From the start, Gov. Charles S. Robb set his sights low for the Virginia legislative session that ended a week ago. It was, he kept saying, the year of the budget. And given the dilemma of a two-year $305 million shortfall, that was enough.
So when Robb this week declared himself "very pleased" with the legislature's handiwork, it was not a declaration of major victory.
The governor hadn't asked for much and the state's 140 lawmakers, anxious about their fall campaigns, were happy to oblige.
Throughout the 47-day session, legislators and lobbyists kept ending conversations with "wait until next year"--when the elections will be over, when Robb will introduce his first two-year budget, when the state's first Democratic governor in 12 years is expected to come out with proposals on voter registration reform, changes in drunk-driving laws, a coal slurry pipeline and other matters of policy.
This year, Robb concentrated on the looming budget deficit, soberly warning legislators in mid-January of the pain involved in paring government services. Then when the budget committees, delving into special funds, came up with enough money to forestall cuts in public school aid and other popular programs, the governor hinted that that had been the game plan all along.
"Those funds we knew about . . . but it is the House and Senate that have to run for reelection," said Robb last week, reacting to the charge that his administration overlooked possible savings in the budget.
"What should have been done in hindsight was better prepare the press about an acknowledged practice I thought everyone knew about."
In other areas, given Robb's modest agenda, success was no less hard to find. "In terms of the proposals the administration submitted, we were extremely successful--far more successful than I expect we will be next year or in the future," said Robb.
Almost all of Robb's crime bills passed, despite some tough opposition in the House.
An appeals court was created, although some final details on the new court were left unresolved. And the legislature, compromising on a last-minute proposal by the governor, raised the legal drinking age for beer from 18 to 19.
Symbolic, maybe, but Robb suggested this week that raising the issue of teen-age drinking may have been as significant as raising the drinking age itself.
"The most important element of the entire debate was the greater awareness given to the issue," he said.
Robb got caught in another symbolic storm, however, over the defeat of a bill to create a Martin Luther King holiday. Although he said he would sign the measure if it reached him (although he also said he knew it wouldn't), Robb, who won record black support in his 1981 election, did little to save the bill in a House committee.
His only effort was a letter, in which he wrote of "his full understanding that many nonblack Virginians" would prefer to honor a Virginian,"black or white," rather than establish a holiday for King, a Georgia native. It was, said one black leader, "so circuitous that it wasn't even a statement"; the bill's sponsor didn't even bother to read it to the committee. "I felt the letter left something to be desired," said Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond).
"We were not on his priority list," said the Rev. Curtis Harris of the Virginia unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who blamed Robb and other Democratic leaders for the King bill's death. "He could have done something . . . but he felt it was politically dangerous for him to get out front."
Robb, who suffered last year when the legislature's neglect of black issues detonated a political crisis in the Democratic Party, had no apologies for his actions on the King bill. "I have been absolutely consistent throughout," he said. "It is clear that it is an important issue to leaders in the black community and they will find the appropriate means to keep the pressure on."
Having set the budget as his top priority, it was on its resolution that Robb rested his best case for a successful session. The final document, negotiated between the House and Senate, was "very, very close" to what he wanted--on school aid, lowered cuts in higher education and more money for state employe take home pay, said Robb.
"In terms of basic priorities, all of us felt the same way," he said.
He also noted that most of the funds "discovered" by the legislators were in areas that were unavailable to the executive branch--savings in the legislative and judiciary budgets and an acceleration on prepaid taxes that netted $16.4 million.
Still, according to reports from both within and without the administration, Robb was not pleased to be caught off guard by some of the legislators' discoveries. "He may not have done anything different, but next time, he wants to know what to expect," said one Robb aide.
This year, Robb was credited with improving efforts at legislative liaison.
As one aide noted at the start of the session, the administration learned the hard way during its first session last year that the personal touch can be as important in passing legislation as a good bill.
To help provide that touch, administration officials were highly visible and always available throughout this session, even at the nightly social functions where legislators often adjourn for serious shop talk.
It was good preparation for next year when, as one delegate put it, "We'll see how good a governor Robb really is."