- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly yesterday opened its election-year session with a few shake-ups on House committees, as lawmakers were ready to put last year’s bitter fight over tax increases behind them.

After an opening ceremony punctuated with laughter and cheers, House Speaker William J. Howell announced he was removing Delegate L. Preston Bryant from the House Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Bryant, Lynchburg Republican, was an architect of the state’s historic $1.38 billion tax increase passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year. Delegate Clarke N. Hogan, South Boston Republican who opposed the tax increases, will replace Mr. Bryant.

“It’s my prerogative to assign people to different committees,” Mr. Howell said, in response to questions about removing Mr. Bryant from the committee. “I moved past last year a long time ago. … I don’t feel any pressure from anybody to do anything.”

Mr. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said he bases his decisions on philosophy and seniority.

Mr. Howell also appointed Delegate Benjamin L. Cline, Rockbridge Republican, to serve on the finance committee. Mr. Cline replaces former Norfolk Republican Delegate Thelma Drake who had served on that committee before she was elected to Congress last fall.

New Delegate Paula Miller, a Democrat who won the seat vacated by Mrs. Drake, will serve on the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

The committee changes were one of the few lingering reminders of last year’s elongated and combative session. For the most part yesterday, the lawmakers were back to sharing lawyer jokes, offering congratulations on new babies or condolences for lost loved ones.

Delegate Leo C. Wardrup received cheers when he addressed the legislature. In a moving speech that left several lawmakers teary-eyed, the Virginia Beach Republican thanked everyone for the well wishes he received when he became critically ill last month.

“Most of all, I’m grateful for your prayers,” said Mr. Wardrup, who spent 10 days on life support and remained in critical condition for another two weeks. “It’s pretty obvious that for whatever brings any of us here … it would seem to me that just being here right now means there is something left for me to do on this earth.”

Delegate Marian Van Landingham did not attend yesterday’s opening ceremony but listened to the session on the Internet at her home. The Alexandria Democrat, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, will not return to Richmond this session.

However, she will be able to submit statements indicating how she would vote were she in the House, but they won’t count in the vote totals. She will not seek re-election in November.

Partisan politics, however, remained at the state Capitol yesterday.

During a Democratic House Caucus meeting, House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall reminded delegates that this was an election year in Virginia. “There are a number of potentially explosive issues,” the Richmond Democrat said.

He warned House Democrats to closely read the bills and reserve judgment until Republicans offer their views. That way, Democrats won’t be trapped into putting their name on an issue, a move that could hurt their chances for re-election in November.

Voters in November will decide on a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. All 100 House seats are up for re-election, too.

Meanwhile, delegates marveled at the new portraits of two most recent House speakers — S. Vance Wilkins Jr. of Amherst and Lacey E. Putney of Bedford — that now hang on the wall on either side of the House speaker’s chair.

Mr. Wilkins, the first Republican House speaker, was forced to resign in 2002 amid a sexual harassment scandal. That year, Mr. Putney, an independent, served as House speaker before Mr. Howell was elected House speaker in 2003. It is the first time the portraits of two non-Democrats hang on the wall.

The legislative session ends Feb. 26.

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