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Amid Specters of Deficits Past, Warner Unlikely to Spread Holiday Cheer

By R.H. Melton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 21, 2002; Page LZ06

Gov. Mark R. Warner will be haunted this holiday season by ghosts of governors past.

L. Douglas Wilder is a fairly benign spirit, bringing glad tidings of great budget savings -- or at least some help in closing a $1 billion shortfall. Wilder, governor in the early 1990s and chairman of a special Warner commission on government efficiency, is a fellow Democrat and on-again, off-again chum of Warner's. Their friendship is on at the moment.

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The other, more worrisome specter is that of James S. Gilmore III, whose tax-cutting legacy from the late 1990s is costing state government $1 billion a year and rising. Gilmore's Republican tax cut is the gift that keeps on giving -- or, in Warner's case, that keeps on taking a major bite out of the state treasury that's been limping along for a year.

Gilmore and Wilder couldn't be more different, but their budget experiences hold some powerful lessons for their younger successor, especially in this gloomy fiscal season.

Five days before Christmas, Warner will unveil a state budget that, because he has no other options, will cut once-inviolate programs so deeply that advocates for schoolchildren, the poor and the sick will run screaming from Richmond. To borrow the earthy imagery of Warner's senior finance adviser, sacred cows will be slaughtered on Dec. 20. Things will get ugly in the halls of the General Assembly.

In 1990-91, Wilder was in much the same jam, scratching his way through a recession and determined to survive without raising taxes. As the nation's first elected black governor, Wilder became a hero to Virginia's conservative white establishment by surpassing all expectations, shedding his big-spending Democratic ways and cutting the budget to the bone.

Wilder silenced his critics by proving he was every bit the fiscal conservative they claimed he wasn't.

But that was 10 years ago. If Warner has learned anything from Wilder's experience, it ought to be that he can do it better and more creatively than the man he helped to a historic victory in 1989.

If Warner hopes to rebound from the recent defeat of two sales tax proposals, he needs to be as bold as Wilder was -- and then some, according to a growing number of Democrats who are worried about Warner's leadership right now. It will not be enough, they say, simply to be Wilder, Part II.

After all, Warner was elected in large measure on the strength of his credentials as a bottom-line businessman. Balancing the $25 billion-a-year state budget is complicated, but it's precisely the chore that Warner told voters he was better equipped to perform.

Not to diminish the significance of what Wilder did, but Warner must avoid the Band-Aid approach of his predecessor and work on the "structural imbalance" in the budget he talked so much about during the 2001 campaign.

He cannot leave intact the vast infrastructure of state spending.

Yet, this could turn into a season of lost opportunities.

For instance, after appointing the Wilder commission with some fanfare, Warner is now treating the panel pretty much as an afterthought, content to cherry-pick its best ideas (reconstituting the aimless Center for Innovative Technology in Fairfax County, for one) without exploiting the political cover it could provide for more radical ideas, such as privatizing state liquor sales.

The central tenet of the Wilder commission is that government -- meaning taxpayers -- must make fundamental choices about the functions the state should perform.

That was also a big lesson of the Gilmore years, when a Republican governor and GOP-led General Assembly confronted the electorate with a choice about eliminating the personal property tax on cars and trucks.

As overall state spending galloped along in that booming economy, Gilmore's explicit message was: Vote for me and my Republican legislative majority, and we will deliver the tax cut we promised. Most Democrats were quite happy to climb aboard that train.

Now, in the clutches of a recession that won't quit, Warner is being even more explicit with voters about new budget choices, the painful cuts that are coming to programs he and other Democrats have long cherished.

What Warner and the legislature will wrestle with this winter is the full flowering of the Gilmore creed, giving Virginians exactly the kind of government for which they're willing to pay.

And that includes the car-tax cut. It's popular these days to trash Gilmore for subverting state government for four years to pay for the cut, but as bitterly as Democrats (and a few Republicans) complain, there is no political will to reduce the level of tax relief, lest that be construed as a tax increase in the coming legislative election year.

The car-tax cut will be around for a long time, reminding elected officials in both major parties about the consequences of political promises. It imposes a harsh fiscal discipline all its own, just as Wilder -- in his own way, at a time of great fiscal distress -- was Virginia's budget autocrat.

As confining as it is, the one-term Virginia governorship has a marvelous way of forcing governors to have a crystal-clear vision about what it is they want to accomplish.

Warner's problem is that, having been rejected in the referendums, he must now reinvent his governorship from a standing start, and hope to be as nimble as Wilder and as iron-willed as Gilmore -- but with a more constructive dialogue with voters about where the state is headed.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company