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Gov. Jim Gilmore set a new record for invoking a special privilege to revive defeated legislation. While some lawmakers cry foul, Gilmore says he's just doing what he was elected to do.

Executive Powers

In attempting to revive an "informed consent" abortion bill just days before the General Assembly adjourned March 10, Gov. Jim Gilmore invoked a special privilege that he has exercised more frequently this year than any chief executive in the past two decades.

He has taken advantage of his unique status, which allows him to submit bills at any time during the General Assembly session, to belatedly propose 19 measures, including relief for tobacco giant Philip Morris.

Democrats, and a few of Gilmore's Republican allies, are concerned not just with the record number of requests, but with the governor's use of the power to breathe new life into once-defeated measures and to coerce support for some of his pet bills.

"It's incredibly frustrating to see it being used for political purposes the way it is now," says Del. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. "The legislative branch is supposed to be coequal with the executive branch, but this makes us subservient. This demeans our process."

Even Gilmore seems surprised at how many measures he has proposed, but he staunchly defends his right to do so — repeatedly, if necessary — to fulfill his obligation to Virginians.

"I'm sure there are a couple of bills that they would have just as soon not seen again, but those are the ones I feel very strongly about," Gilmore says. "This is not a crossing of the separation of powers, but it is, in fact, a power granted to me in the Constitution."

The abortion legislation, proposed just three days before the end of the session, replaced a nearly identical bill that was defeated by a Senate committee last month for the fourth year in a row. The governor's bill died in the same committee March 8 in a flurry of legislative maneuvering.

Gilmore's use of his executive powers to revive that measure — and propose more than a dozen others — is the latest example of his attempts to shepherd his agenda through the legislature.

During his two years in office, he has decreased his opponents' ranks in the legislature by appointing two top Democrats to administration positions, tried to unseat a moderate Republican who often opposed his policies, vetoed projects championed by his enemies, and traded favors to win the votes of Democrats in the closely divided House.

"He's exercised a more muscular form of governing than his predecessors, but that's his prerogative," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "If you don't use your powers, they're going to atrophy. Use it or lose it."

The Virginia Constitution states that the governor can recommend bills "as he may deem expedient." Each year, in drawing up their rules of conduct, the House and Senate exempt the governor from the bill-filing deadline that lawmakers must honor.

The deadline is designed to impose discipline on lawmakers and allow adequate time for full review of bills by legislators.

The 19 bills Gilmore has proposed since this year's Jan. 24 deadline breaks the record of 17 proposed by former Republican Gov. George F. Allen in 1994. Gilmore has already submitted more bills this year than Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles or Charles S. Robb presented during their entire terms.

The increase in gubernatorial bill submissions began with Allen, who was the first to use the power to revive measures that had died during the legislative process.

In 1996, he resubmitted a parental notification abortion bill after a committee defeated a senator's original initiative. That bill met the same fate as Gilmore's "informed consent" bill March 8 — defeat in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Gilmore's use of this power, political observers say, is consistent with Virginia's strong executive branch, which is granted more authority than most others in the country; this authority includes the ability to amend bills that come to the governor.

"They only have four years to accomplish something, and they're going to use every tool in their arsenal to get things done when they have the chance," says Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Simply because other governors didn't use it as freely doesn't mean anything is wrong."

Gilmore has used the power this year to respond to emerging problems, like the plight of unemployed workers in Southside Virginia, as well as to propose or revive several more controversial measures.

"Any time we have sent bills down, it's been in coordination with the leadership or individual members, or it's a bill that I feel strongly about," Gilmore says. "We have worked in coordination with the members of the legislature, not in contravention."

Among the Gilmore-backed bills approved by the General Assembly: a measure to protect the Virginia assets of Philip Morris during its likely appeal of a landmark class-action lawsuit in Florida, and a package to increase unemployment benefits for depressed areas of Virginia.

Several lawmakers argued that Gilmore's approach to bill submissions has been too aggressive, violating the spirit of the special privilege, which they say was designed to allow the governor to respond to unforeseen or emergency situations.

"This is more of a controlling governor than any I've ever seen in my history in the General Assembly," says Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr., D-Norfolk, the former House speaker, who has been in office since 1966. "He dislikes the legislative process, and he does what he can to bypass it with his privilege."

After years of seeing governors use this legislative power more and more, even some Republicans agree it is time for change.

"It's not about the particular legislation," says Del. Harry R. "Bob" Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, a longtime advocate of legislative reform. "It's about whether any governor should be allowed to introduce unlimited legislation up to the last days of the session. I've heard that from both sides of the aisle."

Ledyard King contributed to this report.

— Landmark News Service

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