The chairman of the Virginia Senate's Finance Committee scoffed yesterday at Northern Virginia Community College's request for a new building, saying the state shouldn't give money to a school "which takes up space teaching belly dancing and basket weaving."
Sen. Edward Willey, the crusty, conservative Democrat from Richmond, had listened patiently to school President Richard J. Ernst outline the institution's building needs moments earlier. But aboard a chartered bus moving away from the school's Annandale campus, Willey said he was unimpressed.
"They all ask for the moon," he said.
"Historically," Willey explained, as he and a group of state legislators and other officials would through Fairfax County, "these people paint a picture that they can't live without these requests. But we know what needs attention."
Willey was especially skeptical of the community college's $2.2 million request for a new building -- a figure that, some legislators complained, comes to $100 a square foot.
His blunt comments, in an interview with a newspaper reporter, indicate the school, the largest community college in the state, may face an uphill battle in winning funds for new buildings next year when the General Assembly prepares Virginia's biennial budget. Although Willey is regarded as more conservative than many on the legislature's budget committees, his power as the Senate's senior member is legendary.
Queried by a reporter later, Ernst remarked: "This is kind of a continuing dialogue with Sen. Willey. He is a very powerful member of the General Assembly and we respect him. He was instrumental in providing additional funding for us at the last session of the General Assembly in order to retain a significant number of our full-time faculty. He's a friend of the community colleges. But he likes to rib us."
Belly dancing and basket weaving. Ernst said, were offered at one time at a community college in Willey's own Richmond election district, "and that has struck with Sen. Willey since that time . . . As the senator knows well, I made it pretty clear . . . that no such courses are offered at Northern Virginia College, and to the best of my knowledge [at] no other" community college in the state.
"I consider it kind of a good-natured concern on the part of Sen. Willey, which is reflective of a general concern of the General Assembly over state funding for noncredit, community service courses."
At times yesterday, Willey, who has been the Assembly 29 years, was upbeat as he toured state facilities in the Washington suburbs. Turning to Gov. John N. Dalton, he chortled, "There's no use going on to Norfolk -- we just gave all the money away."
But Willey made clear in the interview that the Northern Virginia Community College presentation did not win his support. "They say that 75 percent of their students are enrolled in vocational or technical programs, but that's not true," said Willey. "It's more like 55 percent."
"People think legislators are dumb because we run for public office," he said. "Well, they can't fool us. We'll take care of the needy, but let the greedy suffer."
One of the other touring fellow legislators suggested, however, that the 70-year-old Willey wouldn't talk so tough when it came to facilities closer to his legislative district. "I'm meaner than a junkyard dog," the white-haired Willey growled.
Others in the 40-member touring group were less gruff in their assessment of the Northern Virginia requests, but many echoed Willey's warning that federal spending cutbacks would take their toll at the state level. Virginia will have to absorb losses of $200 million a year in federal aid, according to the state's Department of Planning and Budget.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, school President George Johnson outlined requests for $59.1 million in capital projects, including an administration building, second library, dormitories and a 7,500-seat field house.
"We're going to have a very good basketball team," Johnson predicted. Another goal, he said, is to "be Number One in the nation in soccer within five years."
Johnson emphasized that George Mason seeks "to rival, but not duplicate" older state universities. The 15-year-old school emphazises law and public policy, high technology and the performing arts for its 8,052 students.
Johnson said George Mason's law school, located in Arlington, soon will be "the hottest in the country in terms of applicants to admissions. We're not yet the best, but we're going to be the most popular."
Dalton, whose four-year term as governor ends next January, arranged for a detour in yesterday's itinerary to show off the new Mobil Oil headquarters off the Capital Beltway, a building that he said was "one of the finest things to have happened" to the state during his tenure.
"That looks like oil money," said Dalton, beaming like a proud father as he pointed to the building. He said he agreed with Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax) that the interior is "the most beautiful we've ever seen. It's plush."
Before flying to Norfolk last night, the touring officials visited the Northern Virginia Training Center for the mentally retarded near Fairfax City and an adjoining site for a new regional state police headquarters.