Monday, January 3, 2011

Choppy seas ahead - The 2011 General Assembly

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
                                                                   Bette Davis
                                                                    "All About Eve"

The late Ms. Davis would have enjoyed the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Because 2011 promises to be a turbulent year in the legislature.

Since this is a redistricting year, there was little chance 2011 would be a placid year on Capitol Square.

But the national rise of the Tea Party, including its Virginia darling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has assured the year will feature pitched partisan warfare on other topics as well.

On redistricting we're on uncharted ground. For the first time, the state's Congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn with one party controlling the  House and the other controlling the Senate. There's no telling where that could lead.

Congressional redistricting shouldn't be too hard. Incumbents usually hammer something out between themselves and hand it to the General Assembly. In any case, Republicans won so many seats this year (8 of 11), that it would be impossible to protect them all in redistricting. The 2nd and 4th District may become somewhat more Republican by shedding African-American voters to the 3rd. Other than that, the status quo will probably prevail.

It's when they redraw their own districts legislators have the potential to become an unruly mob.

Many are predicting the gentlemen's agreement that prevailed in the past, the House doesn't meddle in the Senate's plan and vice versa, will be maintained. I'm not so sure. Neither Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (R-Springfield) nor House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) and new House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) have sounded very conciliatory lately. Saslaw and Cox, in particular, have reputations for hard-nosed partisanship.

House Democrats, whose paltry numbers leave them helpless in the face of the Republican majority, may appeal to Saslaw as their only chance to get anything resembling a fair redistricting. In 1991, their first opportunity to draw a new map, House Republicans showed they'd learned their lessons from more than  century in the minority. They drew what is arguably the most devastating partisan map in the  history of Virginia redistricting. They managed to effectively decapitate the Democratic leadership in the House and draw a map that let them keep the majority for the entire decade.

Republican Senators, who had a smaller majority to start with, were more merciful. They picked the one Democrat they wanted to get rid of  -- Northern Virginia's Leslie Byrne -- and were satisfied. Perhaps as a consequence, they lost their Senate majority in 2007.

Even if Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House reach some understanding on redistricting -- which would be amazing since they haven't managed to so so on highway funding or electing judges -- will Gov. Bob McDonnell manage to restrain the temptation to kibitz? His predecessors didn't.

Both Democrat Doug Wilder in 1991 and Republican Jim Gilmore in 2001 couldn't resist putting their own fingerprints on the redistricting maps. In both cases their efforts did more to alienate members of their own parties than anything else. McDonnell has recently shown he has some of Gilmore's and Wilder's skills at getting into fights with his supposed friends.

That's not to say that Democrats won't have their own intraparty battles over redistricting. The likely point of contention will be majority-minority districts.  Currently, their are 12 African-American-majority districts in the House of Delegates (10 of which are held by African Americans) and five in the State Senate (all held by African Americans). However, every one of those districts is short of the ideal population goal for 2011.

Since census data don't show the state's African American population declining, the good news is that Virginia's housing patterns have become less segregated, there are fewer purely African-American neighborhoods. The bad news, at least for the Black Caucus, is that makes it nearly impossible to draw the same number of minority-majority districts this time. For example, there are three adjacent African-American majority Senate districts in South Hampton Roads. Although they already contain every concentrated African-American neighborhood in the region, they are collectively 90,000 people short. I can't think of a way to fix  this, unless the Democrats can come up with a bill to repeal math.

Perhaps conservative gadfly Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) would be willing to sponsor that one for them.

Marshall is already doing  his part to ensure lots of controversy in the 2011 session. He's introduced a bill that would bar gays and lesbians from the Virginia National Guard, despite Congress' recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

McDonnell is already on the record as declaring Marshall's bill a bad idea. Predictably, Cuccinelli disagrees.

So that's another fight McDonnell will have with his own party.

Republicans have already shot down McDonnell's much-touted plan to privatize the state's ABC stores. The governor only gave the plan, which dominated legislative news the summer, a single petulant mention in his report to the legislature's money committees last month.

The governor took a fundamentally sound idea, that should have had broad bi-partisan support, and by screwing up the details, managed to create a plan that pretty much nobody outside his immediate family liked.

Some of his recent actions would indicate he didn't learn from the experience.

Some legislative Republicans are already on record as opposing the governor's plan to snatch $5 million in lawyers fees to the State Bar Association for the General Fund -- which he never consulted the lawyers group about.

Other Republicans -- including candidate Bob McDonnell two years ago -- don't agree with his plan to make current state employees pay part of their own retirement expenses, in breach of an agreement the state made with the employees over 20 years ago.

In addition to Marshall, Speaker Howell is also proposing a nutty idea suggested by the Tea  Party, a call for Constitutional Convention to pass an amendment that would allow two-thirds of the state to override any federal law or regulation. Basically, Howell would like to enshrine the discredited idea of nullification into the Constitution. The first person to come out in opposition to the Speaker's plan? Del. Marshall.

That's probably about the way the 2011 session is going to look, both sides against the middle and the governor against everybody else.

Unlike the past three sessions, the state budget is in good enough shape -- it will need cuts, but nothing like we've seen in recent years. Legislators will have plenty of time to display their natural cantankerousness. And, while politicians will argue about money if they have to, this is about power. That hits them where they live.

Otto Von Bismark famously said, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."

Expect the 2011 session of the Virginia General Assembly to make some particularly homely sausages.

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