THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Monday, November 20, 1995 TAG: 9511200166 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ROBERT LITTLE AND WARREN FISKE, STAFF WRITERS DATELINE: RICHMOND LENGTH: Long : 119 lines
As lawmakers ponder the political implications of a 20-seat partisan tie in the state Senate, Republicans are despondent over one senator's possible switch to independent status - a move that would squelch their near-majority.
But they also have begun to acknowledge that it probably wouldn't matter anyway.
Constitutional experts, legal precedent, and now some Republican legislators, agree that, constitutionally, Democrats still have a majority in the tied Senate. Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. can break ties even when senators vote to elect chamber leaders, they say.
``I have come to the conclusion that he can vote on procedural matters,'' said Sen. Malfourd W. ``Bo'' Trumbo, R-Botetourt, a lawyer who has researched the question.
Said Republican Sen. Kevin G. Miller, from Harrisonburg: ``Things still aren't clear, but it looks like, yes, they have that power.''
Republicans claimed a legal right to half the power in the days after the Nov. 7 contest. But their legal arguments have faded along with the post-election hullabaloo.
With less than two months before the General Assembly must convene, debate over the structure of the new Senate is tangled by reports that Republican Sen. Jane H. Woods might drop her party affiliation and become an independent. The Fairfax moderate, troubled by the rightward trend of the party, says she is considering voting with Democrats to organize the Senate, a move that would give them a clear majority.
Republicans, meanwhile, have asked some conservative Democrats to switch parties, including Sen. Richard J. Holland of Isle of Wight County and Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Rocky Mount. Most agree, however, that shifts on either side are unlikely.
Instead, both parties are jockeying for their share of Senate control - of which Democrats claim all and Republicans want half. At the least, GOP senators expect better representation on key Senate committees and perhaps the power to distribute their own committee assignments.
But while Republicans argue about fairness and point out that they could shut down the Senate by refusing to participate, the Democrats appear to have the Constitution on their side. The 20-20 split forces them to cooperate, most agree. But they're still in charge.
``The Democratic Party enjoys a majority edge because of my vote,'' said Beyer, who serves as president of the Senate. ``We're not going to sacrifice that power.''
Party-line votes aren't a certainty in the state Senate, whose 40 members have varying regional and ideological interests. Party affiliation is most important in a legislative session's opening days, when the body appoints the leadership. Those votes fall along party lines almost without exception.
With Beyer's vote, Democrats could appoint not only a floor leader, who runs the lawmaking schedule, but also those who would chair the Senate's 11 committees.
Republicans say common sense dictates they should head some committees. Other states with split chambers have shared chairmanships and floor leaders - though not when a tie-breaking vote like Beyer's is available.
``I'm not surprised they're asking for it, but if the Republicans had the lieutenant governorship, what do you think they would do?'' asked Brenda M. Erickson, a legislative adviser at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
``The advice people normally give is to work to some compromise and keep in mind the best interests of constituents. Otherwise, the press will tear you apart.''
Members of both parties expect some compromise in the way seats on legislative committees are divided. In the past, Democrats have used their power to weight some key committees.
For instance: Before 1992, only one Republican sat on the 15-member Senate Finance Committee - the most powerful and coveted assignment. Democrats offered just two more seats when Republicans gained eight seats in the 1991 elections to make the split 22-18.
Thirty-one state senates make committee assignments in proportion to party representation - and most do it voluntarily.
The Virginia Senate, in fact, has a rule that says committees ``shall be composed of members of the two major political parties in the commonwealth in proportion to the number of senators of each of such political parties.'' Any senator who thinks that rule has been violated can appeal to the Senate Rules Committee - which the Democrats control, under the rules.
Considering the new partisan balance in the Senate, Democrats concede they can no longer disregard their own rules - at least not so blatantly.
Sen. Stanley C. Walker, D-Norfolk, who likely will be the new Finance Committee chairman, predicts a better balance. A 12-3 split ``doesn't seem adequate considering the gains Republicans made,'' he said.
But equalizing will be difficult, he said, especially considering the long tenure of many Democratic legislators.
``What do you do, just kick them off?'' Walker asked.
That's exactly what should be done, Republicans contend.
``If they have all the committee chairmanships, that's not parity,'' said Sen. Joseph B. Benedetti, R-Richmond, the Republican Senate leader. ``And with a 20-20 tie, parity is the only reasonable solution.''
Genuine parity, however, also would seem to be unprecedented.
Around the country, states with split legislative bodies have crafted some novel structures of shared power - but only when they had to. In instances where a lieutenant governor had authority to give one party a majority, they used it. And challenges to that authority have failed.
In Idaho, for instance, Democrats sued Lt. Gov. C.L. Otter and all 21 Republican senators in 1990, arguing that Otter's votes on organizational matters violated the constitutional separation of powers. The state Supreme Court disagreed.
``The constitution's drafters tried to break deadlocks,'' said A.E. Howard, a University of Virginia law professor and key writer of the Virginia Constitution when it was redrafted in 1971. The vice president has the same power over the U.S. Senate, he noted.
The 1996 General Assembly session opens Jan. 10. Legislators hope to reach some agreement on leadership before it becomes a public issue on the Senate floor. But so far, no resolution is evident. Both parties plan meetings, but there are no plans yet for a bipartisan conference before the legislature convenes.
``I can't predict what will happen, except that the road ahead certainly has a lot of curves in it,'' said Benedetti.
``If we wanted to hold things up, we could. We could keep everyone there until midnight every night, if we wanted to. But I don't think that's going to happen. We have time, as adults, to work this thing out.''
KEYWORDS: VIRGINIA STATE SENATE by CNB