The Virginia General Assembly, its closing hours marred by accusations that two of its leaders had made religious and sexist slurs, today scuttled a second compromise effort over a mandatory seat belt bill. The actions came as the lawmakers ended a 60-day session that had been dominated by questions of legislative ethics.
Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a foe of seat belt legislation, provided the final setback for proponents of legislation that would have mandated seat belt use in most automobiles and trucks.
Wilder, the Senate's presiding officer, broke a 19-to-19 tie by voting against a new compromise seat belt bill and then refused to allow a reconsideration of the vote after one senator said he mistakenly voted against it. In the past the Senate usually has allowed such reconsiderations as a routine matter.
Wilder's controversial ruling provided the last major action of a session in which new Gov. Gerald L. Baliles won generally high marks for his performance. The governor today was sent an $18.6 billion, two-year budget that compromised several relatively small differences between budgets approved earlier by the House and Senate.
Much of the good-natured revelry that usually accompanies the end of a session was dampened today by accusations of bigotry or sexism on the parts of Senate President Pro Tem Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and others.
Sen. Elliott S. Schewel (D-Lynchburg) took the floor to condemn anti-Semitic remarks attributed to three legislators, saying he found them "insensitive and highly uncalled for."
Schewel said later his remarks were aimed at several members of the assembly, including Willey, who was reported this morning to have referred to a reporter as "that little Jew boy."
Willey said today that he was misquoted by Norfolk and Newport News newspapers that said he referred to Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Dale Eisman as "that little Jew boy."
"I didn't say 'little Jew boy,' I said that big Jewish boy," Willey said. "I don't know his name, but I was trying to describe him."
Willey said he privately told Schewel later he had not intended to offend anyone.
Schewel also said he was in the cloakroom Friday and overheard Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack) comment that he was not going to go into the chamber before the daily prayer because "it's probably a rabbi today."
State Del. George P. Beard (R-Culpeper), also a target of Schewel, today released a letter in which he apologized for twice suggesting in a committee meeting that bankers should place the Star of David atop a warning notice about credit cards charges. "I apologize to all who were offended by what I intended to be a supportive, friendly, private remark to a colleague," Beard said in the letter.
Other legislators were grumbling today about reports that Philpott used the word "bitch" last week in criticizing Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), an outspoken opponent of his effort to weaken the conflict-of-interest law.
Neither Philpott nor Fears could be reached for comment on their reported remarks. Marshall previously said Philpott is angry with her outspoken criticism on the ethics issue.
Wilder, who was elected with Baliles in November, joined legislators today in praising Schewel's speech. "His message was eloquent, sincere, timely and absolutely necessary . . . to stop this kind of repetitious insult," Wilder said.
The last effort to pass the seat belt bill died today on the Senate floor after a second version was produced by a conference between House and Senate. Another version of the bill died Friday, but proponents of the measure managed to win another chance at passage today.
But after the initial vote on that compromise, Sen. Richard J. Holland (D-Isle of Wight) announced he had forgotten his promise to "pair" his "no" vote with a "yes" vote by Sen. Elmon T. Gray (D-Sussex), who was absent. Had the pair been allowed, the selt belt bill would have passed.
Although such reconsiderations are routinely approved when sought by a legislator who voted on the prevailing side, Wilder ruled today he considered the second conference report to be a reconsideration of the bill rejected Friday. Under Senate rules, only one reconsideration vote is allowed.
The session formally ended with the ceremonial ritual of legislative leaders meeting with the governor in his third-floor office at the Capitol and then returning to their respective chambers to read his laudatory farewell message.
"You have taken the first, decisive steps to address our critical transportation needs," Baliles said in the statement. "The new revenues you have provided will put plans for tomorrow's highways in our hands today."
"Jerry got pretty well what he wanted," said House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk), praising the governor.
Moss cited bills making marital rape and sexual assault of a spouse specific crimes and tougher drunk driving standards as examples of the "progressive" nature of the session. The legislator accused the media of overplaying the effort to change the conflict-of-interest laws, saying that gave the legislators "a bad rap."
Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) said during the session that the lawmakers risked being seen as a group of "sleazy solons" over the attempt to weaken the conflicts law and exempt legislators from prosecution. Days before the session began State Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk), a senior member of the assembly, was indicted on charges of violating the law in 1985.
The effort to weaken the law died this week after senators said the public and most newspapers had convinced them the bill would ruin the assembly's reputation for honesty.
Moss said a study commission is likely to make more acceptable recommendations for revising the ethics code next year.
Baliles called Friday's passage of a gasoline tax increase "the most challenging" issue of his young administration. It will provide $47.5 million beginning July 1 for highway projects that will be the focus of a special session of the assembly in September that will be devoted to transportation issues.
Willey, whose proposal for a more sweeping gasoline tax increase was the primary victim of lobbying by the governor and his aides, predicted that Baliles "is not going to have a chance to pass any kind of tax bill in that special session, or the regular one next year." He said both sessions will be "too close to the next election."
The 1.6 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase that emerged as the compromise bill will allow the highway department to compress planning and engineering studies by "an average of 13 months -- in some cases by two and three years."
Baliles said accelerated planning means that "some roads will be completed before the end of my term in 1990 that otherwise would still be on the drawing board in 1992."
He said that if his recently appointed Commission on Transportation in the 21st Century makes its recommendations for new ways to pay for transporation projects by August, as planned, the special session in September can be completed "in a couple of days."
The maneuvering over seat belts and the derogatory comments came as most of the 140 legislators said they were relieved that the session would end before nightfall, a change from many sessions that remained snarled into the final night.
Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria), frustrated that his colleagues did not approve legislation that would have guaranteed credit card users a 25-day interest-free grace period for paying their bills, stood on the House floor and snipped his Visa card in half to protest his bank's billing practices.