Thursday, February 23, 2012

Strange Days at the GA

This is a strange time in the General Assembly.  A time when a bill that has been sailing through the General Assembly with little or no opposition is killed in committee or on the floor.  Killing the bill normally has nothing to do with the merits, but is caused by a totally unrelated issue.  While this strange time occurs each session to a lesser or greater extent, this year may be particularly bad.  There are several issues that are causing straight party-line votes.  For example the "personhood" bill and the bill that would require ultrasounds before an abortion, to name just two.  These party-line votes will probably increase in the next few days because of the stalemate in the Senate over the budget.  The Lt. Governor cannot break a tie vote on the budget and it takes 21 votes to pass the budget.  The Democrats are threatening to vote as a block against the budget unless the Republicans agree to some power sharing arrangement.  The Democrats position on the budget and the redistricting of Senate districts by the Democrat controlled Senate last year have the Republicans smarting.  Therefore, we are seeing a lot of party-line votes that are either passing or killing bills that normally would have bipartisan support or opposition.

This phenomenon was exhibited today during the Senate Education and Health Committee meeting.  A number of bills were passed by the bare minimum of 8 (Republican) yeas against 7 (Democratic) neas.  The House version of the Governor's teacher contracts bill was one such example.  Just a few days ago the Senate defeated the Senate version of the bill on the floor by a vote of 20 (Democrats) to 18 (Republicans).  Had two Republicans voted for the bill, the tie would have been broken by the Lt. Governor (in favor of passage).  The two Republicans who abstained from voting may have done so for strategic reasons.  Regardless, in light of the budget impasse, it is likely that the contracts bill will become a caucus issue for both parties, resulting in the bill's passage by the tie-breaking vote of the Lt. Governor.  

Tensions are running high in the Senate, so it behooves all of us to stay tuned to the Senate floor debates.
Repeal of the Labor Day law and the bill that would allow home-schoolers to play high school athletics are both on the docket for the last regularly scheduled meeting of Senate Education and Health next Thursday.  The fate of the Labor Day bill is really in doubt.  Therefore, every superintendent and school board member needs to call or write his or her Senator expressing support for the bill. 

The two versions of the budget would give school boards approximately the same amount of additional money, but from different sources.  Consequently, it is conceivable that we could get even more money if the budget goes to conference.  (This assumes that the Senate will adopt a budget.  See above.)  There are at least a couple of notable differences in each budget.  The Senate gives some money for cost of competing in the first year of the biennium, while the House budget gives money for inflation in SOQ personnel costs.  The House budget also adopts a higher assumed rate of return for VRS which has the effect of reducing the contribution rate by 1%, 10% versus 11%.  This will reduce the VRS contribution by school boards by approximately $80 million.  The House budget is being debated on the floor today and more will follow.