They came today like petitioners before a feudal lord to ask one man to do what they'd been unable to get 140 people to do: kill some legislation.
That one man, Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin, sat in his stately third floor State Capital suite frowning, pondering, his head on his hand, as opponents of a $10 million state grant for the Metro subway system politely and stiffly went through the motions of making their objections.
Like lobbyists on legislation affecting annexation, teachers, police and even Henry County, Va., sewers, the petitioners went away pleased with their reception but uncertain about what the governor will do with some contriversial legislation left 20 days ago by the 1977 General Assembly.
Although Godwin is now serving the final nine months of his second four-year term, his power over the state will never be more evident than it is in the next 10 days. In that period, Godwin alone will decide the fate of most of the 719 bills passed by the legislature this year.
Because the Virginia General Assembly, unlike most state legislatures in the country, has no provision for overriding a governor's veto after it has adjourned, his power is absolute.
Troubled by that and what some say are the increasing frequency of Godwin's vetoes (there were 42 last year), the legislature this year approved plans for an annual three-day veto session. But the plans won't become a reality until 1980 at the earliest, and then only after approval by next year's legislature and a statewide referendum on the issue.
In the interim, at least, that has made the governor's office seem in recent days like an extension of the legislature, with legislators, lobbyists and state officials trickling in and out of Godwin's office with final please on bills that need only his signautre to become law or to be votoed.
But the scene in Godwin's conference room is sharply different from the sometimes raucous, smoke-filled committee rooms of the legislature where lobbyists span at and sometimes upbraid legislators in an effort to kill bills.
Today, five members of the Virginia Motor Vehicle Conference, a conglomeration of 40 highway-user groups, stood reverently as Godwin entered his high-ceiling, chandiliered conference room to be seated in a high-backed blue leather chair by a waiting aide.
They came, trying to persuade Godwin as one said, to "stick to your guns" and kill the state aid for construction of the Metrorail subway system in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Godwin vetoed a similar item in last year's budget, but the legislature reinserted the appropriation this year with some language that legislators said Godwin's top legal aides drafted.
Godwin has said publicly that the language has made the appropriation "more palatable to him since it allows the release of the funds only after his is satisfied with the overall financial plan for the subway system-a position that clearly worried the five men who came to beg Godwin not to approve the $10 million.
"It's the principle of the matter," said William M. Gaunt Jr., executive vice president of the Virginia Dairy Products Association. Funds from the state's highway trust fund, a hugefund produced by the state's tax on gasoline, should not be diverted to nonhighway uses, the five men agreed.
Northern Virginia, claimed J. Robert Justice of Roanoke, a representative of the Highway Users Federation, is "the wealthiest area in the country-not just Virginia." Citing the financial troubles the system has already encountered there, he added : "If Northern Virginia can't afford Metro who can?"
Godwin didn't answer the question, but he instead offered a series of his own questions, a pattern aides said he often follows in such meetings. "Where were you when this was downstairs?" he asked in an abvious reference to the legislature, which meets in chambers on the floor below his office.
The anti-Metro petitioners, who represented groups as diverse as road building and farmers, then assured Godwin that their positions were in fact well known to the legislators.None mentioned that the Metro appropriation sailed virtually unopposed through both houses of the legislature this year and that the appropriation was barely discussed during commmittee sessions.
But Godwin seemed well aware of the item's history and launched into a history of the proposal. "I made my postion clear last year and they sent me this-agin," he said with a hint of resignation in his voice.
As a photographer hired by a Farm Bureau public relations man recorded the meeting on film, John Wickstead, general manager of the Automobile Club of Virginia slipped an invitation for the governor to attend a "Transportation Week" luncheon at a local Holiday Inn. "We'd really be honored if you could come and sit at the head table," he told Godwin.
The secne is one that promises to be duplicated many times in the coming as the deadline for final action by Godwin, midnight April 3, nears. Godwin aides today distributed a list of eight bills that Godwin has indicated he may veto and spokesmen for Godwin were warning that there will be others.
The 42 bills Godwin vetoed last year are widely believed to have been a record for any Virginia governor, although no official records have been kept. Press Secretary John H. Wessells said that 22 of the bills duplicated other bills, were poorly worded, or posed potential constitutional problems. Twenty of the totay were killed for "policy" reasons, he said.
Still, that number reflects what some lawmakers say has been widening gulf between Godwin and the legislature. Wessells does not attempt to deny that there are some important philosopical differences betwween the governor and the legislature on some issues such as public employee rights.
"To simply veto a bill because he disagrees with the philosophy of the bill is wrong," complained Del. Ira M. Lechner (D-Arlington), a candidate for lieutenant governor and a frequent Godwin critic. "We shouldn't be setting up citizen-kings," Lechner said today.
Although a member of Godwin's staff connected with the governor's review of bills insisted today that thegovernor calls the sponsor of any measure before he vetoes it, both Lechner and Sen. Williard J. Moddy (D-Portsmouth) said the first they learned of Godwin vetoes on bilaction in newspapers. "It's very bad form," Lechner said.
But Wessels noted that Godwin in the past has often signed bills passed by the legislative a second time after vetoing a similar measure the year before.
Del. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke), a legislator who met with Godwin today about a bill that would place a 10-year moratorium on further annexations by Virginia cities and towns, said Godwin told him he probably wouldn't decide what to do about the bill until April 3. Until then, he told Cranwell, "call, come back, or write" if he wanted to add anything else to his presentation on why Godwin should approve the bill.