- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

RICHMOND The car-tax cut is alive but endangered, a referendum for a sales-tax increase is still possible in Northern Virginia and a 24-hour waiting period for abortions is guaranteed to come out of Virginia's General Assembly, which hit the critical "crossover" deadline Tuesday night.

Each house had to act on its own members' bills by crossover; the bills they passed now go to the other house for consideration. It's also the point at which lawmakers can see which bills are likely to be passed, which are dead for the year and which have a struggle over the next 2 and 1/2 weeks of the session.

The biggest difference between the House and Senate right now: their budgets, which will be voted on today.

Neither budget includes the governor's plan to use tobacco money to pay for capital improvements. The House budget endorses increasing the car-tax rebate from 47.5 percent to 70 percent this year, as the governor wants to, while the Senate moves the rebate to 50 percent.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III's car-tax plan got a boost yesterday with the release of the most recent revenue figures. Preliminary numbers suggest January tax revenue growth will be 22 percent over January 2000, which goes a long way to make up for a sluggish December and a slow year to date.

Both houses' budgets are based on 3.8 percent revenue growth this fiscal year, but through the end of December the first half of the fiscal year growth was 0.2 percent.

That left some lawmakers saying they would consider cutting even deeper into the budget in case the economy falters. But if January holds at 22 percent, year-to-date growth would be 4 percent, meaning the state would meet its projections and then some.

"The secretary of finance told everybody what was going on in December and what he expected in January, and it's come to pass, but it's very, very good," Mr. Gilmore said. "It certainly does show that the sky's not falling, anyway."

But one of the staunchest opponents of increasing the car-tax rebate remained cautious yesterday.

"This changes nothing," said Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He said one month is too short a time to assess the health of the economy.

As of yesterday afternoon, legislators had introduced almost 2,000 bills and about 600 resolutions. The vast majority of bills failed to get out of committee and others failed on the floor. In the House, 980 of the 1,319 bills have failed, while in Senate 434 of the 644 bills filed have failed.

Both houses passed versions of bills that would restrict teen drivers. The only major difference between the two is that the House version would allow someone younger than 18 to carry up to three passengers, while the Senate version limits passengers to two.

Both houses passed the same abortion-restriction legislation, requiring a woman to wait 24 hours between seeking and having an abortion. That ensures at least one version will pass this year and become law.

The House has accepted a bill that would put a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects in Northern Virginia to referendum, while the Senate version would be a one-cent increase split between transportation and schools.

Several bills that passed the Senate enacting gun controls and certain driving restrictions are destined to die in the House Militia and Police Committee, which is where similar companion measures already have been killed. Among them are bills to let Fairfax County ban weapons in county buildings, to let localities close existing loopholes that allow guns on school property, and to ban open containers of alcohol in cars.

House bills to try to protect the state from cost overruns associated with Maryland's use of union labor on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement, to eliminate Alexandria's regulation keeping guns out of city buildings, and to erase the city's "living wage" ordinance all face a tough fight in the Senate. The Senate has defeated its own version of the bill to eliminate the "living wage" ordinance, 21-18.

As usual, some of the session's quirkier bills came out of the House.

n One would ban left-lane dawdlers. Sponsored by Delegate Joseph P. Johnson Jr., Washington County Democrat, it's the first time in three years the bill has made it out of committee. The Senate has never seen the bill, so there's no telling what chance it has.

n A bill sponsored by Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Scott Republican, would define killing a fetus in a criminal action against the mother as a homicide. Virginia law recognizes heightened penalties for someone who assaults or kills a pregnant woman and the fetus, but the bill would grant the fetus independent legal standing.

n Another bill would protect someone who shoots a threatening intruder from criminal and civil penalties. Currently, common law protects someone who shoots an intruder from being charged with a crime, but the intruder or his family could sue for civil damages.

The House also passed several bills that would alter the way the state's strict Standards of Learning are assessed and interpreted. One would allow students who do well in class but fail the SOL by a small margin to still get credit. Another would let schools whose students fail the SOLs retain accreditation if they show improvement.

The Senate failed to pass any similar SOL bills, and the administration is certain to fight changing the law. A veto is also possible.

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