Okay, here's the scenario: A progressive new governor of Virginia sees that meeting the state's needs for modern roads will cost far more than the money available. He talks of a bond issue. But a powerful state senator pushes for a rise in the gasoline tax instead.
One could fill in the names of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles who, in his first initiative as the Old Dominion's chief executive, suggested on Monday the possibility of a bond issue, and state Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) who proposed a penny increase in the motor fuel levy.
The final chapter hasn't been written. But, in the scenario set out in the first paragraph, the names aren't Baliles and Willey. They're Trinkle and Byrd.
Let's go back to 1922. Newly inaugurated Virginia Gov. E. Lee Trinkle, reversing his campaign pledge, found the need for roads so great that he proposed a $12 million bond issue -- tiny by today's standards, but significant for its day.
Here we pick up the account by historian Matthew Page Andrews in "Virginia, the Old Dominion" (1949), who related that by 1922 "the automobile had outmoded even the best of the state's macadamized paved roads, including the famous [Shenandoah] Valley pike . . . .
"In an extra session of the General Assembly, after the bond issue had passed the Senate by a majority of one, and had met defeat in the House by almost the same margin, a referendum was held in 1923 in which the bond issue was defeated by a popular majority of 46,000.
"Thereupon a gasoline tax higher than the one originally proposed by Gov. Trinkle was successfully advocated by state Sen. Harry F. Byrd (Sr.). Hence, in the midst of an era of universal spending, the 'pay-as-you-go' plan for road construction was definitely established."
Byrd went on to become governor and U.S. senator, and never wavered from his abhorrence of state and national debt. My, how he'd have recoiled at yesterday's projection of a $220 billion federal deficit!
Historian Andrews, from his 1949 vantage point, said that "experience so far has seemed to vindicate" the wisdom of Byrd's pay-as-you-go philosophy. The key words in that judgment, considering the traffic gridlock of 1985, would seem to be, "so far."
Byrd's aversion to government debt was rooted in one of Virginia's longest-running political controversies. After the Civil War, the electorate was divided on how to handle the state's prewar debt. One side sought to repudiate it, on the grounds that the federal government as wartime conqueror owed the bill; the other side sought to "readjust" the tab of $20 million-plus on easy terms with lowered interest.
Virginia didn't repudiate the debt and ultimately paid in full, and that left many of Byrd's generation -- he was born in 1887 -- wary of spending beyond current means. Byrd was able to do something about it.