In the past year, Virginia lawmakers pared state services, reducing mental health support, trimming Medicaid service, cutting aid to colleges, closing public parks and laying off nearly 2,000 employees.
But the one cut -- out of the entire $6 billion the state has slashed -- that legislators of both parties have vowed to restore during the session is full funding for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Little is more urgent to Virginians, they have decided, than getting in and out of the DMV office as quickly as possible.
"Everyone is familiar with the DMV," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), "and they judge the efficiency of an entire state by how well they're treated by the DMV."
The legislators are determined to reverse decisions made in October by Gov. Mark R. Warner's administration to permanently close 12 DMV offices and to close all others on Wednesdays.
Those efforts jolted forward Wednesday night when Warner, urged on by fellow Democrats, reversed his position and announced in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech that he would seek to reopen the 12 shuttered centers using $6.4 million collected from a settlement with Merrill Lynch.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said Warner's announcement amounted to "getting ahead of a wave that's coming." Howell and many other Republican and Democratic leaders have made funding for DMV a priority during the 46-day session that began Wednesday.
Warner also proposed last month to consolidate 10 government agencies, raise at least a dozen user fees and cut $442 million in state aid to localities, funding for Medicaid providers and other programs to close the final $1.2 billion gap in the state's $50 billion, two-year budget.
Despite the significant reductions in spending on higher education and local aid, many of the cuts have been spread across such services as the Marine Resources Commission and the Department of Corrections or resulted from agency consolidations. Each cut was vitally important to some, but not noticeable to all -- except for the elimination of the neighborhood DMVs.
Lawmakers say that many Virginians see the state's decision about DMV service as far more than a short-term choice about whether to open service centers or to provide additional funding for schools, mental health or other programs. Lawmakers think they see it as a long-term barometer of their ability to run the government.
"DMV offices are akin to picking up the trash or making the trains run on time," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who is backing the reopening of the 12 offices. "This is as close contact as some people ever have with state government."
In the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) spoke of "relieving the tyranny in those DMV lines" in his 1999 inaugural speech and pledged to make agency reforms a benchmark of his leadership. After initial progress, customers are again wearing out their feet in line, not to mention their patience with the administration.
Similar sentiment has started to show in Virginia, where two- to three-hour waits and Soviet-style lines stretching around the block have become the norm. General Assembly members, all mindful that they face reelection in November, want to replace that image with one of a smooth -- perhaps even forgettable -- passage through the agency.
"People are concerned about the voters," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who has been a leader in trying to restore funding for the agency.
But other constituencies that have borne budget reductions are infuriated by the emphasis on DMV.
"It's just disturbing to me that we are so concerned about the length of time someone has to take to get a driver's license and at the same time we are losing apparent interest in how long it takes someone to graduate from college," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, who said the school has lost $30 million in the last two years.
Caitlin Binning, interim deputy director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the "pain of waiting in line at the DMV is not equal to the pain that the people I care about go through when they have inadequate services."
Major details remain to be worked out with DMV funding. Some General Assembly members would like to go beyond Warner's proposal of reopening the 12 offices and restore full service to the agency.
"That's essentially a $44 million problem, not a $6 million problem," said Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls. "It's unfair for DMV to not take some kind of cut."
Ab Quillian, the DMV commissioner, said it would take about three weeks to reopen the 12 offices and rehire the 125 employees who were laid off. But he noted that the leases on offices in Fair Oaks Mall and Warrenton have expired.
"Obviously we're not going to go back in those sites," Quillian said, adding that the agency would seek to open new offices in those general areas.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement told lawmakers that even with additional funding, Virginia's DMV offices must continue to trim costs because they cannot afford the level of services that residents demand. Agency officials said new obligations, including handling voter registration and the administration of car-tax relief, have strained services.
"The personal service doesn't come without a cost," Clement told members of the House Transportation Committee. "We really need to change customer behavior to rely more on self-service options. We can't do business in the future as we have in the past."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.