By Sherese A. Gore
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – House Speaker William Howell on Sunday hailed the General Assembly’s just-concluded regular session as a success, citing the passage of legislation to create jobs, improve public education and reform public employees’ pension plan.
“Foremost among these accomplishments is the passage of sweeping reforms to the Virginia Retirement System, which will secure the future of our state retirement plans for current employees and future generations of workers,” Howell said.
“Our work on economic development, public education and government reform will meaningfully improve the services we provide for citizens of the commonwealth and the administration of government.”
Like other Republicans, Howell focused on the positives – and not on debates over social issues or the assembly’s failure to approve a state budget for the 2012-14 biennium. Before adjourning late Saturday, lawmakers agreed to reconvene March 21 for a special session on the budget.
Saturday saw a bicameral display of cooperation. In the aftermath of a legislative session marked by partisan bickering, legislators came together to celebrate the graduation of the teenage pages (13- and 14-year-old students who helped lawmakers during the session), poke fun at the clerks and even have an impromptu game of football on the Capitol lawn.
Hostilities were temporarily pushed aside as lawmakers gave final approval to legislation to ensure the solvency of the Virginia Retirement System by requiring more contributions from employees and offering fewer benefits for future retirees. House Democrats felt that the VRS proposals needed more study and voted against the bills.
With little debate, the House and Senate also passed a resolution asking Gov. Bob McDonnell to call the assembly back into session in a week and a half to address the state budget.
Howell, a delegate from Stafford who presides over the House, noted that the General Assembly approved about 1,600 pieces of legislation during its 60-day regular session.
Democrats tended to see the session as having failed to achieve its goals. They accused Republicans of pushing an agenda of social issues such restrictions on abortion rights and voting rights.
“When people write the story about this session, it’s going to be about legislative overreach especially in the area of social and divisive issues,” said the House Democratic leader, Delegate David Toscano of Charlottesville.
Toscano has been a vocal opponent of Republican-backed measures to require voters to show identification before casting an official ballot on Election Day. He and other Democrats also have blasted McDonnell for signing a GOP measure requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion.
Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, and that put Democrats on the defensive.
“As a Democrat, we certainly took our lumps – certainly from day one to day 60,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. He was candid about the role Democrats played during the session.
“Obviously, we’ve killed a couple of budgets … and we felt like to do that was going to improve our bargaining position,” Petersen said.
In a letter to the governor last week, the Senate Democratic Caucus warned that it would continue to oppose a budget that would divert funds from “public education, safety and the elderly.”
After sine die – Saturday’s adjournment – Senate Republicans highlighted the bills passed by the assembly.
“The Senate of Virginia successfully approved legislation that will spur economic growth, streamline state government and improve the quality of our schools,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment of Williamsburg. He said the Senate also followed a more transparent process in considering bills, ensuring that legislation received a fair hearing in public view.
Sen. Ryan McDougle of Mechanicsville, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said the assembly passed legislation on job creation, economic development, education, public safety, government reform, health care and veterans’ affairs.
“While the continued budget impasse creates a challenge that must be resolved, the work product of this session has been impressive,” he said.
McDonnell said the General Assembly passed 88 percent of his legislative agenda, including bills to reduce and streamline the state’s boards and commissions, invest more in higher education, crack down on drug dealers and sex offenders, and boost renewable energy sources.
“Virginians will be able to look back on this session as one in which we increased access to college, made government smaller and smarter, ensured a well educated workforce, and put in place the resources our job creators need to grow their operations and employ more of our citizens,” the governor said.
Even so, McDougle acknowledged that “the largest item that we deal with is the budget. You can’t have a successful session until you have a completed budget.”
Legislators seemed optimistic that the 2012-2014 budget will be completed in short order.
“This year’s legislative session has been probably the hardest in my 10 years,” admitted Delegate John O’Bannon, R-Henrico. “So I think you can see folks come back, sit down and work it out and hopefully get it done within the next two or three weeks.”