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Watch Over the Rappahannock

Friday, September 1, 1995

This November, voters in Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kentucky will have the opportunity to tell their elected representatives whether they are happy with the new conservative direction in American politics. This represents the first chance since the conservative GOP landslide of 1994 for large numbers of voters to go the polls, so the state races of 1995 will provide the first electoral indication of whether America is entering a period of fundamental political realignment.

One of the most significant bellwethers will be elections for the General Assembly in Virginia. All 100 seats of the House of Delegates and all 40 seats of the Senate are up for balloting, and the ideological differences between the two parties are as clearly defined as in the national congressional elections of 1994. Republican Governor George Allen, elected in 1993, has pushed a wide-ranging agenda to put a more conservative stamp on Virginia government. Splitting mostly along partisan lines, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has rejected most of his proposals, including tax and spending cuts, school choice, and prison-construction measures.

Allen (who is limited by state law to a single four-year term) says that this year's General Assembly "will go down in history as one of the least productive ever. We sadly saw the Democratic defenders of 'business-as-usual' status quo mount unprecedented party-line defenses against those of us championing positive and constructive change."

Republicans haven't controlled either house of the Virginia General Assembly in modern times. But recent national and state political trends have given the Democratic leadership in the legislature ample reason to worry. When Douglas Wilder was elected governor in 1989, the Democrats enjoyed majorities of nearly 2:1 in the House, and 3:1 in the Senate. This year, they may lose control of both houses of the General Assembly. In the House, their majority has fallen to 52-47 (with one independent) and their margin in the Sen ate is just 22-18. Republican success in November could usher in reform on some of the most important issues facing the state and the nation: crime, taxes and spending, education, welfare reform, and the relationship between Virginia and the federal government.

Crime

From 1988 to 1993, the state's violent-crime rate rose nearly 30 percent, even though the most crime-prone age bracket (15-24) had declined. Felons were, on average, serving just one-third of their sentences. The average individual convicted of first-degree murder, for example, received a term of 35 years but spent just 10 years in jail.

Democrats in the legislature endorsed Allen initiatives to abolish parole and increase prison time by 125 percent for first-time murderers and rapists, to consider violent offenses committed as juveniles when sentencing adult offenders, and to enact truth-in-sentencing legislation. This year, however, the General Assembly voted, mostly along party lines, to provide just one-quarter of the $400 million requested by Allen for new prison construction.

By refusing to appropriate sufficient money, Allen says, his political opponents are putting public safety at risk. "Liberals in the General Assembly," he adds, "are shortchanging prison construction, making it more likely that dangerous criminals will be released early -- and back in our neighborhoods." Allen warns that "increasing prison terms, without increasing prison capacity, is precisely the mistake that too many other states have made."

Taxes and Spending

In December 1994, Allen drew fire when he proposed a relatively modest package of tax and spending cuts. Democrats attacked the governor's proposal as a tax "shift" in favor of the rich. They urged taxpayers to send $33 checks to Allen (the average amount a family's taxes would be lowered in the first year, under Allen's proposal) in an attempt to illustrate that Virginians didn't really need lower taxes. What the Democrats did not say, however, was that, by the fifth year, the average family of four, with a $30,000 income, would have saved nearly $1,000 in state taxes under Allen's proposal. Accurate or not, the Democrats' public relations campaign was successful, and the tax cut was killed.

Though Allen's budget proposal cut only $170 million (out of a two-year, $15-billion general-fund budget), the Democrats tried to portray Allen's proposed budget cuts as unreasonable. For example, when Allen proposed eliminating duplicative state agricultural extension programs and high-salaried staff positions, he was erroneously accused of wanting to do away with popular 4-H agricultural programs. Similarly, when Allen targeted "family planning" programs (which were included in, of all places, the agriculture budget), he was attacked for wanting to slash farm spending. The Democrats pushed their own budget through the General Assembly on a party-line vote, restoring $166 million of Allen's spending cuts.

Education Reform

During the recent session of the General Assembly, Allen proposed a new program of charter schools -- public schools controlled by teachers, universities, or other groups independent of school boards. Several bills were introduced in the General Assembly, but were killed after Democrats objected. Democratic Senator R. Edward Houck said the concept was aimed at "escaping" regulations. Houck, who is the supervisor of special and vocational education in Fredericksburg schools, denounced charter schools as a "half-baked . . . quick fix" designed to avoid what he said were the real pro blems confronting public education -- too little money and too little parental responsibility.

