- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The tumultuous 2003 General Assembly session, which came to an end on Saturday, provides a textbook illustration of the chaos created by a vacuum of leadership from the governor.

On critical issue after another, the assembly, now dominated by conservative Republicans, passed legislation on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the budget to parental notification when minors seek abortions. The relatively liberal Gov. Mark Warner frequently made statements about his desire to cooperate with the legislature. But he would follow these statements up by holding press conferences at which he would scorn the Republicans' budget priorities and their views on such issues as abortion. More often than not, the governor was relegated to lobbing political spitballs from the sidelines, as conservatives mainly in the House of Delegates, where Republicans enjoy an overwhelming majority successfully drove political debate during the 46-day session.

For example, as the legislature prepared to vote Saturday on a two-year, $52 billion state budget, Mr. Warner denounced lawmakers for voting to eliminate Virginia's estate tax and vowed that it would not become law this year. Lawmakers responded by voting 35-5 in the Senate and 70-29 in the House for the budget package, which eliminates a $2 billion deficit without raising taxes. The budget package also includes additional fees, such as an increase in the five-year driver's license from $15 to $20, to reopen offices for motor vehicle services. Mr. Warner has four weeks to amend or veto sections of the budget, and the General Assembly will return April 2 to revisit the governor's vetoes and other issues.

Both the House and Senate passed two pro-life measures by margins large enough to override vetoes from Mr. Warner, who is pro-choice. These included curbs on the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion and a requirement that parental consent be obtained when minors seek abortions. Despite his tough rhetoric on homeland security and the reality that seven of the 19 September 11 hijackers were carrying Virginia IDs Mr. Warner says he needs time for further study of legislation that would require persons applying for driver's licenses to document that they are in the country legally. Similarly, Mr. Warner wants more time to study whether to deny much lower in-state college tuition rates to illegal aliens, another measure passed by the General Assembly. We disagree. It's time to sign those bills.

Even before the session began, Mr. Warner's political position had been severely weakened by the crushing defeats of his tax-increase referendum proposals last November. Throughout the session, the governor was further undercut by complaints from disgruntled Democratic legislators, who complained that Mr. Warner was a political neophyte who wasn't fighting hard enough for higher taxes, increased social services spending, abortion rights, etc.

Politically speaking, the most powerful man in the state and the biggest beneficiary from the Democrats' disarray is Attorney General Jerry Kilgore the force behind the legislature's votes on in-state tuition and driver's licenses for illegals. It isn't difficult to understand why Mr. Kilgore is politically ascendant and Mr. Warner is floundering: Mr. Kilgore, a Republican elected with 63 percent of the vote 15 months ago, is a deft politician with a conservative philosophy that has become mainstream in Virginia.

It would have helped the governor had he had his own strong agenda this legislative session. Now, he is a liberal Democratic governor who faces much political misfortune as his state is moving rightward.

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