RICHMOND — The groundwork for a lingering budget standoff in the General Assembly might well have been laid Jan. 3 — roughly a week before lawmakers were scheduled to arrive in town.
Democrats had filed a lawsuit about the tie-breaking authority of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, seeking to define his ability to cast votes on organizing the Senate, split evenly between 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans after the November elections. Lieutenant governors routinely break ties on bills, but could he vote on the budget? On the appointment of judges?
On Jan. 3, Mr. Bolling issued a memo declaring that he could cast tie-breaking votes on matters of organization but not on the budget. Nearly three months later, lawmakers gaveled in a special session Wednesday to begin work officially on a budget impasse that might not have occurred without that January decision.
The Republican lieutenant governor's self-described "measured opinion" primed the pump for what was to unfold in the next two months. The GOP organized the Senate as an effective majority, Democrats voted in lock step to block two budgets, and now a small group of lawmakers is huddled in Richmond trying to work out a new two-year spending plan before the fiscal year ends June 30.
Despite the impasse, Mr. Bolling has no regrets about his decision.
"Senate Democrats said from Day One that they were going to obstruct the adoption of the budget, and they were going to obstruct the election of judges," Mr. Bolling said. "And they said from Day One that they were going to do that because they didn't like the way the Senate was organized.
"I thought that was a terribly irresponsible action for them to take. And my hope is that as time has progressed that they have seen that and have moved beyond that. We'll see. I hope they have."
Mr. Bolling acknowledged that he would have been justified in saying he could break a tie on the budget.
University of Virginia professor A.E. Dick Howard, who helped write the modern Virginia Constitution, said in an unofficial legal opinion in 1996 that the purview of the lieutenant governor on tiebreakers was virtually unlimited.
Mr. Bolling said Mr. Howard "basically opined that the lieutenant governor could vote on anything." He said Democrats were ready to pounce on Mr. Howard's opinion in 1996, the last time the chamber was evenly split, and push Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr.'s authority even further than did Mr. Bolling before state Sen. Virgil Goode, Rocky Mount Democrat, threatened to bolt the Republican Party if a power-sharing agreement were not reached.
"I would suggest that we handled it much better than they intended to handle it in 1996, because I came out early on and said, 'Look, I think there are things I can vote on and there are things I can't vote on,' " he said. "I tried to be very fair in laying that on the table. I could have taken a more aggressive position relying on Dick Howard's opinion, as they intended to do, but I chose not to do that because I just didn't think that that opinion was right."
Had he done so, there might be a budget in place by now - although there also could be pending legal challenges.
Senate Democratic caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, had filed the lawsuit challenging Mr. Bolling's authority to cast tie-breaking votes on matters of organization. A judge ruled in December that the matter was moot until a vote was cast, but Mr. McEachin still dropped it last month.
Mr. McEachin said he didn't want to get into a hypothetical debate as to what might have happened had Mr. Bolling tried to use his tie-breaking vote in a more aggressive manner, such as insisting that he could cast the final vote to pass a budget.
"The fact is he didn't," Mr. McEachin said. "I think it's always been fairly well settled that the majority of members elected means the majority of members elected."
Democrats consistently have pushed for a power-sharing agreement, arguing that a 20-20 split in the Senate should merit more equitable representation on committees. They also are using their 20 votes to push for more money in the budget to offset the higher cost of living for Northern Virginia school personnel and to help minimize toll increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, among other items.
In arguing for more equity on committees and further concessions in the two-year, $85 billion spending plan, Democrats also have responded directly to matters on which Mr. Bolling has cast tie-breaking votes. He cast a record-breaking 28 votes this session. By comparison, he cast 19 such votes in his first six years on the job.
Mr. Bolling said there was no hand-wringing on his part on any of them.
"I think I've got a pretty strong core set of values that I believe in, and I evaluate issues and rely on the prism of those values that I believe in," he said. "I learned a long time ago in this business, you have to know what you believe in and you have to be willing to stand up for it when it's easy and when it's not. If you don't have that kind of a core foundation, this stuff will rip you apart."
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