The Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly presented a curious spectacle this year. After decades in the political wilderness, they ruled the legislature with substantial majorities in both houses.

But they seemed not to understand that their first responsibility was to govern and thus compiled a weak record. They could muster only 18 members out of their 64 in the House of Delegates in support of a constitutional amendment providing for a two-term governorship, a simple reform that would bring Virginia in line with every other state, promote long-term planning and improve accountability. Legislation to strengthen seat-belt laws met a similar fate.

At a time when Virginia is being forced to make drastic cuts in higher education, freeze public employee salaries and curtail important human services, legislators approved a repeal of the estate tax, which will cost Virginia more than $200 million in lost revenue in its first two years while benefiting the wealthy. The bill is a cruel blow to the poor and to everyone else who has shared in the sacrifice of balancing the budget. It also demonstrates the duplicity of some who claim to be fiscally conservative.

Two years ago, when gridlock overcame Virginia government, many people chalked it up to inexperience among Republican legislative leaders, who had never held the reins of power. That excuse is wearing thin. The problems confronting Virginia are too important for old-style backbencher politics. It is time to govern.

JOSEPH V. GARTLAN JR.

Fairfax

The writer served in the Virginia Senate as a Democrat from 1972 to 2000.