EVEN IF A computer breakdown did call a halt to the mass legislative exodus in Richmond Saturday, the 1983 General Assembly session that finally ended a day later was proof that these odd- year, abbreviated sessions can be productive. Though not every issue was addressed just the way you might like it, the lawmakers demonstrated 1) that there was important business to be done quickly and 2) that voters were right last fall to reject a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have limited the introduction of legislation in these odd-year sessions.
Proponents of the amendment claimed at the time that the short sessions were becoming too burdensome for part-time lawmakers. (Translation: leave a lot of this important state business to a small group of agenda-setters). For the record, and not because these numbers tell you anything about legislative substance, this year's lawmakers sifted through more than 1,200 bills in their 47-day get-together. They also did what serious legislators do in other states: kill and pigeonhole a lot of fringe proposals and other measures introduced more as formalities than all-out quests for change.
The main business at hand--agreement on amendments to the state budget--was the product of three days of hard bargaining that ended with a reasonable compromise. True, some members complained about lack of time to review details, but the end product is a moderate proposal that provides more money than Gov. Robb had sought for education but--and here's the obligation when a legislature does this sort of thing--also contains an agreement to accelerate collections of some taxes.
Compromises also brought other significant changes that will undergo trials in the future, including the creation of an intermediate court of appeals that for the first time will guarantee a convicted criminal a second hearing in the state's court, provisions to speed the release from prison of some nonviolent convicts, a workable ethics law, and the raising of the beer-buying-and-drinking age to 19.
There were significant failures, too, including the refusal to make the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a state holiday and rejection of a proposal to eliminate beer and soft-drink throwaways through deposit requirements. But these bills have died in the longer sessions of the past as well as in the short session, and certainly did not suffer from lack of heated debate. So, rather than bemoan the workload, legislators should point to their achievements, which, on balance, added up to a solid performance.