In the midst of the current session of the Virginia General Assembly, a slight, withdrawn state official quitely left the Capitol to tell a Williamsburg audience that what was going here was, in essence, a waste of both the legislators' time and the taxpayers' money.
Because that advice came from a man who is regarded as one of Gov. Mills E. Godwin's closest political advisers it was a speech not easily ignored.The occassions when Carter O. Lowance, Godwin's special assistant, speaks publicly are rare enough.
Although Lowance's last job outside government was as an Associated Press reporter, that was 30 years ago in the interim Lowance has served as an executive secretary to six governors, including Godwin. Never has he been known as a glib conversationalist, especially among reporters.
Indeed, it is a standing gag around the Capitol newsroom that when you get a three-word reply from Lowance to any question, you have had an "in-depth interview" with the man who is regarded as one of the powers of the current administration.
So when Lowance went to the College of William and Mary to pick up an honorary doctor of laws degree and make a public speech, it was a rare pronouncement by a man who has preferred the shadows of public policy to the limelight.
In a speech that bore the sharp, lean prose of a wire service news account, the 67-year-old Lowance laid out clearly his views on Virginia's state government and where it has gone wrong. No institution did he criticize more than the legislature and its practice of holding annual sessions, a practice that has rarely been questioned by most legislators since 1970 when the state resumed the practice after 94 years of biennal meetings.
But Lowrance, an unfettered conservative of the Harry F. Byrd Sr. school, cited the results of those annual sessions and said the legislature is meeting too often, passing too many new laws.
"Many might point to that one fact alone as full justification for further consideration of a return to biennal meetings on the ground that no state needs 680 new laws every year," he said.
"Furthermore, the annual sessions have not as yet demonstrated the restraint some expected of the 'short sessions' (such as the current session) nor have they dealt solely with emergency measures of budgetary amendments, but rather have become general legislative sessions of unpredictable duration," he said.
What Virginia needs, Lowance complained, is an even stronger executive, one given a six-year term, added authority to reorganize the state's burgeoning bureaucracy and greater control over the state's budget. Under the current system, Virginia's governor serves a four-year term and is unable to succeed himself.
A new governor "does not have adequate time and opportunity to develop, submit and fully implement a broad-gauge constructive program," Lowance argued. Because the outgoing governor has prepared the budget for the first two years of a new governor's term, the new governor has no time to revamp the state's budget to meet what he thinks are the state's major needs, he said.
By the time the new govenor does get a chance to prepare a budget, it is the middle of his term and the legislature and the public are more concerned about "his successor rather than being" concerned by what Lowance said are "the pending matters" of state government.
The result is that major state policies and programs "too often move by fits and starts, sometimes with major changes in direction at the four-year intervals." And that, Lowance argued, is not the way a sound, conservative government should implement its programs.
Not surprisingly, Lowance's speech has received a mixed reception among the legislators here who were in the process of passing more of the laws that Lowance had said were unnecessary. But what was surprising was the reaction of two of the Assembly's top legislative leaders.
House Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews), hardly a liberal, quickly dismissed Lowance's suggestion that the legislature return to biennal sessions. Such a step would be "impossible . . . just impossible," given the growing complexity and changes in the state today, he said. "Why if we were not in session this year, we would have had to have been called back into session now because of the state's budget problems," Cooke said.
Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), who has frequently taken to the Senate floor to denounce Richmond newspaper editors for calling the current session needlessly long, however, was more sympathetic. "I think the current practice simply hasn't worked," he said.
The short sessions are too short for the legislators to do the detailed work they must before enacting major legislation, Brault said. What the legislation needs are biennial sessions of 90 working days, he said. Currently the legislature holds "short" odd-year sessions, supposedly of 30 calender days, but usually extended to about 45 days and "long," even-year sessions of 60 calendar days.
According to Brault neither is currently proving long enough for the work the Assembly has to do. His reaction to the Lowance proposal for a single, six-year term for the governor was more typical of the general legislative reaction to the Lowance speech. "It would be fine if you get a real good governor," Brault said, "but it would be horrible if you get a terrible governor."
(One reason for the different reactions between the House and Senate leaders may be that a return to biennial sessions would give House members only one legislative session to attend between elections, while senators could attend two sessions in their four-year terms.)
Although "You don't see the legislature rushing to implement" the Lowance proposals, as one Godwin aide joked last week, this session probably will be remembered as one that did strengthen the state's already strong executive even further, some legislators said.
Brault and others note that the enactment of proposals for reorganizing the state government will do much to give the state an even stronger executive. While Brault and some legislators are willing to accept these changes as essential for "more responsive government," they trouble others here.
Del. Warren G. Stanbaugh (D-Arlington), for instance, is regarded as one of the strongest advocates for a more active legislature. The Lowance proposals, he said last week, would make the governor "a virtual dictator." The current balance of power between the legislative and executive branches "is bad enough now," he said.
Another Northern Virginian, Del. Ira M. Lechner (D-Arlington), although a candidate for lieutenant governor himself, dismissed the Lowance speech as "part of the management by a king stuff."
Yet, as Stambaugh noted, much of the legislation that passes the Assembly is no more than what he describes as "dog bills," bills affecting some local government, telling them what they can charge for dog tags, pay their sheriff, or who can collect their parking fines.
The amount of major legislation that passes the Assembly is, of course, well under the figure of bills cited by Lowance in his speech. "But those are things thay have to be done, minor things yes, but they still have to be done," Stambaugh said.
Legislators here have stubbornly refused to yield their right to review such local legislation, a fact that may ironically tend to serve the powers of the strong governor more than Lowance and others would be willing to concede. For every minute the legislature worries about the problems of the town charter of Leesburg, for instance, is another minute that it cannot spend worrying about the direction the state's chief executive is leading the state.