RICHMOND — Virginia state Sen. Stephen H. Martin is so ga-ga in love that he issued a blast e-mail to supporters about his recent engagement and let news of it drop at a committee hearing.
Yet on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, Martin was swept up in legislative pursuits. In Richmond, it was first and foremost crossover day.
At the crucial midpoint of the 60-day General Assembly session, the House and Senate had to pass their bills and send them on to the other chamber — or see them die.
That meant plowing through a mountain of legislation on matters as monumental as changing the state Constitution and as mundane as issuing yet another commemorative license plate. It also meant spending Feb. 14 seated in rows of wooden desks, not at a table for two.
“I’ve gotta do my job,” said Martin (R-Chesterfield), who vowed make it up to his fiancee. “I’ve already carried out some plans and there will be more.”
It would be easy for Virginia lawmakers to blow off Cupid entirely. But senators and delegates adopted the trappings of the day (and the piggybacking Breast Cancer Awareness Day) even as they waged a marathon do-or-die struggle over hundreds of pieces of legislation.
Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) rose in a delicate pink tie to make a sternly worded pitch for changing the way Virginia taxes gasoline.
“We have failed miserably in transportation,” he said, urging passage of a measure to swap the flat, 17.5 cent-per-gallon levy that the state has imposed since the 1980s to one tied to the rate of inflation. (The bill passed.)
Other senators and delegates donned pink shirts, ties — even shorts — to mark the day, although you couldn’t prove it by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who wears some shade of pink more often than not. Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) was the standout in a lace-trimmed red leather suit and a hat worthy of a royal wedding.
Legislative offices and the Capitol itself were festooned with enough paper hearts to pass for a kindergarten classroom. Lawmakers had candy, including special-edition Junior Mints with red centers, atop their polished desks.
They needed the sugar to fuel them through a day that could be described as a mad dash if avid runner and Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) hadn’t noted that the race analogy was not quite apt.
“One, you’ve got a fixed amount of time. Here, we can stay here till all hours,” Saslaw said.
Legislators introduced 2,567 bills this session. The House and Senate had passed nearly 2,000, and three had already been signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), before Tuesday. That still left hundreds in the pipeline, many of them hefty.
The House considered measures aimed at drug dealers and rapists, but also found time to authorize an Operation Desert Storm license plate and, while buzzing audibly, create a tax credit for beekeepers.
There was a similar mix in the upper chamber, where senators voted in favor of amending the state Constitution to protect property rights and against attaching right-to-work strings to Metro’s extension to Dulles International Airport. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said the latter would have imperiled “The most important project in Northern Virginia.”
Amid all that, the Senate also found time for some 40-year-old unfinished business. It passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which is three states shy of the 38 it needs for ratification. (The House killed it in committee, so Virginia is likely to remain one of the three holdouts.)
There was passion in the Capitol, but not the romantic kind. The tenor in the House was particularly sharp as lawmakers took up bills related to abortion and illegal immigration.
While debating a bill that would require women to get an ultrasound before an abortion, House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) set off abortion-rights advocates by declaring: “In the vast majority of these [abortion] cases, these are matters of lifestyle convenience.” He later said that he regretted his “insensitive” comment.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) admonished Del. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) more than once after he said the House debate lacked integrity. “You’ve done this time and time again,’’ Howell said. “We’re not going to put up with that.”
Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) took to Twitter: “Can we dial down the rhetoric in the Virginia House?”
Norment tried to use the holiday to prod senators into moving swiftly through the long agenda. “If we continue at this pace,” he declared just four bills into the session, “all of you will be canceling your plans this evening.”
About 100 members of the progressive group Virginia Organizing tried to leverage the holiday for its own purposes.
Wearing stickers that read, “The Virginia General Assembly Broke My Heart,” the activists handed out empty heart-shaped candy boxes to all 140 legislators.
Inside, in lieu of candy, was a note saying, “Disappointed? So are we! We want a General Assembly that works for All Virginians.”
The activists, who protested bills to restrict abortion rights, gay rights and voting rights, later rallied at the bell tower in Capitol Square. Having lost most of their battles, all they could do was sing: “Stop! In the Name of Love.”