Most of the diners were still plowing through their heavily larded plates when country music star Roy Clark, dressed in a blue-sequined jump suit and bathed in a pink spotlight, pranced on stage.
It was the Virginia Agribusiness Council's ninth annual "appreciation banquet" at the Richmond Coliseum, the most lavish extravanganza of the legislative season.
Nearly 1,200 farmers and businessmen paid up to $100 a ticket to rub elbows with Gov. John N. Dalton, Sen. John L. Warner and other state officials and lawmakers, consume 2,000 pounds of food and 60 gallons of wine and liquor and ogle such home-grown beauties as Virginia's Pork, Beef and Apple Queens.
The banquet is a highlight of the lawmakers' crowded social calendar, which boasts at least 37 such bashes in the course of the 60-day General Assembly session.
It also highlights how many lobbyists here manage to evade or ignore the state's lobbying law.
Since 1976, the law has required lobbyists to report expenditures for any activity "which influences, or is intended to influence, or would reasonably be expected to influence a member of the General Assembly." Yet the Agribusiness Council, which has a registered lobbyist and which takes strong public stands on issues before the legistlature, has never reported the banquet as a lobbying expense.
The state official charged with enforcing the law, Secretary of the Commonwealth Frederick T. Gray Jr. -- one of the many guests at last night's affiar, which costs at least $25,000 -- says the banquets should have been reported.
"Nobody pays that kind of money for a meal without expecting at least a little good will in return," says Gray. "They don't hold these dinners for nutritional reasons."
Mahlon Rudy, spokesman for the council, which claims to represent 80,000 farmers, farm suppliers, marketers and food processors, contends the banquet is a fundraiser, not a lobbying effort. Rudy says the council has no intention of reporting the expenditure and that his group is one of many that are upset with Gray's interpretation of the law.
If so, the lobbyists can pretty much ignore it. Gray concedes that he doesn't have the staff or the money to investigate or audit lobbying reports and that the lobbyists operate under the "honor system."
Reporting requirements of the Virginia lobbying law fall far short of the detail that Maryland and many other state legislatures demand. Maryland lobbyists; for instance, must report every expenditure exceeding $30, naming the legislator they spent the money on and the specific legislation they mentioned.
Nonetheless, the system will be a little tighter this year. To replace the old, two-page reporting form that was so vague no two lobbyists filled it out alike. Gray's office has published an 11-page disclosure package.
The package includes five pages of instructions and notes that "the fact than an event does not include any direct persuasive efforts does not necessarily exempt it from this category of lobbying activities. In fact . . . nearly all good-will efforts fall within the definition of lobbying."
"Good will" is the watchword for the 67 parties, conferences and receptions listed on the House of Delegates social calendar, a document that House officials refuse to make public. The three-page list is so top-secret, Xerox operators in the General Assembly Building have been ordered not to photocopy it.
"What the delegates get invited to is their business," says House clerk Joseph H. Holleman Jr., who says he is acting under orders from Speaker of the House A. L. Philpott.
"I've been told it's a good way to meet other delegates," says freshman Del. Lawrence D. Pratt (D-Fairfax). "During the day, you just don't get to see these people."
"In the beginning, everybody goes to everything," says Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax).
"As the session drags on, nobody goes to nothing."
Insiders say there are dozens of smaller gatherings that don't even appear on the calendar and that as the session progresses, lobbyists resort to one-on-one lunches and other tactics. A lobbying reform bill proposed five years ago by then-Del. J. Marshall Coleman, now the state's attorney general, would have forced lobbyists to disclose the names of specific legislaters as well as how much they spent on these private sessions. But Coleman's bill did not pass -- some said it was lobbied into extinction by the lobbyists themselves.
Coleman, a Republican, was one of the guests of honor at last night's banquet, as was Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb. The two, who drove over in the same car from Capitol Square, are considered likely opponents in next year's governor's race.
Coleman said he came last night "to shake hands with people." As a delegate who represented a rural area, he said he used to feel compelled by his constituents to attend.
Northern Virginia legislators may have felt less compelled to attend, but nonetheless more than a dozen of the 27 members appeared. Many said they came for the food or the free county music show.
"I represent a lot of farmers -- they grow town houses," jokes state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), whose wife drove down to Richmond yesterday in part to attend.
For Northern Virginians, the banquet proved to be something like enemy territory. Earlier in the day, the Agribusiness Council joined forces with the Virginia Gasoline Retailers Association to denounce Gov. Dalton's proposed gasoline sales tax, a proposalt that includes between $20 and $25 million annually to pay for Metro construction.
Dalton, the only public official who made a speech last night, gave an impassioned plea for the tax proposal, warning the farm groups that without more revenues, the state would not be able to improve or maintain rural roadways.
After that, Dalton presented a "favorite rural Virginian" award to Roy Clark -- a native of rural Prince Edward County who now actually lives in urban Tulsa, Okla. Then the crowd settled back for two hours of hot banjo and guitar licks and off-color humor.