RICHMOND -- For 10 months, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has been cutting programs, juggling funds and generally getting along without much input or interference from the Virginia General Assembly.
Now, the legislature's season is about to begin. As the General Assembly convenes today, the central question is whether lawmakers in the next 45 days will have the imagination and independence to put their own imprint on the state's handling of a $1.9 billion budget crunch.
Legislators complain that Wilder has left them no better informed about his plans than he has anyone else who reads the papers. Meanwhile, cuts already implemented have affected virtually every function of state government and gutted some agencies.
"It's really time for the legislature to resume its original constitutional role to make policy," said Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), who is urging his colleagues to abandon the usual practice "of coming to town, enjoying their cocktails and going home."
But lawmakers may find more frustration than alternatives. In the absence of raising taxes -- and even legislators who support that idea say the chances of passing a major increase are virtually nil -- the General Assembly may not be able to do more than tinker at the margins of the proposals that Wilder plans to present in his televised statewide address tonight at 7 p.m. (aired in Northern Virginia on WNVC Channel 56).
Legislators predict the result will be a contentious exercise in zero-sum politics, in which one group's gain must come from another's loss. "Everyone is frustrated," said Sen. Emilie Miller (D-Fairfax). "It's going to be a session when tempers are frayed."
The Northern Virginia delegation has its priorities. First on its list is to soften the impact of Wilder's planned $101 million cut in state aid to schools, which hit the region's affluent school districts with larger bites than those felt in poorer areas of the state.
"It's outrageous," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-McLean) of Wilder's formula.
George Mason University advocates, meanwhile, want to restore some of the money lost by higher education under the Wilder cuts. And legislators promise a fight to get back some of the $300 million in transportation spending that has been lost.
The budget fight will dominate, but in no way is it the only show in the new session.
The all-male admissions policy at Virginia Military Institute, under legal assault from the U.S. Justice Department, will face an additional challenge from equal-rights advocates in the legislature, newly emboldened by Wilder's recent stand against the VMI policy.
Local governments and environmental groups are bracing for an effort by development interests to weaken the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Wilder has vowed he would veto that.
A hardy perennial, the question of whether parents should be notified when young daughters have abortions, is expected again. In recent years such measures have passed the House of Delegates but have been scuttled in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Wilder, generally a proponent of abortion rights, said he might support such a measure depending on how it is drafted.
A dominant theme of this year's session, many legislators say, will be an above-average concern with political self-preservation. Every House and Senate seat will be up for election this fall. Heightening the normal election-year anxiety will be the once-a-decade political redistricting.
The drawing of new legislative districts -- a process that will give greater representation to Northern Virginia -- won't take place until a special session in April. But the protecting of political flanks is already underway, and redistricting will be a subtext to much of the usual brokering that takes place.
A second focus this year will be a battle for predominance between Wilder and some of the assembly's most senior legislators -- a fight just as much about personality and political pride as about the substance of the budget.
The most powerful dissenters to the governor's budget plans aren't Republicans, but Wilder's old Democratic colleagues from the 16 years he spent in the state Senate. Past feuds there continue to simmer.
That chamber's Finance Committee includes many of the most vocal skeptics of Wilder's approach, particularly Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), Northern Virginia's Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon) and Emick. They pose the greatest threat to the no-new-taxes policy that Wilder has made the centerpiece of his campaign for national office.
Andrews, who has clashed with Wilder repeatedly over the years, has objected to the administration's plan to close the budget gap by a series of one-time measures such as reducing annual payments to the state retirement fund and raiding lottery funds that had been intended for building projects.
Such strategies, he said, leave the state on a precarious long-term footing. Gartlan and Emick said they would be willing to support tax increases to avert the most painful cuts. They bristle at Wilder's claims that his cuts have put "necessities over niceties," reducing bureaucracy but leaving essential services intact.
"That's really misleading," Gartlan said. "We're already cutting into muscle and bone and more than just fat."
But the pro-tax position remains a lonely one. "The message is loud and clear from the governor and the legislature," said Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), "that we're not going to raise taxes."
Most Republicans agree with Wilder on the tax issue, but they plan to challenge him on another front. Some GOP stategists say they will will try to embarrass Wilder with proposals requiring him to make public the details of the secret political fund he raised from lobbyists and corporations at last year's inaugural celebration. (Wilder made some of the details public yesterday. See story on this page.)
Legislators expect that for all their frustration with his program, the governor probably will get through the legislative season with his political power intact.
"In Virginia we have three equal branches of government," sighed Callahan. "But one is more equal than the others."
Major issues before the legislature:
ABORTION -- Physicians would be required to notify a juvenile's parent before performing an abortion under a proposal that has come close to passing in recent years. Other efforts to change the state's abortion laws are given less chance of passage.
DEATH PENALTY -- Capital punishment could be expanded to apply to murders accompanied by sodomy; the means of execution might be changed from the electric chair to lethal injection.
DRUGS -- Conviction on a drug charge will likely lead to suspension of driver's license, as states that don't pass such a law face a loss of federal funds. Another proposal would allow magistrates to revoke drivers' licenses of people arrested on drunk driving charges, pending disposition of the case before a judge.
EDUCATION -- With Northern Virginia schools set to lose $32 million in state aid and colleges facing large budget cuts, some local legislators are talking about supporting bond issues to finance public projects, including buildings at George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. Other measures would permit the election of local school boards, require that superintendents be notified when a teacher is arrested, and allow private school pupils to ride on public school buses.
ENVIRONMENT -- Developers and some local governments may seek to weaken the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. Back for yet another attempt will be proposals to require deposits on beverage cans and bottles and to ban the release of non-biodegradable balloons.
GAMBLING -- Pari-mutuel betting was approved by voters two years ago, but potential builders of a horse racing track in the state say the legislators need to approve off-track betting to make thoroughbred racing a reality in Virginia.
GUNS -- With a year's experience with a law that requires a background check for applicants of certain handguns, proponents hope to expand the law to cover all handguns.
REDISTRICTING -- Northern Virginia will be the big winner as all 140 assembly districts are redrawn to conform to census data. Although redistricting won't occur until a special session later in the spring, incumbents are sure to be attuned to how their actions will play to voters in a reconfigured district.
BUDGET -- Reductions totaling $1.9 billion in the 1990-92 state budget, many proposed by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder while the General Assembly was in recess, are sure to dominate the 45-day session.
TAXES -- Despite Wilder's no-tax increase pledge, several legislators say they'll sponsor legislation to increase taxes to offset budget cuts. Allowing localities to increase the tax on cigarettes is one idea; raising the state sales tax is another, though less likely. Northern Virginia legislators will try again to get a larger portion of real estate transfer taxes returned to localities, as approved two years ago but revoked last year.