VIRGINIANS WILL SURELY hear glowing words from their state legislators about the job just completed in Richmond -- with laundry lists of measures enacted largely if not solely because of their own highly effective individual roles. That's an exaggeration, of course, as is any description of this year's session as outstanding. The good part -- significant progress in transportation and education -- was a mandate from the voters, anyway. The new governor, Gerald L. Baliles, had made it clear long before Day One of his administration that large financial commitments for roads, teachers and higher education were musts, and he worked well with the legislature to achieve them. Yet, the session was in many ways a poor show, made worse by the disappointing performances of Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.
Forgotten as it was during last year's campaign, the job of lieutenant governor is more symbolic than substantive -- and Mr. Wilder did little to change that. The most important function of this office is to break tie votes in the state Senate -- which on several critical occasions he did with damaging results. In the final hours it was Mr. Wilder's vote that killed a compromise seat belt bill; and he topped that with his refusal to allow a reconsideration of the vote after one senator claimed to have made a mistake in voting.
It was another Wilder vote that pushed through the senate a bill that would have given Virginia one of the weakest conflict-of-interest laws in the country if other persistent lawmakers had not rallied at the last minute to kill it. For that matter, the whole awful performance over "ethics" wasted more legislative time and energy than any issue this year -- and here is where Attorney General Terry should have stepped forward with a clarifying opinion that could have cut the debate and settled the issue.
This year the legislature will have a second chance to perform -- with Gov. Baliles seeking a special fall session to come to grips with transportation. Given Act I of the General Assembly, the governor's decision to save complicated duty for a concentrated Act II looks even better than it did when he announced it.