- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

RICHMOND The Virginia Senate, in a procedural decision yesterday, rejected Gov. James S. Gilmore III's attempt to give pay raises to teachers and other public employees, leaving the assembly the option of either going home without pay raises or calling a special session.

Mr. Gilmore had hoped to avoid a special session, which could imperil the car-tax rebate, by tacking the raises on as an amendment to a bill about retirement pensions for teachers.

But state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, challenged the amendments as unconstitutional, and Lt. Gov. John H. Hager upheld that ruling.

That leaves the budget exactly where it was Feb. 24 when the assembly adjourned without making amendments to the two-year budget it passed last year. Leaving without a budget let the governor keep his car-tax cut on schedule for 70 percent this year, but forced him to cut $421 million from the budget to close a deficit.

It also means momentum for a special session will grow among lawmakers, who want to go home having approved the pay raises and erase the stigma of the Republican-controlled General Assembly's failure to agree on budget amendments.

The assembly reconvened yesterday to consider the governor's amendments to 90 bills and vetoes of seven bills passed during the regular session. It takes a two-thirds majority of both houses to override a veto.

Before lawmakers adjourned yesterday, the House had upheld the governor's veto on one bill, while the Senate had overridden the governor's veto on six other bills. The House will finish with the governor's amendments and vetoes today.

The day's biggest issue, though, was the pay-raises bill. According to the senator's challenge, which turned into a technical debate, the constitution prohibits bills from doing more than one thing, and Mr. Stolle said the governor's amendments put the original bill in violation. The bill allowed retired teachers to receive pensions even if they begin to teach again, but the governor's amendments also created new revenue from pension-fund savings and spent that money on pay raises.

Mr. Stolle said if the governor's amendments were ruled acceptable, "there are no rules for legislation in the commonwealth of Virginia. An abortion bill turns into a crime bill. A crime bill turns into an appropriations bill," he said.

But Sen. Bill Bolling, Hanover Republican, said the constitution doesn't specifically put those requirements on governor's amendments, only on legislators' amendments.

Mr. Hager a Republican seeking the party nomination for governor this year as the presiding officer of the Senate, ruled against fellow Republican Mr. Gilmore, saying the rules required him to do so.

"It's not about politics. Certainly, the politically expedient thing for me to have done would be to rule this constitutional, get it out of the way and be done with it. But I cannot come to the podium this afternoon … and do something that I consider to be unconstitutional," Mr. Hager said in a news conference where he announced his ruling.

"To me, it's about integrity. It's about the integrity of the process, it's about the integrity of the General Assembly."

Lila White, the governor's spokeswoman, said Mr. Gilmore had no reaction to Mr. Hager's move, but she placed blame squarely on the senators, who she said have shown they are playing politics rather than working for a solution.

"How many times can you lead a horse to water? He's given them a perfectly acceptable way to do this and they flatly rejected it," Mrs. White said. "You have to wonder what their motives are."

Throughout the session, the Senate had refused to go above a 55 percent rebate on the car tax this year, arguing the money was better spent on services.

Mr. Stolle said the next step now must be a special session.

And momentum for that grew. Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, will present an entirely new budget today that keeps the car-tax rebate on schedule at 70 percent this year but freezes it there next year, and also finds money for pay raises and funding cultural attractions such as museums and parks.

Other than the pay raises, the bill that drew the most debate was one that allowed convicts to introduce exculpatory DNA evidence after they are convicted.

The governor placed several restrictions on the bill all of which were rejected by the assembly. Members accepted only a few technical amendments.

As passed, the bill would have let anyone convicted of a felony apply for testing either on newly discovered DNA evidence or on evidence that had previously been tested but for which a new, more accurate test has become available.

If the evidence helped a convict's case, those convicted of serious crimes including those on death row could then apply to a judge to review the new test results.

Mr. Gilmore tried to limit the bill to convicts who pleaded not guilty but were convicted, and placed a three-year limit after conviction for asking for tests. But both the House and Senate rejected those limits, arguing that some convicts plead guilty or "no contest" even if they are innocent but the evidence is strong, in order to receive a lighter sentence.

Now the governor will either have to sign the bill or veto it outright.

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