For the last week, the Virginia legislature has been consumed with the fate of a tax on gasoline, what form it should take and how it should be spent. The House of Delegates, paralyzed by regional divisions, has had to grope its way through myriad coalitions, looking for a compromise to break the impasse.
Through it all, Gov. Charles S. Robb has stayed aloof, holding to a promise he made when he took office just over a month ago. Then he urged the legislature to come up with more highway revenues, but the newly sworn-in Democrat refused to offer his own solution, preferring "flexibility" to "specificity."
Since then, Robb's hands-off strategy has come under intense examination. Many Democrats now agree that Robb was wise to stay clear of the legislature's intramural battles, but there are sputtering complaints about a lack of leadership--from veterans who feel left out by the novice governor's failure to listen to their advice and from younger members wondering what his priorities are.
"This passive leadership is unusual for this state," said House Minority Leader Vincent Callahan (R-Fairfax). "I would like to see the governor come out with a public statement. After all, he's the chief executive of the Commonwealth. We're leaving in two weeks," he added, echoing what some Democrats are saying privately.
Few who know Robb well are surprised by his approach to the gas tax. As lieutenant governor and as a candidate, Robb preferred consensus to confrontation. That same style--cautious and accommodating--has characterized his first month in office.
"He's a careful person, " said Sen. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond). "I always knew he would be more cautious than many people thought."
By not playing a lead role on the gas tax, Robb has left the legislature's many factions to play out their own battles. The Senate, following the early lead of its Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), has thrown its weight behind a new three percent tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. The House, now caught up in fierce competition over the distribution of the new revenues, leans toward a four-cent increase at the pump, lifting the tax to 15.
"Right now this is a legislative question," said Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "Robb has made it pretty clear he wants road money. If I were his strategist, I would tell him now is not the point when he should get involved."
The critical juncture for Robb, according to Stambaugh and others, will come this week if the House, unable to reach a compromise, fails to come up with more money to cover the deepening debts of the state Highway and Transportation Department. "If he doesn't get new revenues, then he should start knocking some heads together," said Stambaugh.
So far, Robb has been loath to use the considerable power of his office to get his way in the legislature. He has told some legislators that, during his first year, he prefers to rely on the good will of the Democratic leadership, avoiding politically costly battles over isolated issues.
In some cases, that approach has been successful. The day he was inaugurated, Robb said his first priority would be to commit more state money to teachers' salaries. And so far, the legislature has done its part to help the governor meet that goal, pledging an extra $53 million to local education aid.
But Robb's effort has also disappointed some Northern Virginians who, while applauding his overall goal, note that it will have little or no impact in Northern Virginia where teachers are now paid more than the national average.
Some area legislators also feel that Robb, elected as the region's first governor in decades, has been an ineffective ally in the Northern Virginia's annual quest for increased state aid for the Washington area Metro transit system.
In fact, Robb did propose adding more Metro money to the budget, restoring $7.9 million that had been cut out by former governor John N. Dalton. But the Metro money ran into considerable opposition from ranking Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, a group few governors have cared to challenge.
When it was clear that the Metro money was in trouble, the four Northern Virginians on the committee went to see Robb. "We told him we needed help," said Del. Robert Harris (R-Fairfax). "My words were, 'We need some body English to get leverage on this.' "
Robb followed up on the Northern Virginians' request but to no avail. "I think the guy tried," said Harris, "but I don't think he wanted to make this the focal point of his first year."
Callahan was more critical about Robb's lobbying: "He never said, 'My prestige is on the line on this.' I would think as a Northern Virginia governor, he would want to have something to deliver to the folks back home."
There have been other instances when Robb has chosen to lie low, rather than engage in head-to-head fights with the legislature. Key elements of his crime package--including a bill that would have given police broader powers to conduct searches--have fallen by the wayside, some say for lack of backup support from the administration.
Although much of the crime package--12 of 16 bills introduced--has survived, few consider its passage a major victory for Robb. "That's Mickey Mouse," said one Democrat after the Senate passed Robb's bill for stricter penalties for commission of a felony with a gun. "Everybody's against crime."
When he took office, Robb said he expected his honeymoon period would be short. More than most new governors, he has been dealt a perplexing set of circumstances--a budget ravaged by federal budget and tax cuts; a House of Delegates under court order to run for reelection next fall for the second time in two years; and a majority party that during the last 12 years had grown unused to having a Democrat in the governor's office.