March 7, 2006 [LINK]
Hardball in Richmond, again
It's "deja vu all over again" here in the Commonwealth: A Democrat governor is in a showdown over the state budget with the Republican-led General Assembly. Like his predecessor Mark Warner, Governor Kaine is maintaining the pretense of bipartisan cooperation while waging a brass-knuckled fight behind the scenes. His chief of staff William Leighty was forced to apologize last week after mischaracterizing the voting record of a Republican state senator, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, and for threatening that Kaine would veto bills authored by Republicans who oppose him in the budget battle. Ritual apologies followed, and then this week we learn that Kaine is launching an advertising campaign targeting those Republicans. So, it would seem, nothing has really changed. My impression during the 2005 campaign (see Oct. 10) that Mr. Kaine's ear-to-ear grin is but one of two faces that he routinely alternates, as expedience dictates, seems to be correct.
The 2006 session of the General Assembly is scheduled to end this week, but it may be forced into "overtime" to resolve difficult issues. Del. Vince Callahan, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee foresees a repeat of 2004 in the offing, with GOP moderates in the state Senate compromising on tax hikes, creating ill feelings in the Republican Party. See Washington Post. Nothing would be worse for Republicans and for Virginia taxpayers than another end-game collapse. Egos need to be set aside, and both sides need to respect each others' legitimate worries: needless waste of taxpayers money, on one hand, versus putting the state's financial status at risk, on the other. In the end, the real question is whether the leaders of the Senate and House of Delegates can fashion a workable mutual compromise and avoid letting a governor of the other party exploit their differences over policy. If not, then Virginia voters will be entitled to ask whether the Republicans are really up to the task of governing their state.
The most vexing issue this year is funding for transportation. Kaine, who has spent his political career representing urban-suburban interests, believes that all Virginians must shoulder the burden of building new highways to make life easier for those who live in congested areas. If the rural minority objects to going along with such a plan, that's just tough, Kaine seems to believe. I say, if people who live in high-traffic zones want more highways, they should pay for it, one way or the other. For example, all the quibbling in Northern Virginia over HOV lanes, Metro extension, or improving the Virginia Railway Express commuter service seems to be centered upon how to get someone else to pay for what particular constituencies think they deserve. One of the main initial proposals made by defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore was to allow for regional transportation planning and funding solutions, which makes eminent sense.
Generally speaking, it is a good idea to take alarmist calls for new spending with a grain of salt. That is how Chad Dotson reacted to former VDOT commissioner Phil Shucet's plea for "new, sustainable, dedicated funds" in the Richmond Times Dispatch. There is a simple solution to the catastrophe of gridlock he laments: move to less densely populated areas! Otherwise, quit yer moanin'. I'm on record as favoring tax hikes on petroleum fuels to encourage less driving and to pay for road and rail improvements, but I am also well aware that that won't happen in Virginia any time soon. Eventually, the idea that energy really is a scarce resource is bound to catch on. In the mean time, we need to be wary of bogus rationales for wasteful spending for ordinary government functions, as Chris Saxman (a staunch opponent of new taxes) rightly notes at his new Virginia Cost Cutting blog:
Would one dramatically increase transportation spending if one was told by a very high ranking VDOT (no longer there) administrator that instead of the 9,300+/- employees that we really only needed about 5,000 to run the department efficiently?