- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday will open its legislative session, which will be spent debating transportation spending, medical-malpractice reform and hot-button social issues.

Most in the Republican-controlled legislature agree the session will not be as contentious or elongated as last year, when lawmakers spent 115 days fighting over tax increases.

But it is an election year in Virginia.

Lawmakers will meet for a short session and decide on more than 1,000 bills, resolutions and amendments to the current state budget before adjourning Feb. 26. They also will consider a few proposals to use the state budget surplus to fund the long-promised phaseout of the unpopular car tax. Those proposals are not likely to pass.

“All I asked for from Santa Claus is a 45-day session,” said Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat and the party’s House caucus chairman.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith said last month he does not predict another impasse on any issues this year.

“We don’t want it to be a battle, but there’s certainly going to be some debate” about the budget, the Salem Republican said.

The session will be busy because the legislature will take up some unfinished business carried over from last year’s session.

Lawmakers will decide on whether to allow Virginia governors to serve two consecutive terms and whether to allow charter status for some of the state’s top universities, a designation under which the schools accept less state money and the state government lifts restrictions on out-of-state enrollment and tuition.

There are expected to be at least three proposals to help improve the state’s congested roads and ailing transportation system.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, has proposed $824 million to go toward public-private partnerships, rail and transit initiatives, pay off debt and repay the Transportation Trust Fund.

House Republicans have proposed a $938 million plan similar to the governor’s proposal. Besides relying on public-private partnerships, the House plan counts on insurance-premium tax revenues and $100 million from a proposed “abuser fee” program. The program, if passed, would impose higher fines on drivers who speed or who drive drunk, recklessly or with a suspended license.

Senate Republicans will present their transportation plan in the coming weeks. Although details are not yet available, the plan is not likely to use any general-fund dollars like the other two proposals.

Senate President Pro Tempore John H. Chichester, who would not reveal the transportation plan, said he expects the transportation and budget negotiations to go more smoothly this year.

“There will be some potholes in the interim, but I don’t anticipate any foot-dragging,” the Stafford County Republican said. “The folks that I talk to are just anxious to get down there, get it over with and go home.”

The transportation plans are made possible this year because of a $919 million budget surplus, created in part by the rebounding economy and a $1.38 billion increase in the sales, cigarette and real estate taxes passed by the legislature last year.

Virginia lawmakers will consider taking some action on medical-malpractice reform, a major subject of legislative sessions in Maryland and in Congress.

Doctors in Virginia, stung by rising medical-malpractice insurance costs, want lawmakers to cap pain and suffering awards and limit how much money lawyers can make in malpractice cases. There are several bills aimed at setting limits.

The doctors said they plan to be in Richmond throughout the session — as many as 100 strong on any given day, said Dr. Mitchell Miller, a family physician in Virginia Beach and outgoing president of the Medical Society of Virginia.

Lawmakers also will consider whether to amend the state constitution defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. They also will debate a measure that would create special license plates for supporters of traditional marriage.

Democrats also will attempt to repeal the amendment to the state’s Affirmation of Marriage Act, which prohibits recognition of same-sex unions performed in other states. The law, which passed last year and is already facing a legal challenge, bans civil unions, “partnership contracts” or other arrangements between homosexuals.

Reproductive rights will be another social issue on the lawmakers’ agenda. Several bills have been proposed to address the issue. One bill would require doctors to anesthetize a fetus before performing an abortion. Another bill would hold colleges that give out the “morning-after” pill liable for any complications the women taking it experience.

The House will have a new delegate.

Democrat Paula Miller won a special election in Norfolk last month, narrowly beating anti-tax Republican Michael Ball for the seat previously held by Republican Thelma Drake. Mrs. Drake was elected to Congress in November, and vacated her House seat with one year left on her term.

There will be some shakeups on House committees when the session begins.

Delegate L. Preston Bryant has learned that he will be removed from the powerful Appropriations Committee, which crafts the budget. Last year, the Lynchburg Republican was a leader in crafting the tax-reform package that anti-tax Republicans opposed. His replacement will not be named until Wednesday.

Mr. Warner praised Mr. Bryant and the other maverick Republicans who broke with their caucus to pass the tax-reform package.

“How that kind of moderate center continues will be one of the real challenges of this coming year,” Mr. Warner said. “It was an important step.”

Anti-tax groups also are gearing up for the session, demanding tax relief in light of the budget surplus.

The Northern Virginia-based Republicans United for Tax Relief is urging its members to write their legislators and ask for tax cuts and for the end of the car tax.

One proposal would lift the $950 million annual cap legislators placed on the car-tax relief program last year. The plan caps the amount the state pays to localities for money lost under the car-tax relief program. The cap ensures that drivers will pay higher car-tax bills starting next year as residents buy more expensive cars and localities continue to get the same amount of money from the state.

The proposal to lift the cap has a good chance of passing the more conservative House, but its chances in the state Senate are slim.

The session will take place with lawmakers looking ahead to elections this fall.

Voters will decide on a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in November. Also, all 100 delegates are up for re-election.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the likely Republican nominee for governor, has presented several bills aimed at cracking down on Virginia’s growing methamphetamine problem.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been working with legislative leaders on transportation and will lobby for a new university to be built in Southside Virginia.

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