Allen came under heavy fire from the Democrats for his opposition to accepting $1.7 million in federal funds to implement the Clinton administration's controversial Goals 2000 program. This year, the Virginia House and Senate voted, mostly along party lines, to approve nonbinding resolutions in favor of federal funding for Goals 2000. When Republican Senator Mark Earley and others raised questions about the vague language of the federal regulations that would come attached to the money, their concerns were dismissed by the Democrats and the Virginia Education Association (VEA), a teachers union that supports Goals 2000 strongly. Allen -- expressing his concern about the need to retain local control over education in Virginia -- announced that the state would not apply for the Goals 2000 money.

Other Allen proposals killed in the General Assembly included mandatory criminal background checks for new school personnel and protection of teachers from frivolous lawsuits for good-faith efforts to discipline students.

The state's sex-education program, known as Family Life Education (FLE), sparked a bitter political battle. The Allen administration supported a bill that would have made FLE an "opt in" program, in which parents wanting their children to participate had to sign up. At present, the burden is on parents who do not want their children in the program to withdraw them. Because of the bureaucratic nature of the "opt out" process, some parents, who thought their children were not participating in FLE, were surprised to find their youngsters were still taking the course. The bill also would also have made FLE voluntary. Democratic opposition killed the legislation in both the House and the Senate.

Allen won a partial victory on another issue: The State Board of Education voted in June to approve a compromise version of more rigorous academic standards in English, math, science, and social studies. Th e standards were developed by the Governor's Champion Schools Commission in conjunction with parents and teachers. An earlier Allen proposal was bitterly attacked by Democratic legislators, the VEA and other teachers' groups, and a number of PTAs, who claimed the standards were "too demanding." Among other things, they required fourth-graders to be able to summarize the purpose of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, fifth-graders to trace the historical background of major world religions, eighth-graders to identify members of the Virginia and U.S. Supreme Courts, and 12th-graders to analyze issues involving state, local and federal governments.

Welfare

At the beginning of this year's session, both the Democrats and the Allen administration introduced their own versions of welfare reform. Led by Senator Joseph Gartlan of Fairfax (the dean of senate liberals), the Democrats sought to cast Allen and his secretary of health and human resources, Kay James, as callously targeting the poor.

Both the House and the Senate approved weaker Democratic welfare legislation earlier this year on party-line votes. Rather than sign it, however, the governor made major changes in the bill, reflecting the details of his original proposal, and returned the measure to the General Assembly. In the end, the Democrats blinked, making just a few technical amendments to Allen's bill. The final version passed the General Assembly by overwhelming margins -- 90-9 in the House and 33-6 in the Senate -- and was signed into law by Allen.

Most provisions took effect statewide in July 1995. The plan includes a "family cap" -- denying cash benefits to children born to parents already on welfare -- and contains new rules requiring unwed teenage mothers to live with a parent or adult guardian. Welfare recipients' children will be required to attend school, and mothers on AFDC must assist the state in locating absent fathers.

Tough new work requirements are at the heart of the program. The legislat ion (which is being phased in over the next four years) requires able-bodied adult recipients to take private-sector or community service jobs within 90 days. It places a two-year limit on benefits for most recipients. To ease the transition from welfare to work, the state will provide medical services, child care, and transportation for those who find jobs.

The welfare reform already seems to be having one of its intended effects: Reducing the number of able-bodied people on welfare. From 1988 to 1993, Virginia's welfare rolls increased by almost a third. By contrast, from May to July of this year, Virginia's AFDC caseload fell from 74,000 to 69,000 families.

"There is a general cultural shift," says Kay James. "People were beginning to understand that change was coming, and they began to change their behavior as a result." James says recipients have been coming into local welfare offices "where the work requirements have not even been phased in, and saying: 'Look, it isn't worth it. I might as well get a job I like, instead of one you say I have to go to.'" She adds that, in meetings with Allen, local welfare administrators have frequently expressed disappointment that their areas were not among the first round of localities chosen by the administration to implement the new requirements.

