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At least there's a budget

March 17, 2002 4:42 am

AT LEAST VIRGINIA has
a budget for next year.
Of course, the budget is more noteworthy for what lawmakers had to cut from it than
for what they included.

But at least there's a budget.

There was even a promise of bipartisanship at this General Assembly session's outset, a pledge from both sides of the aisle to work together to make the best of the bad economic times.

But when push came to shove, the true partisan nature of Virginia politics came shining through:

Saturday, Jan. 12: "But give [Gov. Mark Warner] his due, he's good. And I think he really wants to do something," said House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins, an Amherst Republican.

Thursday, March 7: "There was no contentiousness to speak of, but there was the usual degree of stubbornness," said Sen. John Chichester, R-Stafford.

Saturday, March 9: "I've been here 22 years. I never in my life and my experience recall a more inept or disorderly conduct of the final day," said Del. Clifton Woodrum, D-Roanoke.

But at least there's a budget.

Gov. Warner faced a trial by fire in his first experience as an elected official. He preached bipartisanship at his inaugural, and after learning that the state's finances belonged more in the intensive-care unit than in the Capitol chambers, he may have figured all would recognize the need for unity. He probably believed--naively--that a reasoned approach would bring him the legislation he wanted.

What he wanted was a statewide referendum on a sales-tax increase to aid public schools, but that idea had wings of lead in Wilkins' House. He thinks localities should fund their own schools, whether they have the money or not.

So the statewide referendum idea went back to being a regional thing, then Northern Virginia's plan became one that would tap its funds to help poorer localities. There was a referendum plan for schools, another for roads, and one for schools and roads. Many lawmakers, however, just can't see the difference between "tax increase" and "referendum for
a tax increase."

Our elected officials might be lousy negotiators, but they get A's in bickering and childishness. The one last chance for a deal was torpedoed when the Republicans took their ball and went home.

So in the end, the only referendum that passed is one for transportation issues in Hampton Roads. Other referendum plans will have to wait for the assembly to reconvene in April.

But at least there's a budget.

Of course there were other items on the assembly's agenda this year, such as a bill to post the Ten Commandments in the public schools, and not one, not two, but three bills to post "In God We Trust" on various public buildings. The commandments bill was rejected as probably unconstitutional, while the three "trust" bills await Warner's signature. The governor questions their constitutionality as well.

Virginia lawmakers spend much of their valuable time deciding how to pay homage to God, but ignore one of the Bible's most oft-told stories. In Genesis 41, Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream:

"They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine."

I can hear the lawmakers now: "Famine? Virginia's got plenty of hams for everybody! And why should the cities get all the food? What about the rural areas?"

They might not get the allegory, but at least there's a budget.

The assembly rejected a bill to abolish the death penalty, and another to prohibit the execution of mentally retarded inmates--which, conveniently, would prevent the state from having to pay for their care.

The legislature did, however, pass a bill to pay $750,000 to Jeffrey D. Cox, who served 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. How much do you suppose he would've gotten if he'd been executed?

As if the state's 21-day rule doesn't do enough to keep inmates from clogging up the courts with new and possibly key evidence, the assembly passed a bill to limit civil suits filed by inmates.

And just to make sure local government workers don't feel secure on the job, the assembly acted to prevent those governments from prohibiting citizens from entering their offices while armed.

Let's see if I've got this straight: Public school funding is a local issue, but guns in municipal offices is a state issue?

Don't think that the assembly wasted its time only on what it views as "important" legislation. It killed a bill to eliminate the requirement that school buses be yellow. But it passed a bill to allow golf carts on the streets of Colonial Beach, and anyone who drives a golf cart on streets crowded with pickup trucks and SUVs certainly isn't yellow.

So all things considered, there isn't a whole lot to consider.

But at least there's a budget. Too bad there's not much to that, either.





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