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The candyman can?

SoVaNow.com / January 28, 2010
I know it's considered bad form to jump on the new guy before he's even had a chance to settle into the job, but is anyone else struck by how reluctant our new governor is to face up to reality?

Gov. Bob McDonnell won himself some good press and the gratitude of truck drivers with the decision last week to reopen 19 VDOT rest stops around the state. The move will cost Virginia about $7.5 million — not exactly chicken scratch given the current woeful state of the Commonwealth's finances. And hurray for nearby Brunswick County, which gets a boost with the return of the Alberta rest stop on Interstate 85 that had been shuttered back in the summer.

Still, in the context of a political landscape in which government is all too often damned as the problem and not the solution — thanks, Ronald Reagan — is it overly cheeky to ask why Bob McDonnell, self-styled champion of limited government, would devote his first weeks in office to expanding the reach of government?

In addition to the rest stops, McDonnell has announced plans to spend $2 million to open Virginia trade offices in India, China and England; bankroll industry mega-sites to the tune of $5 million; and devote nearly $11 million to film, wine and tourist business in Virginia. If this all sounds like an activist approach similar to what the Virginia Tobacco Commission has attempted, that's because it is.

After a decade in business, the Tobacco Commission continues to preside over the state’s highest-unemployment regions in Southside and Southwest. But of course, you could always argue that without the Commission's intervention — well north of $500 million and rising — the area would be in worse shape than it is already is. And of course, that's exactly what Tobacco Commission members do argue.

Let's set aside the philosophical debates for another day. The real test for McDonnell is not how well or wisely he spends a million here or a million there. It's how he plans to cut a billion here and a billion there.

The early returns suggest that McDonnell is going to do exactly what politicians have done since time immemorial: try to kick the can down the road. After claiming throughout the campaign that he had a transportation plan to unclog Virginia's highways while his opponent, Creigh Deeds, did not, McDonnell now has informed legislators that he won't try to tackle the transportation mess during his first year in office.

Whoops.

Then there's the budget. You know, the one with a funding gap so wide you could park a fleet of trucks there and still have room left over for the Bay Bridge Tunnel. Before leaving office, Tim Kaine proposed $2.3 billion in spending cuts and a mix of tax increases and other fixes to fill in a $4.2 billion shortfall. Since McDonnell has ruled out tax increases, that leaves him with another $2 billion or so to lop out somewhere. But where?

If you ever needed evidence that McDonnell would dearly love to just skate past the problem, consider the minor media kerfluffle that broke out this week when the Capitol News Service, a program of the VCU School of Mass Communications, reported that McDonnell will uphold one of Kaine’s most controversial budget recommendations — a freeze on the composite index that determines state funding contributions to local school divisions. This is all inside baseball but also a huge deal, as the composite index governs the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to counties and cities around the Commonwealth. A freeze would save the state some money, but it would also be a humongous thumb in the eye of northern Virginia, which stood to gain about $130 million once the index was updated (as normally happens every two years).

On the flip side, most Virginia localities would benefit with a freeze in place, for a variety of reasons that all come down to the fact that northern Virginia has suffered most from the housing market crash. (The composite index is designed to measure a locality’s ability to pay for its schools, and property values weigh heavily in the calculations). Although rural areas fare best, Halifax County arguably would be the Commonwealth’s biggest winner of all, because Kaine — in a little noticed move — also called for preserving Halifax’s reversion index for one more year with the freeze. Fifteen years ago, the state awarded Halifax an artificially low index to offset its costs of absorbing students from the South Boston school division with South Boston’s reversion to town status. As late as last year, the reversion index brought an extra $1.5 million to county schools.The index matter aside, Halifax already was bracing for a $3.3 million funding reduction from Richmond this year. Force the county to live with its true rate and the losses soar to around $5 million. With that kind of hit Halifax County easily could be looking at teacher and staff layoffs of 150 people next year.

So McDonnell settled the issue in our favor — hallelujah! But wait … there’s more (unfortunately). After the VCU report hit the papers, the new administration started walking back its so-called commitment. The Washington Post yesterday relayed this statement by McDonnell press spokesperson Stacey Johnson: “We are evaluating all of the components of the current budget and will be working with House and Senate budget conferees to gather their input on existing spending reductions as well as potential new cost savings strategies. No final decisions have been made regarding the composite index freeze by the legislators or the Governor's finance team.” Translation: you can recork the champagne while the administration figures out what it wants to do. It turns out that one reader of The Post’s Virginia Politics blog is Dennis South, director of the Capital News Service. He posted an e-mail on the Post website that had been sent earlier to a VCU student reporter by one Stacey Johnson, McDonnell spokesperson: “The Governor plans to keep the current freeze. We will put out more specific direction to agency heads next week.” Steady and sure, our governor is not. Not yet, anyway.

I wonder if all those film production jobs envisioned by McDonnell will have a greater lasting impact on the Commonwealth than the teaching positions that will get chucked out the window with this year's budget. I guess the kids don't really need a teacher around when they can sit in the classroom watching movies instead.

On a related front, I caught up with Mecklenburg Sheriff Danny Fox via cell phone Tuesday as he and other sheriffs patrolled the halls of the General Assembly, lobbying against additional cuts in state law enforcement dollars. (Halifax Sheriff Stanley Noblin will take up a shift later during the session; apparently the sheriffs’ political strategy consists of camping out in Richmond for the next several months). Fox said that under Kaine's proposed budget, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office would have to cut out 19 positions beginning in July. And that's on top of $185,000 in reductions the department already has absorbed.

"I haven't hired four deputies already that I need," Fox said in a brief conversation. If indeed the department is shorted 19 positions, Fox said, "some kind of personnel loss — layoffs — are inevitable. You certainly hope it doesn't come to fruition."

At the risk of repeating the obvious, the scenario that Fox laid out is bleak, but it could be bleaker. After all, Kaine baked significant new revenues into his lame-duck budget. How bad will things be after McDonnell and the money boys at the Capitol throw out the recipe and subtract a billion dollars or two from the measuring cup?

It would be no surprise if McDonnell cooked the books to spare law enforcement the worst of the pain. But even if sheriffs and prosecutors fare better than some agencies, public safety will be diminished in the near-term and perhaps much longer. And since Virginia now finds itself in zero-sum territory, any cash freed up for law enforcement inevitably must be taken away from schools, Medicaid, local government and other services that are underwritten by the state.

What McDonnell plans to do about any of this is anyone's guess. But the fact he apparently plans to leave the dirty work to the legislature ought to have everyone running for cover. From Tuesday's edition of The Post: "McDonnell will not submit a revised two-year budget to the General Assembly, as is the usual practice. Instead, he has said he will submit a series of budget amendments and inform lawmakers of his priorities." Translation: Bob loves to be the bearer of good news. Leave bad news to chumps — and legislators.

I have a bad feeling about this.



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