Maverick Virginia legislators almost upset an annual ritual today before the House of Delegates, bowing to longstanding tradition, unanimously approved Gov. John N. Dalton's proposed $196 million state budget supplement.
Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), a lawyer and former dramatic arts student, attacked proposed salary increases for the state's three highest officeholders -- a change that would make Virginia's governor the second-highest-paid in the nation -- before going down to defeat.
In a virtuoso performance on the House Floor, Miller pointed out that besides his salary, the governor now receives about $130,000 in annual perquisites such as free lodging, butler and maid service, a limousine "and a plethora of other odds and ends that could fill a circus tent."
But while Dalton's top finance aide, Secretary of Finance and Administration Charles B. Walker, watched approvingly from a back-row seat, the Democrat-dominated House went on to endorse without reservation the supplemental program that Walker hammered out and that the House Appropriations Committee approved last weekend with minor amendments.
It calls for spending almost all of the state's estimated $201 million budget surplus on education, Medicaid, prisons and a 9 percent pay boost for state employes.
The committee, chaired since 1978 by a close Dalton ally, Richard Bagley (D-Hampton), has almost never challenged the main budget proposals sent down from the governor's office. The committee's work, in turn, is virtually never questioned by other delegates.
"We're put in the position where we have to rely on Appropriations because we don't have the staff or the time to look at this," said Miller, complaining that committee members take "a traditional blood oath" to support the budget unanimously.
Miller and Democrat Theodore V. Morrison of Newport News proceeded to take issue with the committee proposal raising the governor's salary from $60,000 to $75,000 a year starting in 1982.
Some critical lawmakers have said Dalton has overemphasized the trappings of his office and abused perquisites such as the state airplane at his disposal. Miller stressed he was not personally attacking Dalton, who would not be affected by the proposed pay boost, but he ridiculed a legislative salary commission report suggesting that Virginia needed to increase its governor's salary to remain on a par with other states.
"Are we in danger of losing our governor or prospective governors to another state because of salary inducements?" Miller mockingly asked. "Will we lose Mr. [Lt. Gov. Charles S.] Robb to Texas? Will we lose Mr. [Attorney General J. Marshall] Coleman to Massachusetts?" (Robb and Coleman are likely rivals in this year's governor's race.)
Miller also attacked the lieutenant governor's office, which the proposal would raise to $20,000 a year from its present $16,000 contending its powers and duties were so negligible that, "if anything, we ought to take some of the money away."
Morrison was equally critical of the attorney general's office, to be raised to $56,000 from the present $45,000, saying its most recent occupants had downgraded the office into a stepping stone to the governor's mansion.
The delegates sided with the committee, however, rejecting by a vote of 59 to 36 Miller's plea to scrap a pay raise for the governor, then killing, 51 to 43, Morrison's proposal to hold the increase to $5,000. They defeated by wider margins similar proposals to eliminate increases for the lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Having put down the uprising, the House then unanimously passed the budget supplement. The fiscal measure consists of surplus funds discovered by the Dalton administration since last year, when the General Assembly approved a two-year state budget totaling nearly $12 billion.
The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee, where Chairman Edward E. Willey is expected to give it the same friendly treatment.