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Session dismissed Gov's overreach, obstruct advice

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 9:10 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR MONDAY MARCH 12  FILE - This Wednesday Jan. 11, 2012 file photo shows Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell applauding as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.  (Steve Helber, Associated Press) ADVANCE FOR MONDAY MARCH 12 FILE - This Wednesday Jan. 11, 2012 file photo shows Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell applauding as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (Steve Helber, Associated Press)

RICHMOND, Va. — On the evening of Jan. 11, with the 2012 General Assembly just seven hours old, Gov. Bob McDonnell advised his newly empowered Republican legislative allies in his State of the Commonwealth speech, "don't overreach."

And to Democrats, frozen totally out of power in state government for the first time in 10 years, he counseled, "don't obstruct."

Was anyone listening?

McDonnell had sensed the building partisan friction born of a bitterly contested fight for Senate control. In the November election, Republicans erased the Democrats' two-seat majority and created 20-20 partisan parity in the 40-member Senate. When Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast the tie-breaking votes giving his party dominance on Day 1 of the 60-day session, indelible battle lines were drawn.

"You go back to the very beginning, the division of power — the Republicans refused to give an inch," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan, an 85-year-old moderate Democrat who votes with the GOP in support of anti-abortion legislation and lost his powerful post as Finance Committee chairman in the Republican Senate takeover. "Democrats expected they'd give a little because that's what happened back in 1996," the last time the Senate was deadlocked 20-20.

Republicans introduced bills that conservatives had dreamed of for years. Among them were measures to compel voters to bring identification to the polls; make public school teachers easier to fire; provide tax credits for people who endow private school scholarships; allow home-schooled children to play varsity sports for public schools they don't attend; apply legal rights of personhood to embryos from the moment of conception; and divert a share of the state sales tax to transportation.

But none got more public notice than a bill that would have required women who seek abortions to undergo vaginally invasive ultrasound exams.

Were they an overreach? Depends on whom you ask.

"We have had a number of issues that have been perennially controversial. I don't think there have been more. They may have been more controversial because they had a different outcome and got more publicity," said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who intends to seek the 2013 GOP nomination for attorney general.

"What we've gotten accomplished on a wide front — on jobs, on the economy, on education, on safe communities — I think there is a lot that has happened that has not been front page news."

The lightning rod bills, he noted, constituted less than 2 percent of the legislation introduced this year. But they chewed up a disproportionate amount of time and provoked passionate and sometimes earthy exchanges that were rare and shocking in the historically clubby Senate.

The voter ID bill and private school tax credit bills drew comparisons by Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, to the state's Jim Crow era. Marsh, who is black, grew up in a separate-but-equal Virginia and began his law practice battling the state's "Massive Resistance" to public school desegregation.

The pre-abortion ultrasound bill evoked outrage on the Senate floor from Democrats L. Louise Lucas, who borrowed television comedian Jon Stewart's derisive nickname for Virginia as "the punanny state," and Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist who angrily accused legislators of unethically meddling in the practice of medicine.

"Our side lost the public relations battle on that bill," said the House's most implacable abortion foe, Delegate Robert G. Marshall.

As television pundits, columnists and comics piled on McDonnell and Virginia's legislative Republicans, the governor proposed an amendment that House and Senate Republicans adopted eliminating the possibility of a mandatory invasive ultrasound probe.

Showing his libertarian streak, Marshall said the bill could have accomplished the same end without mandating the ultrasound procedure already done as standard medical practice.

"You could have written the bill in a way that says if the procedure is done, then the woman shall be offered an opportunity to see the image," he said.

House Minority Leader David Marsden, D-Charlottesville, called the Republicans' 2012 legislation "a classic case of legislative overreach." And he said McDonnell himself had a hand in it.

"One of the things you can talk about in terms of the legislation (McDonnell) sent down is his budget, and the budget reflected priorities that even his House Republican Caucus couldn't embrace, and that was draconian cuts in the social safety net," he said.

Marsden, however, wouldn't concede that his own Senate colleagues had obstructed.

"Until we get a little farther in the discussions, I am not prepared to say the Democrats are obstructing," he said.

Senate Democrats defeated two versions of the two-year, $85 billion budget, holding out for GOP concessions on greater Senate power sharing and the restoration of budget priorities. Among them were demands for more Medicaid funding for hospitals and nursing homes, more state money to ease sharp freeway toll increases in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and even reimbursement to the University of Virginia for Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's inquisition into a former professor's climate change research.

A third version of the budget, cloned by the House after two versions had died in the Senate, sat dormant in the Senate Finance Committee for a week before both sides agreed to adjourn the regular session and come back later this spring and try again.

And that's largely because of Colgan. It took the reserved 36-year senator to scold both sides for over-the-top partisanship and remind his Democratic colleagues that they're not going to get all they want. Because Colgan represents the turnkey 21st vote, no one could quarrel with that.

Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government since 2000.

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