Sunday, February 15, 2004

RICHMOND — Lawmakers are approaching the halfway point of the legislative session — known as “Crossover” — this week as the budget, taxes, reproductive rights and homosexual “marriage” are emerging as the legislature’s top priorities.

Lawmakers have until midnight tomorrow to act on their own pending bills, and then during Crossover on Wednesday both chambers will swap bills and vote on them.

The budget is the only bill that gets an extra week. However, it will be due at the end of this week.

“I still feel very confident and comfortable that we’re going to be able to come to some sort of agreement by [adjournment on] March 13,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican.

The Senate Finance Committee tomorrow will consider a plan authored by its chairman, Sen. John H. Chichester, that calls for $2.5 billion in tax increases to meet the state’s needs.

Mr. Chichester, Stafford County Republican who also serves as the Senate’s president pro tempore, has been criticized for proposing tax increases and one district committee asked him to leave the Republican Party. He has said he is not planning to leave the party.

His plan would boost sales taxes by 1 cent on the dollar, raise the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents to 35 cents per pack, raise the gasoline tax by 3.5 cents, fully eliminate the car tax by next year and reorder income-tax deductions and brackets.

Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico County Republican, predicted some of Mr. Chichester’s tax increases may pass.

“In all likelihood, we will pass something that has increased revenues of some sort, not with the expectation of doing any more other than keeping that debate alive until we can understand more about the agreed-to consensus needs of the House and Senate,” Mr. Stosch said.

Earlier this month, the House Finance Committee killed Democratic Gov. Mark Warner’s $1 billion tax-increase proposal, which, among other things, would have also raised the sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5.5. percent, boosted the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents per pack to 25 cents, reduced the 4 percent grocery sales tax to 2.5 percent and fully phased out the car tax by 2008.

House Republicans on Friday submitted legislation that would raise at least $520 million by eliminating several tax exemptions for businesses.

Mr. Howell predicts a budget will emerge that is “without a general state tax increase.”

The House and Senate will spend much of the remainder of the session trying to reach a compromise. The state is constitutionally bound to pass a budget by June 30 or the government would be forced to shut down.

Meanwhile, a host of abortion-related bills have passed the House and are headed to the Senate for consideration. The Senate, considered more centrist than the House, is likely to reject most or all of the legislation. It has rejected similar bills in the past.

One bill would tighten health and safety regulations on state abortion clinics, holding them to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

Another bill would make it illegal to kill an unborn child against the mother’s wishes. The “feticide” bill states that fetal homicide is murder when the person who killed the child did so with malice. It also says that abortion is not considered murder.

The chamber also will vote on a bill that would require public schools to teach the importance of seeking medical attention after a rape. If passed, this curriculum would be added to the state’s Family Life Education program.

Last week, the House passed the bill on a 51-48 vote. The measure originally called for schools to teach that emergency contraceptives can be used to prevent pregnancy after a sexual assault. An amendment adopted last week replaced the emergency contraceptive provision with the broader language on seeking medical advice.

Lawmakers have several pending bills that strengthen state laws banning same-sex “marriage,” with the majority saying marriage is under attack nationwide.

Court decisions allowing homosexual “marriage” in Massachusetts and the issuing of “marriage” licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco have legislators even more convinced the bills are necessary to protect traditional marriage.

The issue has been more emotionally charged this year, with the legislature’s first openly gay delegate weighing in on homosexual “marriage” debates.

Delegate Adam P. Ebbin, Arlington County Democrat, has called most of the bills redundant, because the state already bans same-sex “marriages.” He said Virginia is not going to be the first, the 10th or even the 40th state to approve homosexual “marriage.”

Lawmakers will consider three pieces of legislation related to homosexual “marriage” this week. Two of them passed the House by an overwhelming majority, and the other came from the Senate side.

One of the last Senate bills still pending approval is a rewrite of the state’s sodomy law. Sen. Patricia Ticer’s bill would make sodomy legal for consenting adults who are not in a public place or performing an act of prostitution. It also would lower the penalties for engaging in sodomy in a public place to a Class 3 misdemeanor, making it consistent with other sex offenses.

The bill will be debated on the Senate floor before Crossover.

The rewrite is to ensure the existing law conforms to last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sodomy.

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