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Creigh Deeds: Session update

Adjournment of the 2012 Session of the General Assembly, scheduled for March 10, is rapidly approaching, and we are in totally uncharted waters.  The Senate versions of the caboose budget bill that covers the remainder of the current fiscal year and the budget bill for the 2012-2014 biennium have been defeated in the Senate.  The capitol grounds have been overwhelmed this week by people objecting to various bills.  Time is running out on the General Assembly and much work remains to be done.

Last fall’s elections were dominated by discussions about the economy, ways to create jobs, and improve education.  The Governor, and those close to him, spent record amounts of money trying to achieve a majority in the Senate.  When the election produced a 20-20 tie, leaders from the other side of the aisle raced to the microphone and pronounced the tie a majority for their party.  In fact, from the day after the election up to the beginning of the legislative session, Republicans insisted they had a majority because Lieutenant Governor Bolling, who is a Republican, can cast a tie-breaking vote.  But even he acknowledges, and any close reading of the Constitution of Virginia would confirm, his tie-breaking authority is limited and cannot be utilized on constitutional amendments, the election of judges, or the budget.

Nevertheless, the leaders on the other side insisted they had the majority and used the Lieutenant Governor to organize the Senate and take control of the flow of legislation and the conduct of business.  In the process, they removed Democrats from committees and, after a fall dominated by economic issues, they pursued an agenda riddled with social issues.  The result has been that the Lieutenant Governor has cast more than ten votes, likely more votes than he has had to make in the last four or five years combined. Controversial social legislation has garnered unflattering headlines for Virginia in the national and world media and caused discord among members of the Senate.

The crowning achievement of every session is the passage of a budget. The budget document defines the priorities of the legislature and the Governor and provides funding for all services which the state provides.  The budget requires 21 votes in order to pass, so the budget would need to obtain bipartisan support for adoption.  The supposed majority is a fiction, because neither party has 21 members.

Leaders on the other side thought they could buy some votes by larding the budget with amendments proposed by Senate Democrats.  Never mind that the budget funds per student K-12 education at a level 10 percent lower than it did in 2007.  Never mind that the budget is balanced with the use of nearly $70 million obtained in the mortgage settlement agreement for non-housing purposes.  (Giving state employees a one-time bonus and sending aid to localities are worthy objectives, but neither is related to the source of the settlement dollars).  Never mind that services to the neediest Virginians are cut at a level twice as high as the cuts imposed prior to 2010.  The budget is flawed.  The process was flawed as well.  The Republicans need the Democrats, and Democrats need the Republicans.  And the people need all of us to work together to solve problems and move Virginia forward.  A simple math lesson, understanding that 20 is not more than 50 percent of 40, will begin the process of restoring order in the Senate of Virginia.

As a result of this power grab, many social issues have dominated this session. Two bills, one requiring an ultrasound be performed before an abortion and the so-called “personhood bill,” have garnered heated discussion and debate this past week.  The large crowds of protestors have been impressive.  The ultrasound bills are quite innocent sounding.  The ultrasound is a useful diagnostic tool to determine the gestational age of a fetus.  But, early in a pregnancy, an internal ultrasound is used.  The idea of the government mandating such an invasive procedure on a woman without her consent has caught the attention of humorists and the press.  I voted against the bill when it came to the Senate, and I plan to vote against the house version, which was amended. While the type of ultrasound has garnered the most ridicule and disgust, the bill remains fundamentally flawed in other ways.  These bills intervene in the doctor-patient relationship and allow politicians to usurp the medical judgment of doctors and impose unnecessary expense upon the patient.

The personhood bill is interesting in that it defines life as beginning at conception. I understand that this is consistent with the belief system of many people.  Not being a scientist or an ethicist, I am not certain the state should be involved in the issue of defining life in such a way.  I have been concerned from the beginning that redefinition of “person” could have broad implications on our law, probably much further reaching than any of the legislation’s proponents have even considered.  That is why I stood with a bipartisan majority, once the bill had been reported from committee, to rerefer the bill to committee for further study.  The action effectively killed the bill for the year.

I remain hopeful my colleagues and I in the Senate will reach a consensus and again get back to the work the people sent us here to do.  Get back to what we promised to deliver last fall—jobs, top quality schools, transportation solutions.  We need Virginia to be the best place to live, work, and to raise a family, not the ridicule of the country.

Creigh Deeds is a Virginia state senator.

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