Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Candidate Warner vs.

Governor Warner
With today's Washington Post pointing to Gov. Warner's use of the fiscal gimmicks he denounced in 2001, a campaign advisor reviews the record and offers a way out of the dilemma his current advisors have created.


To borrow from the climatic moment of the 1950s TV show, "What's My Line," the question now is: Will the real Mark R. Warner please stand up?

Comparing the governor's campaign promises with his current fiscal and budget posture leads to only one conclusion: My friend and ally over the years, from our days of making history with Doug Wilder, is being marched into a box canyon by his advisors. For reasons which escape me, Governor Warner has stopped being Candidate Warner.

But there is time for a mid-course correction between now and the General Assembly's veto session set for April 2, and reclaim the hope and promise of the 2001 campaign. If Mark Warner follows my advice below -- as he did in the campaign and during the transition period in creating the Wilder Commission, which he concedes gave him his major legislative achievements to date -- then he can turn the tables on the General Assembly.


Admittedly, the majority of Democratic state senators, led by the clueless Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, voted for a GOP budget which, in the governor's own rhetoric, continues the financial recklessness of the Gilmore era. Even the senate Black Caucus majority, representing some of the poorest residents in the state, voted for the GOP budget -- a budget that the Associated Press conceded benefited "millionaires" at the expense of ordinary workers, a budget that the Richmond Free Press, the leading editorial voice of the state's African-American community, declared was balanced on the backs of the poor.

So, no, they will not be happy by what I propose below for the Governor to do. But so be it: A governor has to do what is right and let the chips fall where they may. This is what Candidate Warner promised, and it is what he and GOP candidate Mark Earley both said they admired about Doug Wilder's management of state finances during the last big fiscal shortfall.

As difficult as things appear today, the political situation for Warner in 2003 in terms of winning the Democratic vs. Republican battle on the fiscal issue is vastly better positioned than it was for Wilder. Why? Back then, a Democratic General Assembly, led by Speaker Thomas Moss and Majority leader Richard Cranwell, fought Wilder at every step on key tax and budget cutting issues. Cranwell, the Majority Leader of the Governor's own party, actually accused Wilder of making up the fiscal crisis for political gain, in part to embarrass his predecessor Gerald L. Baliles. At the height of her huge lead in the polls, even gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry sided with Cranwell against Wilder on that issue, as those who followed the campaign can remember.

At the time, it seemed the smart thing to do. Wilder was down in the public opinion polls, blamed for the state's fiscal woes. Ten years later, and what a difference. Now both political parties say Wilder is the icon of fiscal responsibility. Today, we have a Republican General Assembly. Moss and Cranwell are long gone, having slow walked the Democrats into their worst losses in history.

Thus, back then it was Democrat vs. Democrat, with the future "leaders of the party" piling on Wilder. This was a huge political gift for the Republicans, and they used it to create a majority and undercut Democrats on fiscal and tax matters.

Today, Warner faces an entirely different and better positioned political debate. Democrats now have an opportunity to take what poet Robert Frost said was the road not taken, a chance to earn the reputation as the truly fiscally responsible party, the one that can be best trusted to manage the people's tax dollars.

This time, Governor Warner will have what Doug Wilder didn't have: a Democratic party in the House, led by Minority leader Frank Hall, who is willing to follow the governor into battle. Hall understands that Democrats must retake the key fiscal turf to have any prayer of upsetting the GOP in coming years. He will back Warner all the way if the governor does the right thing. And, frankly, the overwhelming number of Democrats in the Senate have no choice but to back Warner, the same in the House of Delegates.

All Governor Warner has to do is be true to what candidate Warner promised.

Failed Fiscal Promise Number One

Candidate Warner said he would "Demand Truth in Budgeting" saying, we "don't need a new bureaucracy -- we need new leadership [and] I will provide that leadership."

In the just completed 2003 General Assembly Session, Governor Warner has complained a bit about Republican budget tricks. "The danger is quite clear," he said last week. "We're writing checks that we may not have the money to pay for. This is the kind of budgeting that got us in this trouble in the first place."

He was right: This is the kind of budgeting we ran against in 2001, promising to change. But last year and now this year, the governor's own budgets have relied on many of the same type gimmicks and maneuvers. This is one reason, as the Virginian Pilot indicated in a recent editorial, Virginia was rated the best managed state under Wilder, but has now dropped to run-of-the-mill status.

Perhaps Governor Warner questions whether he still can claim the same high political and fiscal ground as he could as candidate Warner, back when his lack of a political record left him free to play the political game during an election year. I would understand such introspection.

