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