Gov. Mills E. Godwin stood before a room full of reporters Monday afternoon assessing the final General Assembly session of his eight years as governor when he suddenly made an amazing statement of regret.
"I wish more than anything else," he said in answer to a question, "that we might have been able to put to rest the annexation questions that have existed in the General Assembly for more than 30 years to my certain knowledge.
"They were with us when I came here in 1948 and before and they are with us today. Somehow, some way, at some time, this ought to be brought to a conclusion."
Godwin went on to say that he would have signed a complex bill sponsored by Del. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville) that would have allowed counties to purchase annexation immunity from adjoining cities by giving them financial aid.
The Michie bill, however, failed narrowly in the Senate and the governor as a result is reduced to the choice of signing or vetoing what he described as a "harsh" measure imposing a 10-year moratorium on annexation suits by cities throughout the state. Failure to sign the bill could touch off renewal of annexation wars between cities and counties.
The amazing aspect of Godwin's statement that he regrets failure of the Michie bill "more than anything else" in the session is that it was the first public statement anyone could remember that the governor made about the annexation issue this year.
Although Godwin ticked off a list of problems facing Virginia's 5 million people when he gave his opening address to the Assembly on Jan. 12, the speech was bare of any allusion to annexation of the natural competition between cities and counties for the affluent suburbs.
He was not an apparent factor in the long legislative battle over the issue and when the annexation bill came to the Senate two of his oldest allies, Sens. Edwards E. Willey (D-Richmond) and Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield), played major roles in its 20-17 defeat.
Standing alone, the failure of Godwin to act to bring about an annexation solution he wanted might be dismissed as an atypical executive bobble or an unfortunate miscalculation of a few votes in the Senate.
In fact, it fit into a pattern of gubernatorial conduct that left many legislators with a sense of dissatisfaction with this session. It may also have contributed to the trend toward a full-time assembly or at least toward more elaborate legislative staffs to help the Assembly generate programs that have traditionally come from the executive.
In addition to his negligent treatment of the annexation issue, the governor failed to come up with revisions in the biennial budget that inspired any confidence among legislators.
They seized upon several revenue expedients pointed out by the administration to balance the budget without a tax increase, but there was an unusual number of votes against the final solution.
Most of the negative votes appeared to be stem from a lack of confidence in administration revenue projections. This lack of confidence in turn is contributing to the movement to enlarge House and Senate budget staffs to counter executive proposals.
There were still other areas in which the Assembly acted in a near vacuum of executive influence.
Major changes in dealing with juveniles in the care or custody of the state were the product of legislative commission. Del. Frank. M. Slayton (D-Halifax), a South Side Virginia conservative, pressed for passage of some of these measures out of sheer frustration with administrative inaction on juvenile care problems.
Even bills reorganizing parts of the executive branch came through on the strength of legislators' efforts while Godwin remained silently neutral.
The leaders of the reorganization movement turned to him once late in the session for help in dividing the department responsible for business affairs and natural resources. The governor said he was willing to send the needed bill to the Assembly, but found that any chance of passage had already been foreclosed by successful lobbying against it by his own secretary of commerce and resources.
Such muddling on the part of Mills Godwin is hard for students of his first term as governor, from 1966-70, to explain. During that term, he pushed through a sales tax and the first bond issue of modern times, launched a community college system and encouraged a general revision of the state constitution.
Godwin himself argues that the bold actions of his first term were made possible by an ebullient economy and eagerness for new programs that do not exist today.
Others think that Godwin's inaction in this term and in the last Assembly session has an explanation other than the economy.
Del. James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria) attributes the changes in Godwin to the fact that he intends never again to run for public office.
"I've worked with Mills Godwin on many programs when he was in the Assembly and during his first term as governor," Thomas said. "Always the driving force in him was ambition. Now the ambition is gone and there is nothing there to drive him anymore."
Whatever the reason for the Godwin withdrawal, it created a leadership void in the Assembly this year that the Assembly members themselves could not completely fill.