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Warner Comes Clean on Office Budget

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page VA04

All politicians have a shtick that defines their time in office. Gov. Mark R. Warner's has been the perception that he's a straight shooter, especially when it comes to budget matters.

Which is why Republicans thought they had found a potent political issue when they discovered that Warner, a Democrat, had continued the practice of earlier governors in fibbing about the cost of running his staff.

Like former governor James S. Gilmore III and just about every prior chief executive, Warner hid the true cost of his office by having other agencies or departments "lend" staff members and by shuffling off other office expenses to a variety of budgets.

Since he took office in January 2002, Warner has budgeted about $2 million a year for his office while actually spending about $3.5 million.

The amounts are peanuts in a $30 billion annual state budget. Even so, the financial sleight of hand just didn't fit the image of honesty Warner tries to project.

In October, Republicans in the House pounced: They declared the practice outrageous, and one compared it to Enron. "Dear God," Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) exclaimed in mock horror at a legislative meeting.

They challenged Warner to come clean, apparently assuming that the governor would be too embarrassed to do that.

Warner might have one-upped them again, however. In the budget adjustments Warner presented to lawmakers this month, he offers an honest picture of who works for the governor and how much it all costs.

In the new picture of reality, the cost of running the governor's office will increase by about 75 percent in the next fiscal year. The office will employ 37 people, not 29. And the salaries for those people are no longer scattered through the massive state budget.

Warner's aides are quick to point out that the total amount spent by Warner is roughly equal to what Gilmore spent in his last year in office. (Warner, a millionaire, takes only 80 percent of his state salary, which is about $124,000 a year.)

By budgeting the true amount, Warner adds to the perception that he's willing to be honest about numbers. He becomes the first governor to do the right thing. And he presents the Republicans with a quandary: how to keep the criticism alive now that Warner has done just what they requested.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said there might still be "a little bit of tweaking noses" over the issue. After all, he said, Warner continued the budgetary gimmickry for three years and fixed it only after demands by the legislature.

But Republicans might be wary of slashing Warner's office budget because of the possibility that one of their own -- Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore -- might be elevated to the governor's office next year and might not want to inherit an underfunded office.

Griffith also said that Republicans will have a hard time being critical of a decision that they called for in the first place.

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