There is a temptation already to identify the opening days of the Virginia General Assembly session that began last week as a turning point in the recent history of the state.
If they did constitute a turning point, it was one in which the government, the governor and the Assembly together acknowledged with some regret that the state can no longer sustain the heavy growth in taxes and spending of the last 10 or 15 years.
Since 1962, the Assembly under three governors has approved eight biennial budgets that increased at an average rate of 28 per cent. That's an average annual increase in taxes and spending of more than 13 per cent.
It is a rate that far exceeded the growth of the Virginia economy. In fact, a study by the staff of the Federal Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relationships shows that increases in state and local taxes in Virginia during the last 10 years have out-paced increases in taxpayers' ability to pay to a greater degree than in any other state except New York.
That is not the kind of brag that Virginia politicians want to make, but until last week there was no clear evidence that they might reverse the trend.
Only last year, at the end of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Gov. Mills E. Godwin proposed another expansionary budget. It would have increased biennial spending by more than 27 per cent and it included a record construction program.
The Assembly shaved these proposals, but not by much and when they met again on Jan. 12 they faced a projected budget deficit of more than $100 million.
Godwin greeted the legislators with an opening message that he called "somber." He kicked off a list of unmet state needs, but he proposed no tax increases to meet them. He said "Our charge now is reassessment and the possibility of retrenchment."
He warned that unless the Assembly raises revenues that he himself declined to propose he would have to cut aid to cities and counties by $80 million, an action which he said would have "severe impact" on schools.
The speech was a stark contrast to Godwin's first as governor in 1966. Godwin himself made that comparison. In 1966, he summoned the state to "put aside comfortable excuses" and compete witht he rest of the nation in education and other social programs. He asked for and got a sales tax that now produces one fourth of the state's revenues. A year later, he came back to say the job was not done and asked for and got more new taxes.
No one could read those speeches today with their invitation to enter an expensive competition in program expansion and expect even a governor headed for retirement from public life to renew them in today's climate.
It was possible for reporters after the Godwin speech to dash about the House of Delegates' chamber and find legislators to put it down as a failure in leadership. It was possible, but not easy.
It was easier to find legislators who were at least as cautions as the governor. Del. Carrinton Williams (D-Fair-fax), chairman of the state Revenue Resources Commission, said the governor was wise not to "propose a tax increase that would become a target to shoot down." Better, he said, to let the appropriations committee whittle at the budget and then let the tax-writing finance committe search for some relatively painless measure to close a small gap.
In the House Appropriations Committee room shortly after the speech, Del Thomas J. Rothrock (D-Fairfax) expressed a similar view. "I really don't see that we have a budget crisis," he said. "We may be short $102 million. If we get $35 million from the highway fund, that leaves us with $67 million. I think we can take care of that without a general tax increase." By the week's end, the appropriations chairman, Del. Edward E. Lane (D-Richmond), also was speaking of retrenchment. In a statement to the House, he recited the phenomenal growth of the budget from the mid-60s to the mid-'70s, and then said, "Unfortunately, then, at this time, when reasonable men must expect, and plan for, a decelaration of our recent revenue growth rate, we must also expect the fact that our demands on state government must at least stabilize if they are to be realistic."