Virginia's new governor, Charles S. Robb, gave the General Assembly a long list of suggested laws today and called for higher taxes for the state's financially troubled highway and transit systems.
Robb, who assumed office Saturday, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate that "it is absolutely clear that additional revenues are needed to meet essential highway requirements." He stopped short of offering any specific tax proposals, saying only that he was "prepared to sign a measure that meets these objectives."
Robb's statement is likely to mark the beginning of a spirited budget fight among the state's 140 lawmakers. The state highway department has said it will face a $477 million shortfall in meeting the state's road construction needs this year and has appealed for increased funding.
"We're all running in the House this year, and at this time, before an election, taxes traditionally don't pass," said House Majority Leader Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk) after the speech. Many revenue proposals already are being promoted by various legislators and Robb said today he is delaying a position on those bills until he sees new revenue estimates later in the session.
Speaking somberly to a packed audience that included his wife Lynda and members of his cabinet, the 42-year-old Democratic governor today outlined a legislative package far more ambitious than proposed by his two immediate Republican predecessors, John N. Dalton and Mills E. Godwin. Neither produced a detailed list of suggested laws, saying that they believed the legislators should provide the initiative for most legislation.
Robb's proposals call for:
* Restoration of $7.7 million in construction funds for the Washington area Metro transit system. Dalton had cut that amount from the $13.1 billion budget he sent the lawmakers last week;
* Unspecified salary increases for the state's classroom teachers. Currently, public school teachers are paid an average of $15,490 a year;
* Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, being considered for the ninth--and final--time in Virginia this year;
* Tougher conflict-of-interest laws for state and local government officials;
* Stiffer sentences for narcotics law violators and for those who use firearms to commit a crime;
* A pilot state program to help unemployed youths find jobs; and
* Expanded wiretap laws to aid investigations of serious crimes.
Northern Virginia legislators were cautiously optimistic over Robb's commitment to Metro, but said that the transit system needs help meeting its operating costs. "I'm very pleased with what he said about Metro," said Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax). "I just hope the recommendation he gives us will show us where we'll get some additional money."
While urging new highway taxes, Robb repeated his support for repeal of the state's four percent tax on food. He said, however, it would be "misleading" for him to hold out hope for repeal during the next two years because of the state's current revenue problems. "It is still my intention . . . to work with you to establish a responsible timetable for the phased repeal of that burdensome tax or to make some other provision for appropriate relief," he said.
Robb said that Virginia ranks 35th in the nation and last among Southern states in the salaries it pays to beginning teachers. "If we fail to address this deficiency, we will soon find that the quality of our educational program corresponds to our national ranking in teacher compensation," he said.
Robb told legislators that cuts in federal aid to the state's Medicaid program present one of the assembly's "most wrenching dilemmas," and promised specific recommendations on the Medicaid system within a week. He gave no indication of how his adjustments would affect the $140 million "cost-containment" measures that Dalton had proposed last week.
"I am dedicated to providing adequate care for the truly indigent residents of Virginia, but we must look also for alternatives to reduce current and uncontrollable program costs," Robb said.
Robb's opening address to the legislature seemed to seek the same broad-based political coalition that was so important in his campaign last fall. Calling for heightened economic development, for example, Robb sought to link liberal and conservative goals, calling business growth "an instrument . . . for social justice."
"His liberalism is more apparent than real, and that way he'll be able to please everyone," said Sen. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke). "I think he's a very live prospect as a vice presidential candidate for the national Democratic Party, and he's not going to jeopardize that."
Robb's speech was warmly received by the Democrat-dominated assembly, although Robb told the group that he expected the upcoming House elections will "clearly mitigate against the honeymoon a new chief executive would otherwise expect to receive during his first legislative session."
The lawmakers differed widely on how Robb could find the money for his proposals. Virginia officials have said the state will suffer a $500 million loss in revenues during the next two and a half years as a result of cuts in federal and state taxes and the recession.
"How do you think he can possibly improve teacher salaries or these other things when there is no money in the budget?" asked Sen. Edward E. Willey, (D-Richmond). Willey, chairman of the Senate's Finance Committee, today introduced a bill that would raise $229 million during the next two years through additional taxes on wholesale gasoline sales. "The only way you're going to do it is to pass my tax bill," he said.
House Finance Committee Chairman Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe) said he believes a more likely solution would be a gradual increase in state auto licensing fees and heavy truck fees, along with a two-and-a-half cent a gallon increase in the state's gasoline tax in 1984.