Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman


Stop Holding Virginia Hostage

The General Assembly need not leave town without a budget. The Rebel hereby offers a plan that will keep government operating. Kaine and Kilgore, pay attention.


If you want to be the next governor of Virginia, read on. If the newspaper reporters are correct -- that the Senate and the House of Delegates are likely to leave town without a budget agreement unless someone shows real leadership at the moment of truth -- then victory in the 2005 gubernatorial race is there for the taking.


Just follow Thomas Jefferson's advice on how to solve the scare talk of a "government shutdown" raging in Richmond these days. Mr. Jefferson, a member of the Virginia legislature 230 years ago, has a proven 99 percent solution to the current budget situation. It is not a perfect choice, but one that will win over all but that one percent of the public who likes to go to Las Vegas and bet it all on the shooter rolling snakes eyes.


Sadly, to those of us who are still Democrats by philosophy, the founder of the party's 99 percent solution has been rejected -- so far -- by the Democrats in Richmond. As I explain below, the governor and the others have their reasons.


But the result is this: They have given House Speaker William Howell and House Appropriations Chairman "My Cousin Vinny" Callahan the opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and be seen by the people of Virginia as the heroes in this budget soap opera.


Eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations tend to be decided by public psychology, not by inside-the-State Capitol budget math. The truth is, as I point out below, this whole "government shutdown" scare is concocted by the politicians in Richmond.


Thus, the public is being panicked into a false choice. There is no chance the government will be shut down on July 1. There is no chance the state will not have a budget on July 1. The Governor, the lieutenant governor, the Attorney General, the House of Delegates, the state Senate, and the state's local government officials -- in other words, the Virginia political establishment -- know what I am saying is the gospel truth.


The only people who apparently either don't know this reality or for some reason have decided to mouth this scare tactic are the state's leading pundits, the state's political press corps and Virginia's editorial boards, not to mention the High Tax Lobbyists at the VA Chamber of Commerce and other big business hangouts.


To repeat: A "government shutdown", or some similar debacle, is not going to happen.


That being said, for some reason which escapes me, Speaker Howell and Chairman Callahan seem willing to let "Maximum John" Chichester drag them into this "we are heading into the abyss" quagmire talk, the way he did the GOP in 2001. Moreover, Gov. Warner seems willing to let the GOP-dominated House of Delegates follow "Maximum" over the edge.


On a personal level, I can't blame Warner: The House GOP has made his tenure difficult, so turnaround is fair play at his level.


But in terms of Democrat vs. Republican politics, the governor's posture of sitting on the sidelines may prove very bad politics for Democrats.


I say "may" because there are two schools of thought on this subject in Democratic circles. One says, "Right on, Maximum," on the conviction that Chichester is again wrecking the GOP. Since relying on Chichester's failed politics was instrumental in the Democrats' winning campaigns of 1985 and 2001, part of me understands those in the party who say, let "Maximum" do what he does best: Elect Democrats to statewide office.


This may, as I say, be good and justifiable politics. But the Virginian in me -- my son is a second grader in public school -- says that is selfish, and therefore makes very bad politics in the end because it stops one from doing the right thing, always the best thing to do in this arena. A leader wants to win based on positive achievement, not as the result of bad things happening to his fellow citizens.


As I have written before, the governor was likely to take a "hands-off" approach to the current budget negotiations, although that would not last forever. As as to when he would get involved, this would be a matter of timing; and so he might wait too long.


For, as Jefferson himself knew -- he served during tough tax and budget debates in the colonial era House of Burgesses, the forerunner to the Virginia General Assembly - this waiting leaves a huge opening in the middle to any legislator or gubernatorial hopeful that seized the moment and took the reins.


That's right: Before the Sage of Monticello got that name, he was a state lawmaker. In those days, you could take a gun onto the floor of the legislature, or at least keep one nearby in case you wanted to settle a budget disagreement once and for all.


So, you ask: What would be a Jeffersonian solution to the current "the sky is falling, save Virginia from the abyss" mantra coming out of Richmond for the last 60 days, indeed for the last six months from the governor, "Maximum John" Chichester, the VA Chamber of Commerce, and now, sadly, from even "My Cousin Vinny" Callahan, the House appropriations chairman.


