Virginia is the Boston Red Sox of American politics. It has the pedigree and potential for greatness -- or, at least, for competency. Yet it invariably discovers ways to trip itself up.

Inventive, unanticipated ways, too. Peruse the report of the Governor's Commission on Virginia's Future, issued 20 years ago, for foresights and oversights in abundance.

Gov. Charles S. Robb's 1984 commission was an impressive collection: corporate leaders, academics, former governors, prominent leaders from both parties, even a rabbi and a rector. The Brookings Institution's James L. Sundquist served, as did former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger.

The result was an instructive document full of intelligent recommendations -- not all of which were ignored. Efforts to tighten the focus on economic development and environmental protection and improve funding for education were successful.

Today, however, the report is most useful as a reminder of Virginia's on-again, off-again sense of direction. For example, it concluded, "Virginia should reexamine its revenue system with special attention to the rationale for, and the fiscal impact of, tax deductions, exemptions and credits."

But that issue remains largely unaddressed and has been made worse in the years since the report came out. Tax breaks multiplied during the 1990s, draining the state treasury while surviving half-hearted attempts to test their continuing justification.

Striking, too, are the recommendations to re-examine Virginia's governmental structure, characterized by the commission as an 18th-century anachronism. "The General Assembly should initiate a thorough review of local government boundaries," the report said. "If unaltered, these boundaries will perpetuate the inefficient delivery of governmental services."

Let the state play a greater role in solving the problems of aging cities too, the commission said. And start straightening out Virginia's convoluted and often self-defeating methods for financing itself.

Such thinking was in the mix during the last session of the General Assembly. The leadership of the state Senate -- primarily Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) -- argued the decreasing utility of relying upon local property taxes to fund cities and counties. But Chichester didn't carry the day. Virginia improved its financial standing and maintained its high status on Wall Street, but it treaded water on the ancient mechanisms it employs to fund state and local government.

Two decades also have brought meager improvement in other areas. Nationally recognized university research centers, far more intelligent land use and an end to the "unwitting destruction of the Chesapeake Bay" were all urged by the commission but inspired scant progress.

Then there's the subject of transportation. Think location, the commission said. Think ports and highways and don't let a declining infrastructure compromise the commonwealth's economic life.

In 1986 Virginia made an effort to improve transportation financing so that roads could be maintained and new ones built. But nothing comparable has been done since, and the prospect for renewed effort remains dim. In fact, a tacit understanding between Republicans and Democrats appears to be forming around the idea of punting on transportation funding (again) in the 2005 legislative session. It's an election year, you know.

The bipartisan disinclination to engage a subject so fundamental to Virginia's future perhaps illustrates better than anything the most glaring change since the commission's report: the rise of populism and the decline of reasoned public discussion.

No one foresaw the wave of populist sentiment that would roil Virginia politics in the 1990s. No one anticipated that "no car tax" would upend the state's finances and lead the General Assembly through years of fractious dispute.

The level of state and local taxation has been a staple of Virginia elections, but recently it has become a fixation. (The commission cited Virginia's tax burden as "39th in the nation"; 20 years later, it's 37th.) Where are the proposals on how Virginia can reasonably back out of long-standing state commitments? The closest thing to a real proposal was circulated quietly in the House last session: a document labeled "House Bill 30: Balancing the Budget Without Revenue Enhancements." It quickly became an ex-document.

In certain quarters, the enthusiasm is all for cutting taxes, not necessarily for cutting government -- which, of course, shuts down debate about what Virginia should undertake.

Newer, right-leaning members of the General Assembly would examine the 1984 commission report and likely object to the assumptions it makes about the role of state government. But it's the lack of a persuasive alternative that had them stumbling and failing earlier this year before Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's exhortations to move forward.

For the "Future" commission, it was all about continuity. The state's sterling past (think Jefferson) would provide the imperative, and if Virginia went about its business in a deliberative (slow) manner, that was traditional.

"Virginia's history entitles us to hope that greatness may be the legacy this generation of Virginians leaves to its children."

A sterling sentiment, that -- and should anyone be interested in thinking through how to get about it again, this two-decade old report on Virginia's future offers more than useful guidance.

gcmorse@cox.net