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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 VA04

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 who 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.

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