Despite the bipartisan votes for final passage, James believes the earlier debate over welfare in the General Assembly illustrates differences between the two parties. "In Virginia, you will hear that 'the Democrats wanted AFDC recipients to work,'" she says. "But what do you mean by 'work'? For the Democrats, that meant being involved in job training—it didn't mean real work." In the General Assembly, she says, the Democrats pushed for "hardship exceptions" to the work requirement that were so broad that the great majority of the adult AFDC population would have been exempted.

In the end, James argues, the Democrats concluded that "we were likely to prevail, and they wanted to be on that train when it left the station."

Federal Mandates

Another difference between the parties involves the Allen administration's repeated clashes with the Clinton administration over federal mandates. In one case, the EPA threatened to strip Virginia of its authority to grant air pollution permits to incinerators, factories, and power plants. The agency claimed the state was in violation of federal law, because it restricted the right of private environmentalist groups to file lawsuits unless they could prove a state permit would cause them a major financial loss.

Virginia later sued the EPA after the agency threatened to withhold federal highway funds. This time, the EPA refused to approve Virginia's vehicle-emissions testing plan, because the state wanted to permit gas stations to inspect and repair vehicles (Washington insisted that inspections and repairs be done at separate facilities.)

Virginians are no longer willing to be "jerked around like serfs," Allen said in announcing the suit, which contends that the EPA's actions violate the 10th Amendment. This year, Allen vetoed a measure, passed by the legislature, which would have implemented the federal "motor-voter" legislation. Virginia Attorney General James Gilmore filed suit, charging the bill was an unconstitutional, unfunded federal mandate. The Justice Department and the Virginia ACLU countersued, and the case is pending.

The U.S. Department of Education has ruled that Virginia public schools cannot expel or suspend disabled students for any reason without guaranteeing alternative schooling. Virginia officials say that special education students who sell drugs, carry weapons, or fight on campus should be disciplined in the same way as other students -- which may include unconditional expulsion. The education department claims this violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and has threatened to withhold $58 million in federal funds unless Virginia agrees to change its disciplinary procedures.

Secretary James fought a difficult battle with Donna Shalala, Clinton's health and human services secretary, before winning a federal waiver allowing Virginia's welfare reform program to take effect. Shalala had initially demanded that Virginia directly provide child care and transportation to welfare recipients making the transition to work. Virginia fought successfully to retain the option of having the services provided by churches and other private groups.

The Moderate Republican Factor

Even if Republicans win enough seats to form a majority, it won't necessarily mean smooth sailing for Allen's legislative proposals. Just as in the U.S. Senate, GOP moderates will tend to put up obstacles to conservative proposals.

Since Allen took office last year, Republican lawmakers from Northern Virginia have, on occasion, joined with the Democrats to thwart key administration initiatives. For example, Senator Jane Woods teamed with the Democrats in working to defeat Allen's proposal to reform the FLE program. When Allen's Champion Schools Committee proposed toughened academic standards for social studies, the first draft was blasted as "an unmitigated disaster" by another Republican lawmaker, Delegate James Dillard.

Delegate Vincent Callahan, one of the most senior House Republicans, joined with developer John "Til" Hazel, scores of other prominent businessmen, and Gartlan in a "bipartisan" plan to increase spending on roads, technology, and public education by hundreds of millions of dollars. The group (many of its members are Republicans) wants to pay for the new spending through a combination of new tolls, bonds, and new gas or sales taxes. It has been circulating the proposal to legislative incumbents and challengers in Northern Virginia. The plan is viewed as a slap at Allen, who has refused to consider increasing taxes.

In general, Virginia voters have rarely faced as clear-cut an ideological choice between parties as they do this year. Governor Allen may have lost most of his legislative battles to date. B ut by defining boldly what he and his party stand for, he has sharpened the issues of the election and given the citizens of the Old Dominion a set of clear choices for the direction of the state.

The consequences will go beyond Virginia. If the GOP does not take a majority in at least one house of the Virginia General Assembly, then it could be premature to say America is entering a period of conservative governance. And if the Democrats lose big, their party will know that the elections of 1994 were not a fluke, and that liberal dominance of American politics may be over.