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Pro and cons / October 25, 2017
The election of Virginia’s next governor is less than two weeks away. Let’s look at some issues in the race:

» Education. The New Republic came out with an excellent article this week on the Democratic candidate for governor: “Ralph Northam Is Taking On Betsy DeVos — By Breaking With Barack Obama.” The piece delves into Northam’s skepticism of standardized testing and especially the ways it can be employed to harm public schools. Education policy at the federal level is currently being guided by DeVos, the Trump cabinet appointee with no background in education policymaking, nor discernable competence in the field whatsoever. Before DeVos, the nation’s Education Secretary was Arne Duncan, one of the two worst members of President Obama’s cabinet (ex-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was the other.) “Top-down” education policy of the kind pursued at the federal level from the second Bush White House forward has been a disaster for America’s schools. It’s good to have a gubernatorial candidate who understands this.

“Northam is a breath of fresh air,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former George W. Bush appointee who broke with the administration on No Child Left Behind. Ravitch is one of our most insightful and honest observers of what goes on in America’s schools, and she has long railed against high-stakes testing’s negative impact on students, teachers and the classroom environment. Northam, in her estimation, is “what every Democrat should be” on school reform, Ravitch told The New Republic. It should be added that Northam wants to build on the positive work of the McAuliffe administration in scaling back the wildly excessive emphasis on SOLs and perverse consequences of too much testing. Northam has pledged to involve teachers and administrators in an overhaul of the testing regime. It’s easy to criticize this stance as vague, but it beats the heck out of the policy-from-on-high approach that has preceded it.

Where does Northam’s opponent, Ed Gillespie, stand on education? The Republican candidate is fully on board with Betsy DeVos’s anti-public school agenda, with his support for more state-funded charter schools and education savings accounts — a tax giveaway for upper-income Virginians who send their children to private schools. If elected governor, Gillespie is almost certain to sign bills that well up every year in the Republican-run legislature to siphon off funding from local school divisions. The Gillespie campaign also has been notably quiet on the question of whether the candidate supports taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. As far as standardized testing is concerned, you can rest assured that a Gov. Gillespie will use bad test results as a cudgel to punish school divisions, despite the fact — and this is the education world’s dirty little secret — poor socioeconomics outside the classroom is the surest correlation to poor student performance. Low-income communities, including our own here in Southside Virginia, would suffer the most from such a school privatization agenda.

» Taxes, the budget and jobs. Given the limited powers of any governor to “create jobs” — with the standard, highly overrated corporate welfare approach — it’s fair to hone in on the one area where a governor can have substantial influence on the economy: through the state budget. The highest priority of any governor should be making sure Virginia’s tax-and-spend numbers add up.

Both Northam and Gillespie have proposed tax cuts: Northam wants to phase out the state’s 1.5 percent tax on groceries and exempt new startup businesses in rural and economically distressed communities from the local BPOL tax, machinery and tools taxes and merchants capital taxes. Eliminating Virginia’s food tax would cost somewhere around $400 million, if both the state and local shares of the 2.5 percent levy are eliminated. The biggest beneficiaries of Northam’s plan would be working-class households. By contrast, Gillespie’s signature tax proposal is a 10 percent cut in the state income tax, which is mostly paid by people earning middle-class incomes and up. According to the Commonwealth Institute, a progressive think tank with a solid record of accuracy, households with annual incomes of between $41,000 and $67,000 would see an average tax cut of $147 a year. Households with incomes above $624,000 a year would receive an average break of $7,049.

Given that the relief offered through Gillespie’s plan is too small to provide much assistance for middle-class families — and totally pointless in terms of helping rich people who don’t need the help — it’s more useful to consider the impact his proposals would have on the state’s precarious finances. You’d need to go back to the days of Jim Gilmore and his no-car tax pledge (never accomplished) to find a Republican candidate for governor more willing to make irresponsible tax cut promises. Gillespie’s proposal would rip a $1.4 billion hole in the state budget and put any number of pressing needs at risk: schools, law enforcement, emergency services, higher education, job training, you name it.

Gillespie’s plan is not dissimilar to the now-notorious “Kansas tax cut experiment” pushed by former Gov. Sam Brownback, with its like-minded emphasis on cutting income taxes across the board. Touted as a means to supercharge Kansas’s economy, Brownback’s supply-side tax cut plan “instead led to sluggish growth, lower than expected revenues, and brutal cuts to government programs,” notes the Brookings Institute in a 2017 analysis. “The Brownback tax cuts, one of the cleanest experiments for measuring the effects of tax cuts on economic growth in the U.S., were eventually reversed by a Republican-controlled legislature as a failure.” This is the template for a future Gillespie administration.

» There are dozens of other reasons to support Ralph Northam — his demonstrable record of service as an Army physician, pediatric neurologist and former State Senator, his proposals to raise wages, stabilize the state’s health care system, and close the opportunity gap between Virginia’s Golden Crescent and the rest of the state. But let’s get real: the best single reason to elect Northam as the next governor is to check on the excesses of right-wing rule that a Gillespie administration would unleash. If you look over the border and don’t like what you see happening in North Carolina — with the incessant teacher bashing, voter suppression, explosion of right-wing extremist legislation in the statehouse — you should want no part of “Rental” Ed Gillespie. (Yes, our Republican candidate for governor is a career-long GOP establishment insider, lobbyist and D.C. swamp creature. Deal with it.)

You want another good reason to vote for Ralph Northam? Here’s perhaps the best one of all: A Northam administration will send a powerful signal that the public — Virginians, at least — are fed up with the daily spew of falsehoods, idiocy and taunts of the Trump Administration. If you’re sick of waking up in the morning to dumbo eruptions on Twitter, you really, really don’t want to hand the Republicans a victory for Trump to crow about. While the Democratic ticket is superior to its Republican counterpart on the most important issues, practically across the board, this race is bigger than that: it will be interpreted as a proxy on Donald Trump and his ability to drag an entire nation into the cesspool. Ralph Northam — and ticket mates Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general — are individuals of unquestioned decency and skill who will do (and in Herring’s case, has done) fine work in office. What a contrast to the abject incompetence and malevolence that emanates daily from the Oval Office. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Go vote.

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