The education of Gov. Charles S. Robb began Monday when the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly came to the mansion for eggs and coffee and persuaded the new governor to do major surgery on the speech he was about to give to the legislature.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, it was the turn of committee chairmen from both houses to meet with Robb over lunch and help him attempt the impossible: balance a budget ravaged by federal cutbacks without either raising taxes or destroying the state's fragile social welfare safety net.
By week's end, Democratic lawmakers had taught fellow Democrat Robb an important lesson: Having wooed and won the Virginia electorate, Chuck Robb must now do the same with a tradition-bound legislature that has grown used to asserting its independence under 12 years of Republican governors.
"The transition is always a little difficult, but we've never had a situation like this before," said Robb during an interview Friday in his small third-floor office in the Capitol. "The potential for mischief is enormous."
The depth of the federal budget cuts now expected to total $271 million for Virginia over the next two years, the drama of a redistricting battle that continued to the eve of his inauguration and the edginess of a House up for reelection next fall all present Robb with a highly volatile set of circumstances. It is a game with high stakes for a Democratic governor who comes to office with greater expectations for success in working with the Democratic-controlled legislature.
In his first week, Robb did much to accommodate the legislators. He acted on their advice Monday and dropped a part of his first major speech that asked the House to suspend its rules and vote on the Equal Rights Amendment. He has let them take the lead on the drafting of tax bills he says are needed to rescue the state's troubled highway department.
"I think they all know I'm very approachable and they're not reluctant to make suggestions," Robb said.
Robb's four years as Lieutenant Governor made him familiar with the legislature's ways, although lawmakers found him distant and aloof. Relations thawed during the campaign when Robb made a point of pledging cooperation with the legislature. Democratic legislators, grateful for their first statewide victory since 1966, have toned down their criticism of Robb's reserved style.
Still, before the inauguration, a few top legislators complained openly that Robb had failed to consult them on Cabinet appointments. Others found some satisfaction in forcing Robb to back off his call for bypassing normal committee procedures on the ERA. They said the move would have pitted the governor against the House's time-honored committee system.
"Just a technical change," said one Democrat with a smug grin after Robb changed his speech.
Some powerful legislators are withholding judgment on Robb. "He hasn't asked for my advice," said Sen. Edward Willey (R-Richmond), president pro tem, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and member of the Senate's old guard. "Unless he asks me, I don't intend to give it to him."
Robb said this week that he had intended to hire a legislative liason. "The person I would have liked to to fill that role simply was not available for this session," he said, declining to name his choice.
Instead, the governor will rely on his executive staff--many of them unknown to lawmakers--and on Attorney General Gerald Baliles, the only one of the state's top three elected officers to have served in the assembly.
"Gerry Baliles is highly respected by the General Assembly and is knowledgable about the legislative process," said Robb. "That's going to be a major plus."
"I'm going to work through the leadership and the committee chairmen as much as possible, " said Robb. "I'm attempting a little different approach . . . and we will just have to see how it works."
Robb's cabinet is already grumbling about his proposal to cut their staffs to a deputy and a secretary. The cutbacks are intended to keep cabinet members from handling the day-to-day administration of their departments, Robb said.
"I wanted them not to come in and manage but to energize, to look ahead and plan," Robb said.
In his speech to the legislature last week, Robb honored a campaign promise and called for salary increases for Virginia's teachers, whose pay scale now ranks 39th in the country. The legislators applauded but are still wondering where Robb will get money for this and other programs.
Robb said he still hopes to avoid a general tax increase, as distinct from the new tax for transportation programs he said he will support. "We are approching it at least initially with the hope of raising teachers salaries without causing a general tax increase," he said.
During the campaign, Robb had estimated the cost of bringing Virginia teachers' salaries up to the national average at $116 million, though he now says it will cost less. "It is very unlikely we are going to make up the entire difference at one time," Robb said. "It will have to be phased in over a three- or four-year period."
For Robb and the legislature, the budget will be the dominant issue of the two-month session. The governor will ask for amendments to the $13.1 billion budget submitted by former governor John N. Dalton, including new proposals to limit the soaring cost of Virginia's Medicaid program.
Given the uncertainites of national economics, Robb also said he might have to call a special legislative session. "It's a possibility, although I am hoping we can avoid it," he said.