Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman


Chichester vs. Callahan



"Maximum" John beats "My Cousin Vinny" in the first 2003 budget battle.


In the movie "My Cousin Vinny," the New York attorney played by Joe Pesci is initially out of his league when trying to argue his first case in the Southland. The same seems to have been true for Republican Vinny Callahan, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, in his first 2003 budget battle with Republican Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester.

As legendary sportscaster Warner Wolf use to say:  Let's roll the videotape. Yesterday, "Maximum" John told the clerk of the Senate to cut the upper chamber's budget by 15 percent, according to a Jeff Schapiro story in the Richmond Times Dispatch. This is the biggest cut ever proposed by lawmakers to their own perks, pensions, expenses and other privileges. Yet four days ago, writing in the Washington Post, Mr. Callahan and his fellow House Republicans took an entirely different approach to the demand  the General Assembly rein in its out of control spending:

"We read with amazement Paul Goldman's attack on Virginia's General Assembly ["Statehouse Spendthrifts," Close to Home, Sept. 22] ... For fiscal 2003, the General Assembly budget is $53 million out of a general fund budget of $12.6 billion -- less than one-half of 1 percent of the total -- a lean amount to provide the necessary checks and balances on a vast executive bureaucracy."

Vinny was reacting to the analysis and demands in my column, printed in papers and on Web sites around the state, detailing a 3,000 percent growth in General Assembly spending in the period discussed in the Callahan response.

So compare: Chichester agreed with me and called for a 15 percent cut. But The Washington Post response from Callahan et al. did not list a SINGLE DIME in cuts they were prepared to make. NOT A PENNY. Rather, they said Virginians should feel lucky they didn't charge more for their legislative duties.

Admittedly, House Republicans held a press conference not long ago in response to my article. They said they were considering cuts of about 1.2 million in their budget, although it was not clear whether this amount was on a yearly basis or over the two year period of the state's biennium budget.

This GOP response is totally out of touch with fiscal reality. The state budget is a wreck, its financial foundation crumbling under the weight of the recklessness of those running things in Richmond in the recent past.

According to Mr. Chichester's protege, Secretary of Finance John Bennett, the state budget faces a deficit likely to approach $2 billion.

For sure, this John-John tag team probably puts Vinny and his House mates at a disadvantage in the budget battle.

So it is possible Mr. Callahan does not yet appreciate the need for the state's political leaders -- the ones who got us into this fiscal mess -- to lead by example and show that their call for "shared sacrifice" is not aimed at everyone but themselves.

Mr. Chichester has finally admitted the obvious: General Assembly spending is out of control, as this author has been maintaining for years and that the time has come to cut, if not to ax, their growing perks, pensions, expenses and empire building.

"Everything is on the table," said Senate Clerk Susan Schaar in terms of how the Senate would operate on itself budget-wise. "Physician, heal thy self" goes the old expression and it applies to the General Assembly.

As for Mr. Callahan saying I had "attack[ed]" the General Assembly, this will surely come as a surprise to the leading Republican newspaper in Virginia, as it has praised my efforts over the years to rein in the General Assembly spendthrifts and recently credited me with forcing the governor and the General Assembly to get serious in cutting out the political spending in the current state budget.

Moreover, Mr. Callahan might want to note that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, also now favors the 15 percent reduction in the General Assembly budget. In terms of leading by example, House of Delegate Democrats have proposed cutting the General Assembly spending by far more than Mr. Callahan and the Republicans.

So budget round one goes to Mr. Chichester. Eventually, I believe Mr. Callahan will rethink is position, especially as he realizes how shrewd "Maximum" John has been on this first budget battle. Sen. Chichester knows the Finance Committee staff and J-LARC, the General Assembly unit that investigates spending in state government, will suffer the least from his budget cuts. Why? Because money is power in Richmond, and to the extent the Senate or General Assembly weakens its ability to understand money matters, they basically unilaterally disarm.

Thus, Sen. Chichester realizes his Committee will stand to gain power, in relative terms, after the 15 percent ax falls. Eventually, Mr. Callahan will realize the same parallel truism applies to his power as head of the House Appropriation Committee.

At the end of "My Cousin Vinny," Joe Pesci leaves town a wiser man, having won his case and the girl of his dreams.

So don't write off Vinny Callahan and the House Republicans yet. Moreover, if they can emulate Mr. Pesci, and get Marisa Tomei to come to their rescue, then they will surely play to a packed house at the State Capitol.


-- October 28, 2002

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002