Few perks excite Virginia's 140 legislators as much as the chance to spend 30 minutes inside a small room off the main corridor of the General Assembly Building in Richmond.
Legislators have been known to miss committee meetings, skip floor votes and snub free dinners from lobbyists for the chance to get inside that room.
Small wonder. The room serves as the studio for public television's nightly "Virginia Legislature: '80," the most extensive coverage any state broadcasters provide the General Assembly.
The show (9 p.m. weeknights on channels 14 and 53) may not make the Nielsen's but the publicity hungry lawmakers love it. Rural legislators issue press releases to their local papers trumpeting their appearances. Nor are they alone.
Northern Virginia's delegation worships the show, contending it gives them the status in the Washington suburbs that commercial television accords legislators in other parts of the state.
"People come up to me and say they saw me on television -- and that's where they saw me," says Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax).
Admittedly, when faced with the reality of Richmond commercial television news, which often prefers minor traffic accidents to substantive legislative issues, Virginia public television's nightly effort and its hour-long "Weekly Report" (10 p.m. Sundays) seem attractive. But placed against the work of public television in neighboring Maryland, the Virginia effort begins to fade.
Indeed, when public television's legislative programming in both states is placed side by side, a viewer gains some telling glimpses of how the two states regard both public TV and their legislatures.
While Maryland confines its programming largely to a weekly, hour-long show, "Statehouse Forum," it clearly is the better produced and more sharply forcused window on the legislative process. On Forum (Channel 22, Sundays at 6 p.m.) two panels of legislators debate key issues pending before the Assembly in Annapolis.
Abortion aid, mass transit and education spending questions are thrust at the panels by moderator Ron Canada. Audience members are allowed follow-up questions with the result that a viewer sees a legislator's ability to react under fire -- an all-important skill for anyone wishing to shepherd bills through the hostile environment of a legislature.
The resulting debate can make for good television, even for non-Maryland residents. When the Annapolis lawmakers debated mass transit on a recent show, all the legislators, even pro-highway ones from the Eastern Shore, were well-informed on Washington's Metro down to the point of quarreling over the merits of the Rosecroft line.
Debating abortion aid would have provided little more than a rehash of old issues had not moderator Canada interjected his disbelief at the Assembly's inability to resolve the issue. "I believe I've heard that before," he said, demanding they answer his question: "Why can't we come to some lasting solution?"
Contrast that with "Virginia Legislature: '80," where legislators and the show itself seem as stilted as the offerings of small town's cable TV system. Instead of crisp, well-informed debate, there is a parade of legislators who sit awkwardly in a poorly lit studio and make self-serving statement on top of self-serving statement on how they are solving the problems of the Commonwealth.
Instead of debate on statewide issues, there is more likely to be self-congratulatory statements on what the lawmaker is doing for his own community. "Did you do well?" a reporter asked Newport News Del. Alan Diamondstein last week. The Democrat then proceeded to tick off a list of building projects he had won for his region.
"I can say with a smile we got almost everything," said the broadly grinning Diamonstein.
Nor do commentators Doug Joyner or Bruce Miller, who normally work for WNVT in Annandale, seem inclined to press tough questions. "Well, we wouldn't want to cause you any problems with your constituents," Joyner gushed at one Northern Neck legislator who seemed irritated at being asked to apportion funds between highway construction and Metro.
Worse still is the Virginia programs' tendency to become mired in the legal jargon that frequently clouds discussions of legislative committees. Joyner explained recently that one tax proposal would "remove the tax on a pro rata basis 1 percent per annum."
If the viewer is not boggled by that, there are ohter obstacles certain to confound the most ardent legislative watcher. Frequently, the Sunday night program will offer taped segments of important hearings without bothering to identify the speakers, their questioners or the outcome of the issue. Not only did one tape from a House Finance Committee hearing give the impression of a rude, unnamed legislator last week, but it was followed by an interview with three lobbying school teachers whose hometown was never mentioned.
But, then, asking critical questions isn't Joyner's forte. On a recent show, he allowed Sen. A. Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach) to rail against the growth of state government (hardly a novel topic in Richmond) and then failed to challenge Canada on where the excessive costs in state government were. It was a glaring omission since Canada went on to complain that his Tidewater constituents wanted even more spending on both schools and mental health programs.
Not all the blame for lack of clarity should rest with Joyner. Nothing seems to alarm some Richmond politicians more than the prospect of being critical of someone or something. Take Democratic Sen. L. Douglas Wilder's refusal to discuss Gov. John N. Dalton's lack of leadership. "I'm not being critical," Wilder said, begging to drop the issue. "I'm just agreeing with you."
Finally, if the Virginia legislature is as self-centered and as inarticulate as it seems on public TV, then it probably has only itself to blame. Virginia has hardly been in the fore of states supporting public television.
In a survey by the Public Broadcasting Service, Virginia ranked well behind Maryland in the amount of state-funding it gives public TV.
Virginia was ranked 24th in the nation in terms of state monies directed to public TV on a per capita basis. Maryland, which was giving $1.10 per resident to public TV during the survey year of 1977, ranked 11th, more than double Virginia's 53 cents per resident that year.
In terms of total dollars, Virginia's public TV standing improved slightly rising to 14th with a $2.7 million appropriation. Maryland TV received $4.5 million, placing it 6th.
Of course, a bigger budget doesn't necessarily mean a better TV image. But given the image public TV is offering of the legislature these days, it could be one of the best investments in improving their image that the Virginia lawmakers could make.