But if I were his advisor, I would say this: Yes, governor, you do still have the high ground, but it may not last past April 2, depending on how you deal with the General Assembly's budget. I would tell him that his advisors risk sucking him into the Gilmore undertow. Why? Because right now, they are still trying to see if they can find a way to stand
in the middle of the road, somewhere between capitulation to the fiscal recklessness of the new GOP budget and their fear of an outright veto of the budget, believing it might would risk a big budget battle, and possible stalemate, a la 2001, with the GOP.

But the governor's advisors are misreading the people of Virginia. The people will back the governor if he can prove -- and he can -- that he was right in recently saying "[w]e've got the legislature downstairs suddenly saying, 'Oh, happy days are here again. Let's make a whole bunch of new promises.' That is fiscally irresponsible."

Failed Fiscal Promise Number Two        

In 2001, Candidate Warner said that if elected governor, "I will submit a comprehensive proposal to reform the state tax code no later than the 2003 General Assembly session."

The governor's advisors apparently have persuaded him to violate this promise, despite his contention as candidate that the proposal was "[o]ne of the most important issues facing the next governor of Virginia."

The 2003 General Assembly has ended, and the governor not only failed to submit the promised revision, but his advisors have not grasped how badly their counsel has hurt him on the estate tax issue. Instead of getting the governor to address this issue at the appropriate time, they let the Republicans maneuver him into a situation where he apparently thinks he can use his veto pen to stop their giving what he has called "irresponsible tax breaks" to the handful of the families affected by this tax in any given year.

But the governor and his advisors are wrong: Merely vetoing the GOP bill does not stop changes in the federal tax law from giving tax breaks the state cannot afford. To repeat: At this late stage, a mere veto will not stop the granting of $52 million in tax breaks in the next few years -- the bulk under Warner's watch -- to these handful, while, at the same time, as Warner himself said yesterday, the state is asking middle-class working families to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more in new fees to the state.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, in addressing the estate tax Issue, agrees with my assessment, saying, "Never has the General Assembly done so little for so many, and so much for so few." But when he and others find out that a mere Warner veto does not -- contrary to their assumption -- stop this from becoming true, they are going to have to blame someone, and soon.

This could have been prevented if Governor Warner had kept Candidate Warner's promise.

Failed Fiscal Promise Number Three

In 2001, Gov. Gilmore and the General Assembly leadership disagreed about the revenue prospects in the state. As Candidate Warner said, "[I]t is as if we have two sets of books in Virginia." He vowed to make sure this would never happen again.

But yesterday, Governor Warner said the General Assembly was relying on phony revenue estimates, while the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said it wasn't.

What is going on?

Candidate Warner said, "[I]t was time for a change in the way we do the people's business in Richmond." The Commonwealth's fiscal condition, once the envy of the nation, was in "a state of uncertainty." The state, he said, was not addressing its core financial responsibilities, such as education.

Yet here we are in 2003, and again we have two sets of books. Moreover, no one in Richmond - not in the General Assembly nor the Warner Administration -- has addressed the fact that the state's own investigators have conceded that the Commonwealth is not abiding by its constitutional obligations to help localities fund education, driving up property taxes all over the state.

The Result

Governor Warner has been persuaded to stray, for some unknown reason, from the successful fiscal stance we took in 2001. In 2002, he could say he had no choice given time his being just sworn into office and facing a three month deadline to plug a whole gap. But now it is 2003, with half is term over as regards the General Assembly.

What excuse is there now? During the campaign, we were searching for a way to honestly address the main issue in the race: How did you provide a vision for the future, one the voters could weigh against the alternative of GOP candidate Mark Earley, and, at the same time, honestly address the growing fiscal irresponsibility of Gov. Gilmore, the dimensions of which seemed to grow on a weekly basis?

Candidate Warner had a long list of new ideas, many of which would require the expenditure of new money. At the same time, it was impossible to know the true fiscal condition of the Commonwealth. On the one hand, we wanted to tell Virginians all the positive efforts Warner would do for them. On the other hand, we had to warn Virginians that not all of his promises might be fiscally possible.

As we got Candidate Warner's 86-page "Action Plan" ready for publication, I got the idea to put in an Introduction Page called "The Commitment." The idea was to sum up, in a single page, the Warner approach to leadership and governing, in good and tough times.

