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General Assembly Week Seven:
Heavy Lift Lawmaking
By Stephen J. Rossie

Richmond – Considering the unprecedented drama that unmasked certain segments of genteel Virginia and the cascading media storm and protests that engulfed Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol Square, the completed session was, for the most part, . . . boring. Even the highly anticipated, session ending, normally hilarious House Sensitivity Caucus Awards were pretty blah. (The "Coffees,” created a few years ago by younger Democrats who sit in the chamber’s "Coffin Corner,” were typically flat.)

It was a common question — how will they get their work done? Simple. Lawmaking goes on. The executive branch scandals don’t affect the fact that bills are introduced and that a very efficient committee system works its way through 3,000 bills, despite the House’s 15- bill, short sessions limit and the Senate’s new (but largely irrelevant) 25-bill limit. It was a nose-to-the-grindstone, in-the-trenches, very trying and difficult session that emptied everyone — legislators, staff, lobbyists, media — physically and mentally, and wondering how they could’ve have made it another two weeks if it had been the long session.

Almost everything on the large legislative calendar was a heavy lift. That demands soberness from each member and a dedication to statecraft, which the slim Republican majority remarkably, and masterfully, for the most part executed.

There was no easing into session, as the first few days typically allow to get your feet firmly under you; nor was there a respite at crossover. From the first day it was major issue after major issue, starting with the Senate taking up the so-called Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Session ended there, too, with House Democrats attempting nuclear guerilla warfare, first by hijacking a non-binding Senate resolution celebrating women and substituting it with the "ERA”. Then they attempted an unprecedented rule change. Each attempt failed.

For a while, the number of cameras in the capitol required people to slalom through, rather than walk, the halls. But while the media eventually dwindled, the protestors stayed. Whether it was groups calling for Democrat Governor Ralph Northam to resign (almost daily), pro-lifers calling attention to Democrat infanticide bills, and the ever present (and very creative) "ERA” supporters, who formed a daily gauntlet in the capitol’s extension, it was noisy and visible.

Democrats tripped over themselves on the abortion issue. The uproar normally would have been enough to castigate any legislative agenda. But with scandals also involving Attorney General Mark Herring and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax their mute button effectively was pressed.

The most telling image of session was House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County) entering House Room 2, where the Democrats caucus each day, at the height of the uproar, to pull out Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County). They walked to the rarely used north entrance and stood between the old wood exterior doors and the modern glass interior doors. Their negotiations (for a serene House?) could be seen but not heard.

If there was another enduring image, it was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) sharing a hearty, all smiles handshake and semi-hug outside the historic Old Senate Chamber early Saturday evening. They, and their budget conferees, had finished the heavy work of refitting the governor’s budget proposal, which was based on $1.2 billion in new spending funded by an automatic tax increase triggered by Virginia’s suddenly out-of-synchtax- code because of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

They had cut taxes, stashed millions in the commonwealth’s reserves, clamped down on college tuition increases and prioritized spending, all in balance. The one, final, heavy lift.


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