The Virginia General Assembly is going home this week, leaving in its wake a trail of broken promises small and large.

The small commitments that were ground up in this desultory, 46-day session are not as consequential as the big ones, such as the assembly's decision to walk away -- once again -- from its responsibility to put state finances on a steady, long-term footing.

But, taken together, the everyday double-dealing that goes on around the state Capitol signals a culture change in Richmond. Handshake agreements don't count for much anymore. Casual lies are commonplace, and cynical skepticism greets every political pledge.

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) knows all too well the price of partisan deceit. Warner had -- or at least thought he had -- firm commitments from Republican lawmakers on important bills he cared about, including legislation for two-term governorships and a mandatory seat-belt bill that even opponents acknowledged would save lives on Virginia highways.

In both cases, Republican legislators refused to honor the pledges they had made in private and public to pass the bill. The legislature was so closely divided that it took only a handful of votes to flip to kill the bills backed by Warner. In the House of Delegates, seats belts and the two-term measure failed by one and two votes, respectively.

Warner has taken his lumps for being slow to learn the ins and outs of the legislative process, but it's not for lack of trying that his straight talk and honest dealing have gone unrewarded and sometimes even punished.

A few Republicans, emboldened now that Warner ally S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R) is no longer House speaker, looked the governor in the eye and pledged their support, only to vote the other way after being strong-armed by Republican leaders.

At a news conference in his Capitol conference room, Warner confirmed that "not in every instance" did Republicans keep their word to him about how they would vote on his high-profile bills. But the battered chief executive also tried to sound philosophical about playing a legislative game whose rules are made to be broken.

"In the private sector, if . . . you do a deal with [somebody], and then they renege, chances are you don't do business with them in the future," said Warner, who amassed a huge fortune in the Northern Virginia technology boom. "In the public sector, you don't have that option."

Deception and double-cross are part of the texture of a legislature; in fact, they enliven the place. Lawmakers can also be very capricious people, changing their minds if they get a flood of telephone calls from constituents back home -- or if a colleague higher up the food chain convinces them that a flip-flop is in their best interest.

Del. Charles W. Carrico (R-Grayson) had been adamantly in favor of the mandatory seat belt bill, riveting an audience in committee with stories from his days as a state police trooper, when a seat belt saved his life and not wearing one led to many highway fatalities he investigated.

But Carrico, a freshman member of the Republican caucus, ended up voting no after several constituent calls changed his mind, he said. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Carrico said.

A change of heart is not the same as a disingenuous half-truth, which degrades the credibility of institutions such as the Virginia General Assembly.

For example, last week, Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran of Alexandria rose on the House floor to respond to an attack by the House Republican leader, who characterized a vote that Moran had made against a budget item as one that directly helped "repeat sex offenders who we know will molest again and again."

Moran, a former prosecutor, said he was merely voting against a state expenditure not coddling violent criminals.

"This personal attack came during a time when I can look my accuser in the face and express my disappointment," Moran said. "Disappointment that he has debased the level of political discourse and debate. Disappointment of actions that are beneath what is expected of leadership. What we have seen is a level of distortions and outrageous accusations that is not deserving of this House."

It would be easy to dismiss the attack on Moran or Warner's sorry experience this session as the natural byproduct of partisanship, but it's a lot more complicated than that. The 21st-century Virginia politician -- from lowly county supervisor to exalted statewide nominee -- now runs a permanent campaign that is short on big ideas and long on political expediency.

Small wonder, then, that every promise in Richmond also carries an asterisk, an escape clause that permits the promiser to renege if voters back home complain or pressure is applied.

It's bad enough that the state budget the legislature will pass this week is barely held together with baling wire and sealing wax; lawmakers and Warner will have bought themselves a little time to fulfill their big promise to taxpayers and finally get the budget right.

But if they can't follow through on the tiny promises that are supposed to keep government going, what hope is there that state leaders will keep up their end of the bargain on the truly monumental ones?