RICHMOND, SEPT. 4 -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's plan to kill the Virginia Department of World Trade is an unprecedented expansion of gubernatorial power, some legislators say, prompting predictions of a showdown with the General Assembly.
Wilder said he plans to eliminate all money for the department and transfer its functions to another state agency by Sept. 30, more than three months before the General Assembly gets a chance to vote on whether closing an agency it created is a good idea.
"I don't think they have the power to do that," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), who said he will demand an explanation from Wilder administration officials on Sept. 18 at a meeting of the economic development subcommittee he heads.
Gartlan, like other legislators, said he believes the state's budget law allows the governor to cut agency budgets by up to 25 percent. Wilder and his aides asserted today that the law gives him power to cut 100 percent.
Wilder wasn't eager to hear other views on the subject. At an afternoon news conference about Virginia's observance of the anniversary of the Bill of Rights, Wilder was standing next to A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia law professor who supervised the rewriting of the state Constitution in 1971.
When a reporter asked Howard's interpretation of the governor's budget authority, Wilder stepped between the microphone and the professor and declared, "He won't get that opportunity."
Interviewed after the news conference, Howard declined to comment on whether Wilder had legal power to cut off an agency's money in full.
Legislators weren't so reticent. "Do I think that the governor can unilaterally abolish a department? The answer is no," said state Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt).
But Emick and other legislators said it's unlikely the legislature will gear up for a major fight over the world trade agency, a 22-employee department whose functions aren't viewed as essential.
Still, Wilder's statements today are an illustration of the power of a governor in a state with a part-time General Assembly, and show once again that Wilder is not hesitant to antagonize legislators, even fellow Democrats, according to one Republican lawmaker.
"It's an encroachment on the powers of the General Assembly," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-McLean). "I hear an awful lot of bitterness about the ways he's conducting this."
Wilder was able to mend some fences today with two legislative leaders: House Appropriations Chairman Robert B. Ball (D-Henrico) and Senate Finance Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton). The two had complained previously that Wilder was not providing them with enough detail about his plans for cutting $1.4 billion from the state's $26 billion two-year budget to offset a projected revenue deficit.
"The tone of the meeting was terrific," said Ball afterward, although the meeting "didn't get into specifics."
Also at today's news conference, Wilder said Hungarian President Arpad Goncz will come to Charlottesville Sept. 16 to participate in a conference commemorating the Bill of Rights bicentennial.