AFTER 38 remarkably forgettable days in session, members of Virginia's General Assembly learned how to spell relief a-d-j-o-u-r-n-m-e-n-t. By session's end Saturday, the list of legislative accomplishments was as blank as the stares of all the bored members -- many of whom seemed to have spent their final hours working on drafts of excuses for the legislature's short and unsweet performance this year. Actually, they had made only big mistake -- and that was to convene. At least they may now take some comfort in having done little or not legislative harm to their constituents and having canceled themselves out effectively by taking up and killing off most of the significant proposals as they went along.
Del. David Brickley (D-Prince William) summed it up well: "This season started off with such promise but it's ended up a disgrace to ordinary citizens," he said, bemoaning the legislature's failure to do anything much other than enact special-interest legislation. Many of the lawmakers blamed their troubles on the brevity of the session -- the shortest in recent years even though bobtailed sessions have been the order on odd years ever since the assembly began its current practice of meeting every year.
Whatever work the between-sessions committees did to prepare for this season seemed to be unceremoniously upstaged by sweeping proposals that couldn't possibly undergo serious deliberation -- a prime example being the House bill to revamp the state's income tax structure. It was a mystery even to those who voted for it and then tossed it to the Senate for a mercy killing. Similarly, the Senate could have struck a blow for equitable taxes and a break for the poor by approving a House-passed measure to cut the food tax in half -- but supporters of this measure never got their act together. When a group such as the Virginia Education Association is out sabotaging the food tax reduction on the convoluted grounds that the resulting drop in revenue would do harm to their pet proposals, you know this tax cut is in trouble.
Some House members attribute failures in their chamber to partianship and sectional rivalries -- as if these were new political phenomena. There's no question that Northern Virginia is still regarded by too many state legislatures as some sort of foreign country of considerable wealth; anything smacking of help for the poor in this part of the state got the fast shuffle. But was partisanship -- or lack of it -- the problem? Democrats blew a chance to embarrass Gov. John N. Dalton and his fellow Republicans by failing to enact any big tax cut bills in the Senate.
There was one new twist this year that may have had something to do with the substandard performance: Saturday's curtain was not the final one. The assembly returns for a one-week engagement starting March 30, to reconsider any bills vetoed by the governor and to take up what promises to be a most difficult, rough and tumbly duty of carving out new electoral districts for themselves and for Virginia's 10 members of the U.S. Senate.
Add to this elections in the fall for all 100 House of Delegates seats as well as for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and the political/legislative year is still young. Given the record of the first two months, it's hard to imagine that the rest of the year won't look at least slightly better.