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Free Lance-Star reporter Chelyen Davis covers Virginia government.

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Va Senate Democrats say power should be shared

Last week after the dust settled from the legislative elections, leaving Republicans and Democrats with 20 Virginia state Senate seats each, Republicans declared themselves the majority, saying that the tie-breaking vote of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling effectively gave them control.

Now Democrats are saying not so fast.

The Senate Democratic caucus met in a caucus retreat in Fairfax Friday. According to a press release, they agreed unanimously to fight back against Republican claims of control.

“Virginians elected 20 senators of each party and it’s only right the power in the Senate is divided equally,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “The Republicans are wrong to try and grab power when half the state voted for Democrats. It’s a question of fairness. The Republicans are trying to overrule the will of the people and claim a majority they did not earn.”

Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico,  said the constitution says Senate organization is done by “elected members of the Senate” and that as lieutenant governor, Bolling is not a “member of the Senate” and thus doesn’t have a vote in organizational matters.

But that has never been tested in court. In 1996, when each party last had 20 members, Democrats agreed to share power with Republicans, and some committees had co-chairmen from each party. But as Republicans pointed out last week, Democrats did that only because then-senator Virgil Goode threatened to defect to the Republicans if power wasn’t shared.

The Democrats then were prepared to take control, and asked state constitutional scholar A. E. “Dick” Howard for an opinion on the lieutenant governor’s voting abilities. Howard wrote an opinion that said the lieutenant governor had broad power to vote on ties, and it’s that opinion Republicans are relying on now.

Nevertheless, McEachin said a precedent was set by that earlier power-sharing agreement.

“We see no reason why it should be different now,” McEachin said. He cited a statement from then-Gov. George Allen, who said at the time that power-sharing was “reflective of the balance and equity that should be accorded the election results.”

Senate Republicans issued their own press release, reiterating their belief that Bolling has the authority to break ties, even on organizational matters.
“The constitution of Virginia clearly provides that the lieutenant governor, in his capacity as president of the Senate, can cast the tie breaking vote on matters resulting in an equal division, and there is nothing in the constitution of Virginia that prohibits the Lieutenant Governor from voting on organizational issues,” said Bolling in the Republican release. “While the constitution does provide that the Senate and House of Delegates shall ‘select its officers and settle its procedures’, this language does not prevent the lieutenant governor from voting on such matters in the event of a tie vote. “
Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, also took issue with Democrats’ claim that half the state voted for Democrats; he said Republican Senate candidates got more individual votes (768,545) than Democratic candidates (535,087).

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/on-politics/2011/11/18/va-senate-democrats-say-power-should-be-shared/

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