In mid-January, a crew-less ship loaded with three tons of rotting fish was discovered drifting off the Australian coast. If your thoughts, upon reading this account, turned to the Virginia General Assembly, you may be forgiven.

Legislatively speaking, Virginia found itself wallowing in the swells -- a lot of motion, not much direction. And some members of its crew -- many of long standing -- jumped overboard, via retirement.

The departure of these experienced legislators would have been of less concern if it had not shifted additional power to the more recently commissioned members of the controlling Virginia Republican Party. Virginia prevents gubernatorial succession, and so, to an exceptional degree, continuity rests with the legislative branch. Continuity -- in which stability, precedent and tradition are honored (you know, like what conservatives do) -- does not rank high on the GOP agenda, however.

That observation and others could be heard during a recent confab of highly distinguished, highly experienced and, these days, highly irrelevant Democrats, gathered for the wedding of one of their own.

"Probably the worst legislative session in a generation," said one.

"The place is being run by morons," said another.

The Republicans would demur on that last point, naturally. So much sour grapes. But turning a more favorable light on the recently concluded session is something of a challenge.

Having spent years establishing themselves as the fierce and uncompromising opponents of new taxes on "working men and women," the Republicans now must explain what they have done.

It's not just the annual $60 million or so to be raised by new fees -- proposed by the governor and the legislature both, including a "damn dam inspection fee," as one Democrat put it. It's also the increase in the price of state-controlled liquor products, which pumps up sales and excise tax revenue. This hidden tax comes courtesy of a collection of people who previously went into a frenzy at the mere mention of new government-imposed financial burdens on Virginians.

Then there is the estate tax, the repeal of which can be sensibly argued but which, when placed in the context of the state's fiscal travails and budget cuts, makes no sense. Nor does it follow for the Republicans, after having sworn against all that's holy to fully repeal the car tax and food tax, to turn instead and strike down the estate tax.

Killing the "death tax," as the GOP prefers to call it, got juiced by out-of-state money financing a full-court-press lobbyist operation. It was big money after big money all the way, not unlike the campaigns for riverboat gambling and the Disney's America subsidy in years past. So to say that the estate tax repeal was a sop to the rich is, in the end, fairly accurate.

But this may not be the worst of the 2003 General Assembly -- or, at least, not the source of a rather distinctive and somewhat familiar odor emanating from Richmond these days. For that, we turn to the subject of illegal immigrants. No more state driver's licenses or in-state college tuition for them, crow the Republicans, led by Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of the 7th District.

This effort, primped up with appeals to common sense, justice and references to terrorizing Middle Eastern types, involves none of that and does, in fact, constitute an unattractive swipe at Virginia's growing Latino population.

Take a ride down I-81 into the Shenandoah Valley and you will encounter more Latinos than you might expect, for the simple reason that thousands have answered the call of the region's many poultry and orchard operations. You also will find Latinos throughout Virginia constructing houses, growing Christmas trees and cultivating tobacco -- all employed by businessmen (mostly Republicans, you betcha) who aren't all that picky about immigration requirements.

By and large, these new Virginians are model residents. They work hard and have enriched the local culture -- just try the nifty new Mexican restaurant in New Market -- and they want to school their children. In sum, they obey all the rules except one.

The attack on them is ugly stuff, swathed in self-righteousness. With the legislature adrift in fiscal incoherence, the Republicans apparently have concluded that some good old-fashioned immigrant-bashing can't hurt. Even if it stinks to high heaven.

gcmorse@cox.net