Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton today laid out a legislative program that proposes legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horseracing, more money for Metro and a restriction on the right of electric utilities to pass on fuel costs to consumers when plant operations are inefficient.
Dalton's first message to the General Assembly since his inauguration Saturday also included an endorsement of a proposal to break up the State Corporation Commission, which regulates business in Virginia. The break-up, part of a package of recommendations for a major government reorganization, would strip the SCC of its administrative functions, leaving it with only judicial powers.
The new governor's message was a composite of campaign pledges turned into legislative proposals and endorsements and rejections - some of them tentative - of recommendations by commissions on reorganization and other issues.
Northern Virginians found most favor with Dalton's request that the Assembly appropriate $10 million in gasoline tax money for Metrorail construction during the next two years instead of the $6 million that outgoing Gov. Mills E. Godwin included in the blennial budget he submitted before leaving office.
"I would have been very disappointed if he had not proposed the $10 million," Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) said. "It was a campaign promise and I am pleased that he carried it out."
If approved by the Assembly, the Dalton proposal will bring to $35 million the total of gasoline taxes appropriated by the Assembly for Metro construction. Another $35 million in gasoline tax revenue has been ear marked for Metro-related purposes and the state has promised about $75 million in interstate highway funds and construction aid for Metro as part of the agreement to extend Interstate Rte. 66 in the Washington area.
Release of the $10 million appropriated by the Assembly last year for Metro is awaiting Dalton's approval of a plan to pay for the system.
A large part of Dalton's speech was devoted to setting forth his positions on recommendations for government reorganization that had been made by the Commission on State Governmental Management. However, it also included a list of unrelated proposals such as a more rapid expansion of prisons, continuation of a two-year beer surtax to help finance a state worker pay raise, and the establishment of a commission to study ways to hold down property taxes.
The new governor also revived discussion of ways to relieve Northern Virginia water shortages by saying that he is seeking additional data on two proposals. Both would increase flows to the region's Occoquan Reservoir, one with a pipeline connection between tributaries of the Occoquan and the Shenandoah River and the other with a shorter pipeline between the Potomac River and Occoquan tributaries.
During his campaign, which coincided with a severe drought in much of the state, including the Washington suburbs, Dalton elevated his low name recognition in Northern Virginia by proposing the Shenandoah plan.
Dlaton's general endorsement of the Government Management Commission's plan to transfer administrative powers of the SCC to the executive branch of the government was applauded by legislators pushing the controversial change. It is uncertain how many votes the Republican governor can swing behind the proposals, but his speech at least assured reorganization supporters that they need not fear a gubernatorial veto.
The reorganization plan would reduce the powers of the three-member SCC. The commission would retain only its judicial function of deciding utility rate cases and litigation arising from government regulation of banks, insurance companies and other businesses. The SCC has built up a large administrative staff over the years that monitors the businesses the commission regulates and that proposes regulatory changes. This staff and its functions would be transferred to executive branch departments under the management commission proposal.
While generally endorsing this change, Dalton specifically urged that the responsibility for representing consumers in utility rate cases be shifted from the SCC to a director of utilities under the governor.
" . . . I agree with the reasoning of the Govenmental Management Commission and do not think a case should be prepared by a staff responsible to the commissioners" who decide its outcome, Dalton said.
Dalton said he would submit legislation to implement this transfer. He did not mention the office of consumer counsel under the attorney general, which already has authority to represent consumers in rate cases. The management commission recommended that the consumer counsel be abolished.
The governor said he is not inclined to favor creation of a new cabinet position over natural resource agencies unless the Assembly also approves management commission recommendations to assign new natural resource responsibilities, such as solid waste management, to the executive branch.
Dalton declined for the present to endorse the proposed union of the Department of Welfare with the VIRGINIA Employment Commission, saying the complex process requires further study.
Two of his proposals would require small spending increases above totals provided in Godwin's $9.1 billion budget presented last week. Dalton asked for about $4.3 million to plan two more medium security prisons and an unspecified amount to finance a general state employee pay raise in the second year of the budget period.
He said these two measures could be financed by continuation of the beer surtax of 0.6 cent per 12-ounce container and by using more than $16 million included but not needed for the state pension fund in the Godwin budget.
The Assembly is considering a proposal to reduce future pension benefits by one-third, but Dalton said he believes this needs further study. The pension plan includes not only tate workers but also school teachers and other local government employees.
While Senate majority leader Brault called Dalton's speech "constructive" and praised his support of the management commission proposals, House Maority leader A.L. Philpott of Henry County was critical of most of it.
Philpott opposes pari-mutuel betting and most of the management commission plans.
Dalton was interrupted five times by applause for his pledge to slow the increase in government employees, his concurrence in Godwin's no-tax-increase budget, his call for pari-mutuel betting and a commission to study ways to hold down property taxes and his support of local school discipline codes.