Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton will go before the General Assembly on Wednesday apparently determined to become the chief executive who will halt what he sees as the alarming growth of state government.
Having been swept into office a year ago on a platform that pledged to continue Virginia's frugal, but undramatic leadership, his executive mission is hardly surprising.
Curbing the growth of the state bureaucracy has been a dominant theme, indeed some say the only apparent goal, of an administration that came into office with almost no promises to keep.
"I don't know of any programs he had last year and I've heard of none this year," complains state Del. Raymond Vickery, a Fairfax County Democrat who would like to see the Republican governor exert more leadership in meeting the needs of a rapidly growing state. But Vickery says he sees "no sign John Dalton or his administration is going to take any initiative."
That might seem a negative assessment in many states, but in Virginia -- a state wedded to the concept of a limited government -- it is to many a ringing endorsement of Dalton's executive style.
Indeed, no less a figure than the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), a 12-year-veteran of the legislature, describes Dalton's first year as "a reasonably good job -- not spectaculay, maybe more political than other governors -- but reasonably good." In those rare instances in which Dalton displayed boldness the results were not always able to match his expectations. His controversial decisions to negotiate with the federal government over the future of Virginia's predominantly black colleges, for instance, seemed to be on the verge of coming unglued at various times.
His decision to send large numbers of state police into the struck coal fields of southwest Virginia won him the plaudits of nonunion coal miners and supporters of the state's right-to-work law, but it also confirmed the distrust of Dalton among organized labor. At year's end the union that had organized the state's largest private industry, Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., was threatening a strike and accusing the governor of interfering in the labor dispute.
Those actions -- the college dispute and coal strike -- were exceptions in a year in which Dalton turned his attention to solving what he saw as a serious but little recognized problem: the size of state government.
Reports of the recently expired State Commission on Governmental Management pointed out that Virginia's employment of about 85,000 workers is excessive when compared with other states of comparable size.
Dalton lamented that point in a speech to businessmen at the exclusive, all-male Commonwealth Club here last week.
He warned that a continuation of the state government growth rate would result in one Virginian out of 50 working for the state government by the end of his administration. He added, "I am going to do everything I can to see that we don't reach that figure... the surest way to hold down the rate of government's growth is to hold down the number of government employes."
By executive order in the middle of his first year, Dalton eliminated an estimated 2,700 state positions that had been vacant for at least six months and laid down restrictions for new hirings.
He also has put out written guidelines -- apparently unprecedented -- for agency heads to use in drafting proposals for his first two-year budget, to be submitted in 1980.
"I told them, first," he said in his speech, "to forget about any general tax increase. I told them to count on using currently authorized and funded positions wherever possible to staff any new programs the General Assembly might prescribe and to find ways to increase productivity instead of increasing bodies.
"I told them to look for ineffective or obsolete or low-demand programs that could be eliminated, and to reduce the number of positions where workloads are stable or decreasing."
Significantly, the conservative governor's statement implied "any new programs" would come from the General Assembly and not his office. Of equal significance was the suggestion that some state programs may be eliminated in the next budget. Dalton's conservative predecessor, Mills E. Godwin, did not eliminate a single state government activity, even during a period of revenue shortfalls that accompanied the 1974-75 recession.
In an era of tax revolt, or at least tax disenchantment, Dalton's exclusive concentration on economy has brought forth relatively few complaints from legislators.
Even such a progressive Northern Virginia delegate as Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) is only mildly critical of the governor's approach to his job.
"I don't have any negative feelings that the things he has done are terribly wrong," Stambaugh said in an interview. "... He's trying to cut expenses and get a grasp of management of the government. I don't fault that even though I'm not sure that finetuning the bureaucracy is our most pressing need. I think funding local governments and improving the relationship between localities and the state are more important."
During the long General Assembly debate over reallocating revenues between cities and counties -- a debate that grew out of efforts to end the state's bitter annexation wars -- Dalton has not come forward with an administration proposal. He did hint in his Commonwealth Club speech that his address on Wednesday will include proposals to relieve cities and counties of costs imposed by state-mandated programs.
Dalton's single-minded focus on economies -- large and small -- has not been without controversy. When he ordered curbs on travel by state employes, including college professors, he was criticized for his own use of state cars and planes and for taking advantage of a traditionally unrestricted expense account.
When his cost-cutting zeal led him to prohibit state purchase of laminated plaques for fishermen who make prize catches in Virginia waters, tourism promoters and legislators cried "false economy." Norfolk Del. Robert Washington (D) has prefiled a resolution calling for restoration of the free plaques.
Not unexpectedly, some Democratic legislators are wary of Dalton's increasing forays into Republican Party operations, particularly in a state where partisan politicking by the governor is frowned upon.
"He'll have to decide whether he's going to be the governor or the leader of the Republican Party," Staumbaugh said. Others in the Democratic controlled legislature dismiss such complaints. "We are all partisan," said Del. Ralph L. (Bill) Axselle (D-Henrico). "The governor's a Republican. I don't blame him for acting like ont."