In pertinent part, "The Commitment," the highest priority and most solemn promise made by Candidate Warner, read:

Virginians expect more from their leaders than pledges, promises, and three-word slogans. Empty rhetoric may work for campaigning, but it is no way to govern.

I have developed this Plan on the following fundamental principle of fiscal responsibility: State government must live within its means. It isn't the government's money; it is the people's money.

Nothing in this Plan is more important than restoring fiscal accountability to Virginia.

Candidate Warner was elected to end the fiscal gimmickry and irresponsible promises made by the GOP under Mr. Gilmore. Indeed, he said, "[N]othing I do as Governor will be more important than to restore the integrity, prudence, and accountability to Virginia's public finances."

That was the right thing to promise then, just as it was right for Gov. Wilder to keep his promise not to raise taxes even though it meant making unpopular decisions on cutting the budget. Yes, at the time, Wilder suffered for it politically. But today, with 20-20 hindsight, it is clear that, without raising taxes, he provided the revenue stream to create a $1 billion dollar Rainy Day Fund (now depleted in these last two budgets) and freed up billions for Allen and Gilmore to spend on their own priorities, money intended by Wilder and others to go to education once the economy recovered. Indeed, after all of Wilder's expense cutting, so much revenue was available that the last two GOP Governors were able to cut taxes by over $1 billion a year, an admirable goal provided you meet your other pre-existing constitutional responsibilities.

Did the Democrats get any of that credit even though a Democratic Governor did all the heavy lifting? No, because they fought Wilder on fiscal issues and ceded the ground, to of all people, "Deficit" Jim Gilmore.

Warner cannot let pass this opportunity to rip the mask off of the GOP's fiscal recklessness.

His advisors have already risked his image by making him go along with too many gimmicks.

He is at the Rubicon. The GOP is banking that he will try to halve the differences, thus blurring the fiscal issue.

Time to Draw the Fiscal Lines

Given the governor's caustic and absolute condemnation of the "fiscal irresponsibility" undergirding the budget just passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly without a single dissenting Republican vote, the stage is now set:

Governor Warner, meet Candidate Warner

You can be one or the other: not both.

Admittedly, blurring the fiscal lines -- cherry picking the least defensible GOP schemes for attack while going along with others knowing the Republicans will not publicly complain -- may seem the best approach for an ambitious governor whom political science professor Larry Sabato has put on his list of potential vice-presidential candidates. (More on Larry in a future column.)

But such a strategy is not in the best interests of Virginia. And, by allowing events to rule, Warner runs the risk that someone else will emerge as the honest communicator promised in 2001.

Why take that risk when the stage is set to make good on the promises of candidate Warner? The GOP General Assembly leadership has played right into the governor's hands. They know it, but they are betting he will not seize the moment.

Gov. Warner should issue the following statement, and then take the theme to every corner of the state, rallying the public for a showdown at the veto session and if needed, a Special Session in May.

Proposed Statement from Governor Warner

I promised to make the hard decisions to restore the state's fiscal integrity, to make the politicians live within your means, because it is not the government’s money: it is the people's money. I pledged to always be honest with my fellow Virginians. The truth is that the budget just passed by the General Assembly violates the most basic principle of democratic government: It spends more than it takes in. It threatens to leave us further in debt and further behind on basic obligations to our citizens. And it violates the pledge of shared sacrifice that must guide us in tough economic times.

If I refuse to act now, then I leave a bigger problem for my successor, and a bigger problem for the next generation of Virginians.

This should be unacceptable to you; it is completely unacceptable to me.

Right now, the state of Virginia cannot afford pay raises for public employees and teachers, and to say otherwise, to promise otherwise, is a sham. It is wrong to cut taxes for the few while effectively raising taxes on the many. It is wrong to borrow from future revenue to pay for current expenses.

I don't face reelection, so I have no excuse for failing to make the necessary but unpopular decisions when they are right.

Accordingly, I will not sign the budget passed by the General Assembly. I will try, in the next few weeks, to fix the budget, and persuade the General Assembly to pass my recommendations.

I hope they will listen to reason. I will do everything possible to help them appreciate the truth about the state's finances. But if they don't, then I will veto the budget and ask fiscally responsible Democrats and Republicans to support me.

If they do, then I will call the General Assembly back into special session in May, after those who are acting irresponsibly can have time to reflect upon their actions.

As Harry Truman said, the Buck Stops Here.

-- February 24, 2003

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2003.


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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.




For details on Virginia's fiscal gimmickry, read the February 24 Washington Post, "Road Funds Siphoned to Replenish Budgets."