BY THE TIME Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder wrapped up his 35-minute televised ode to frugality Wednesday night, none of the election-bound legislators -- all 140 are up this fall -- had interrupted the governor's second State of the Commonwealth address with applause. But if they didn't cheer his first-the-bad-news, now-the-worse-news report on the ravages of recession, neither did they mobilize pressure for any spending spree. The money isn't there. Calls for deep cuts are. New taxes aren't there either. Fiscal frustration is.
Charles Robb may be remembered as the education governor and Gerald Baliles as the transportation governor. Gov. Wilder has so far been content to assume a less inspiring role of fiscal tightwad, pulling Virginia through worsening financial times. That seems to be the lone clear theme in his budget recommendations and his requests for authority to order leaves without pay for state employees if the economy continues to deteriorate. "If I accomplish anything during my term," said Gov. Wilder, "I want to restore the public's confidence in government. That is precisely why I have insisted upon fiscal discipline."
Those who may have hoped for a loftier vision of Virginia are finding a governor who says he actually welcomes recession-driven budget shortages to restore fiscal stability. They are finding a governor who won't dip into a $200 million emergency fund he has maintained to cushion the effects of the revenue shortage on the two-year state budget that took effect on July 1. But they are not finding any real clue to what else Gov. Wilder specifically wants to accomplish through budget priorities.
He does, however, dispute legislative critics who argue that his actions are damaging social service programs. He notes that to the maximum extent possible, his administration has "preserved" direct services and benefits to the elderly, disabled and impoverished. There is attention to education, too, Gov. Wilder says, notably in his request to sell up to $175 million in bonds to help local governments, mostly in the neediest parts of the state, to build schools. Yet state legislators and local leaders remain troubled by the governor's reduction of more than $100 million in state aid to localities.
Gov. Wilder believes that his targeted budget decisions, unlike across-the-board cuts, can serve the goal of efficiency and can prepare Virginia for a swift rebound when times do get better. So far, there is little to indicate that his frugality has directly left people any worse off than they were. It is going to take time for the full impact to be felt.