Vinny knows the solution I spell out below is the common sense one, for it establishes the one winner that counts: the people of Virginia. But right now, the governor, the speaker, "Maximum John," and all the rest are inside the biosphere -- AKA the state capitol -- where everyone is breathing oratory that's been recirculated over and over through an overworked filtration system.


"Paul," you ask, "why should we trust your interpretation of what Jefferson would have advised?"


That's a fair point, especially if you have been reading the state's newspapers and websites in recent weeks. Professor Larry Sabato's team has said that some of my commentary showed a real jealousy of him. Columnist Barnie Day has called me irrelevant and a fool. Sen. Ken Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, has said I was a nothing, so who cared what I said. Former Sen. Joe Gartlan has called me everything but the word liar in the Washington Post, and of course Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine indirectly compared me to Pontius Pilate although, to try my hand at Tim-speak, if you grew-up in NYC, you have heard that one before.


But I make this prediction: What I propose today is something Gov. Warner knows is the right course for the Commonwealth right now.


Indeed, I will go further: Gov. Warner would be the first to adopt the Jeffersonian approach but for his commitment to "Maximum John" Chichester and Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield. The governor is being loyal to his allies in the Senate, so he can not make the self-evident move right now.


House Democrats are waiting for Warner to give them marching orders. So they, too, are frozen in place, even though Delegate Jefferson would have surely been the first one to seize the common sense solution that is now available to his party.


As for the Republicans, they likewise are like deer in the headlights. In general, the reason is the same all around: Everybody is trying to beat the other guy, hoping to be seen as the "winner."


But as Jefferson advised, the way out of this leadership meltdown is this: The only winner must be the people of Virginia.


So, the solution is even older than Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: All sides should immediately agree on the 99 percent of the budget that is not in dispute.


The time has come to stop holding hostage the people of Virginia, and the local officials who have to plan on how to educate our children. Jefferson's solution was the right one: Serve the people first, and the political class -- the folks at the Capitol Square in Richmond -- last.


Just like 230-odd years ago, 99 percent of our "budget debacle" is made-up, a scare tactic by politicians who know better.


Since the governor says he will sit on the sidelines and let the House and Senate take the initiative, then he has give Speaker Howell and Chairman Callahan a gift, the political equivalent of a "get out of jail free" card.


We Democrats should take the opportunity to do the right thing here. But I can't make anyone do anything. All I can do is point out the right strategy.


For example, right now the governor and the House of Delegates are arguing who has put more money into their budgets for education. Throwing money at a problem is no guarantee of solving it -- but that's for another discussion.


Clearly, the House of Delegates intended to put more money into the 2004-2006FY budget than the governor. So, Jefferson would propose this solution: Both sides here can agree that the higher figure is the one they will make sure is part of the budget of the no matter what else happens with any other part of the budget. If they can put even more educational funding in the budget, then they will try.


But they can all commit to this higher figure and there is no reason why the Senate can not agree to the same commitment even though they are going to continue to fight for the new taxes that will produce even more education funding.


Thus, as the Jefferson 99 percent solution demonstrates, it is pure scare tactic for those in Richmond to threaten the localities and our school children with a phony, politically inspired "government shutdown, budget debacle" scenario that produces zero state funding by July 1.


Again: All sides agree on 99 percent of the budget right now! The difference is over the amount of revenue sources needed to pay for additional spending proposed by the governor and the state Senate. A disagreement over one percent, then, is being used to threaten the public with not getting the 99 percent that is decided.


This is a phony debate that serves only the political class.


Jefferson then knew what to do when faced with this kind of age-old situation: You make an ironclad budget agreement on your points of spending agreement and accompanying sources of revenue, and then continue the debate on the points of disagreement relative to additional spending and taxation.


This puts the debate in its proper perspective. It eliminates all the scare talk about July 1, it shows Moody's and others that we are going to live within our means or pay the taxes necessary to spend more, and it allows for the General Assembly to go back to the public to seek advice, not to explain a "shutdown bogey man" story that is never going to happen.


Under the 99 percent solution, the people of Virginia win. They know their schools and other priorities will be kept running, and all those who feel the need to debate and debate can do it without hurting the Commonwealth.


Moreover, at some point, it should also dawn on people that my solution of last November, a referendum that will, among other things, promise the kind of 21st century all the children of Virginia deserve -- especially our rural and urban youngsters trying to learn in outdated school facilities under unfair conditions -- is likewise the kind of opportunity that Jefferson would also never would have let get away.


-- March 15, 2004






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.


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