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General Assembly Review:
No Stones Thrown
By Stephen J. Rossie

Richmond – It was an exhausting session. No one, not even those involved with the legislative process for decades, had seen anything like it. Legislators confided what lobbyists, staff, media and others sensed — each day in each caucus was tough, difficult and hard, which made for a grueling six-week slog that took almost everything out of every one.

There was talk of going overtime, but no one could really imagine that, not after all that had gone before them. What had been a smooth budget process — anything would be perceived as smooth after last year’s Obamacare Medicaid expansion marathon and brinksmanship — did experience a hiccup, but one extra day so lawmakers could read the spending plan was considered, in some quarters, a blessing rather than a reflection of dysfunction. After all that went before them, who can argue that?

While there was some moaning about returning Sunday and the waiving of the 48-hour rule (that requires the budget bill to be posted for 48 hours before a vote; legislators got 24 hours as well as extensive briefings), the legislative body performed with distinction. Still, it was drop-by-drop torture — from Thursday, when it was supposed to be unveiled, every few hours rumors swirled about a new budget drop time, up until it actually did early Saturday when House and Senate conferees finally shook hands. With all the front page controversies, higher education spending, of all things, was the final "i” to be dotted.

With the unprecedented firestorms swirling around them, the Republican leadership in both chambers, despite one-seat majorities in each, remarkably kept the ship of state moving smoothly. Not that it didn’t face its own storms.

While only a sixweek session — the "short session” was instituted to deal only to tweak the two-year budget in its intervening year — the weight of the legislation rivaled what a fulltime legislature addresses. Everything from tax reform, the budget, abortion, redistricting, amending the U.S. Constitution, college tuition, surrogacy and "gender issues” to name a few, made for an intense time.

The controversies could have wrecked the entire session. Counterintuitively, it forced both sides, for the most part, to keep their powder dry. There was hard debate on issues, but the inflammatory rhetoric mostly was held in check. An iconic moment occurred when the experienced and sharp-witted House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County), one day, while the Northam-Fairfax-Herring catastrophe was in full flame, walked down the storied second floor hall from House Room 1, where the GOP caucuses, and knocked on the door of House Room 2, where his counterpart, rookie House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) held court.

They walked a few feet to the Capitol’s north entrance, between modern, interior, glass doors and the ancient wooden exterior doors, and held an impromptu summit, where they could be seen, but not heard, the Capitol’s own cone of silence. But it was easy to interpret the conversation — you Democrats are living in one giant glass house. Don’t throw stones.


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