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Epic fail / January 14, 2010
There’s no ceiling on the epic wrongness of the Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion page, but even so a line from Sunday’s editorial on Virginia’s broken finances stands out. Read this, then someone please explain to me what it’s supposed to mean:

“To make matters worse, Gov. Tim Kaine introduced a mischievous budget that subverted the goals of his successor, Bob McDonnell.”

Huh? This sentence only makes sense if you believe Tim Kaine, a Democrat, is obligated to govern in like manner as Bob McDonnell, a Republican. Earth to the T-D editorial page: D’s and R’s, we’re still different! On his way out of office, Kaine confronted a $4.2 billion budget deficit, coming on top of $6 billion in cuts that he’s made since 2007. After responding until now exclusively by taking an ax to spending, Kaine this time is recommending a few tax increases to go along with a still-staggering round of reductions. How does all this qualify as “mischievous?”

It would be nice, although I’m not holding my breath, for the right-wing T-D editorial page to show a modicum of intellectual honesty while pecking away at the keyboards. But truth be told, there’s an unbelievable amount of hackery and/or delusion floating around the discourse as government at every level struggles to cope with an implosion of revenues stemming from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Even at this advanced stage, there are politicians and pundits who would have you believe that the pain of budget cutting is someone else’s problem. Maybe that’s true for them. Not for you.

In the movie Animal House, there’s the famous scene where John Belushi cries “Dead!” as he rattles off the names of individual Omegas. If Blutto were around today, at least our punditry might be more enlightening. Here’s a list of the public sector “dead,” in plainspoken frathouse style:

n County commissioners of revenue and treasurers. Kaine cut out state support for the salaries of these constitutional officers. The message was clear: If localities want to keep dual offices — despite the rather obvious overlap — they can foot the cost themselves. Kaine’s idea could be labeled the Revenge of Bryan Foster, the former county administrator who tried (and failed) to bring Halifax County’s finance operations under a single roof. During times of budget crisis or not, the nattering nabobs of government negativism frequently yammer about the need to “streamline” government. And I agree. But whenever someone actually tries it, all Hades breaks loose — often egged on by same the very people who complain so mightily about alleged inefficiencies. Give Kaine due credit for attempting to rid Virginia of this pointless relic from the Byrd machine days. If Bob McDonnell declines to pick up his suggestion, we’ll know right off the bat that our new governor is not serious about meaningful reform.

n Kaine’s pre-school initiative. Well, that certainly was a worthwhile idea while it lasted. Don’t expect Republicans to let pass this golden opportunity to kill a program they’ve detested from the outset. Halifax County schools made a big deal of expanding its pre-school offerings in lockstep with Kaine’s priorities, extending pre-school to families that either don’t qualify for Head Start or can’t afford private tuition. When my son was in kindergarten, I asked his teacher how many kids in the class started out school with some sort of pre-K background. Most, she said, but not all. Does pre-school make a difference? Oh yes, she replied. It says here that McDonnell will find all sorts of reasons to torpedo the pre-K expansion while showering swag on the backside — money for jails, perhaps, or more prosecutors. The kids won’t thank us later.

n Small class sizes. Talking to State Sen. Frank Ruff a couple of weeks ago, I listened as he railed against the ill effects of “state mandates” on local school budgets. There are good mandates and bad mandates, intoned Ruff, but when I asked him for an example of the latter he came up empty. So naturally the conversation turned to “good” mandates — pupil-teacher classroom ratios being an obvious example. Of the notion that one way to save money is to pack more kids into a classroom, Ruff said, “I don’t think that’s bad public policy.” Easy for him to say. As a legislator, Ruff is not subject to the sort of performance standards that teachers are. (Though to be fair, Ruff’s wife, Jessie, is a teacher at Clarksville Elementary School).

Ruff’s mindset is fairly common among Republicans who now control two of the three centers of power in Richmond (the Governor’s Mansion and the House of Delegates, but not the State Senate). There’s no way K-12 education escapes the budget cleaver this time around, and with every school division in the state in big-time financial trouble the interesting fights this Assembly session figure to be as much regional as partisan in character. (Gov. Kaine did Halifax County a huge favor by leaving alone its favorable composite index for state education funding, a formula skewed by the South Boston reversion deal more than 15 years ago. If this goodie survives the upcoming General Assembly grindhouse, I’ll be shocked).

Two predictions: first, whether state funding for Halifax County schools is cut by $3.3 million or $5 million, you’re going to see a lot fewer teachers on the job next year. Second, there’ll be classrooms that’ll have the feel of a college lecture hall. That might be fine and dandy for the college kids — not so much for six-year-olds going through first grade.

n Nursing home beds. The evisceration of Virginia’s already-pathetic Medicaid program doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Kaine gets no credit on this score — his focus as governor has been on other priorities, including repealing the estate tax on Virginia’s inheritor class — but the thought of further downgrading the health care safety net should be repellent to Virginians everywhere. Of course the opposite is true, because Medicaid pays for health care for poor people and we all know how much sympathy they get nowadays. But did you know Medicaid also pays for 43 percent of all nursing home care in Virginia? Mark my words: this is going to the year when the Old Dominion tosses granny out in the cold.

I could go on. Governor’s schools — dead. Middle school sports — dead. Home nursing assistance for the elderly, disabled and infirm — dead. College affordability — dead. VDOT six-year plans — well, new road construction has been functionally dead for years now, and the outlook for recovery is bleak. One cannot overstate the degree to which this unfolding disaster for working-class and middle-class households has been ignored in our ongoing policy debates. And the politicians, with few exceptions, aren’t helping matters.

Along with his proposed cuts of $2.3 billion, Kaine has called for new tax revenues to close the remainder of the shortfall, about $2 billion. Leaving aside the undesirability of tax increases in the best of times, to say nothing of during a nasty recession, the governor performed a valuable service by bringing the revenue side of the equation back into the budget discussion. I didn’t particularly like Kaine’s call to raise the income tax by 1 percent — he would sweeten the deal by using the bulk of the revenue to get rid of the car tax — but my resistance is based on more than knee-jerk ideology. Virginia’s income tax is woefully designed; the top rate of 5.75 percent applies to every dollar after $17,001 even if a person earns up to $17 million. In the context of a more progressive system, Kaine’s income tax add-on would make sense. But of course, this is all beside the point as a new gang takes charge. Republicans being Republicans, the budget crisis will no doubt present a golden opportunity to de-fund basic services upon which non-affluent citizens depend. Corporate chieftains and others looking for a fat little tax subsidy, on the other hand, should find plenty to enjoy in the four years to come..

I liked it when Kaine fired off a testy letter to Republican legislators who complained about his plans to raise taxes to balance the books. “Your letter conveys a failure to grasp the stark realities of the coming budget,” the governor wrote, and he was right. Incoming Gov. McDonnell will find out as much, too, soon enough — although as Virginia’s Major Domo he retains the right to choose his own set of budgetary winners and losers. A modest prediction: McDonnell will do everything in his power to avoid having to put his name on any tax increase. And why not? With counties and cities responsible for levying property taxes, it’s easy enough to arrange it so someone else takes the fall.

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