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Bolling to be tie-breaker in most Va. Senate votes

Sunday - 1/8/2012, 3:34pm  ET

Is the Lt. Gov. really a tie-breaker?

WTOP's Hank Silverberg reports


Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said Tuesday that he plans to cast a tie-breaking vote in the state Senate in the upcoming session except in certain cases, giving the Republicans a controlling majority in the 40-member chamber that is evenly divided between political parties.

In a memo, Bolling said his interpretation of the Virginia Constitution and previous legal opinions give him the power to vote on most issues that result in a tie in the upcoming General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 11. However, he said he believes he cannot vote on final passage of bills such as the budget, tax bills, constitutional amendments, the election of judges and the creation of new offices. That's because the state Constitution says those issues can only be voted on by members elected to the Senate, which Bolling is not.

"While this ruling will protect my ability to vote on important organizational issues, it will limit my ability to vote on the final passage of certain other types of legislation," Bolling wrote in an email explaining his official memo. "Needless to say, this is a complex issue and I know that some people will agree with my ruling while others may disagree."

Republicans gained two seats in the Nov. 8 state Senate elections, ending four years of Democratic control and creating a 20-20 split in the chamber. Bolling, who is running for governor in 2013, and the Senate's GOP leadership had been enthusiastic but unambiguous about their intent to claim a majority based on Bolling's tie-breaking vote as the body's president.

Senate GOP Leader Thomas K. Norment of James City County praised the memo, saying Bolling has "brought sound judgment and a balanced, judicious perspective to this situation." And Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a statement that he agreed with Bolling's analysis.

"I trust this will put this issue to a close and allow us to focus on the major issues and budget priorities I have asked the General Assembly to address," he said.

Democrats filed a lawsuit in Richmond last month asking the court to halt the Republican plans, saying the state Constitution limits Bolling's deciding vote to legislation because he's a member of the executive branch of government. The judge turned aside the challenge, saying that the issue was not ripe and didn't warrant a court inserting itself into the actions of a separate branch of state government.

The judge also held that a court can't meddle in the procedures of the Senate and prevent Bolling from exercising his constitutional duties. She also noted that an evenly divided Senate was able to organize itself after the 1995 legislative elections without court intervention.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, who filed the lawsuit, on Tuesday called Bolling's move to limit his voting power "progress" from his previous position that he could vote on "anything at any time for any purpose as long as there was a tie vote." McEachin, however, said that a challenge could still happen as the session unfolds.

"We still believe it is up to the members of the Senate to decide the rules of the Senate," the chamber's Democratic leader, Dick Saslaw of Fairfax County, said in a statement. "Virginians elected 20 senators of each party this November and it's only right that power is shared equally."

Democrats want a power-sharing arrangement similar to one enacted in the mid-'90s, when the Senate was evenly divided and Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. was the body's president. However, Democrats at that time agreed to share power only after conservative Democratic Sen. Virgil Goode of Rocky Mount threatened to side with the GOP, giving them the majority. As a result, the Senate's standing committees had co-chairmen from each party and membership was apportioned evenly.

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