Va. candidates not revealing details on funding proposals

Thousands of campaign staffers and volunteers fan out across the state, knocking on doors and making phone calls to urge that voters go to the polls Tuesday and cast a ballot for Republican Robert F. McDonnell or Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the closely watched race for Virginia governor.
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Monday, November 2, 2009

As Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds make their final pushes for votes before Tuesday's election for governor in Virginia, both candidates are campaigning largely on their ideas for spending, not budget cuts.

But no matter the contest's outcome, there's little chance the winner will be able to launch expanded spending anytime soon as Virginia continues to cope with a severe budget crisis that has already led to unpopular measures.

Deeds spent Sunday campaigning across the Hampton Roads area with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and members of Congress. McDonnell stumped in Tazewell County, Weyers Cave, Winchester and Leesburg. Both have promised to raise teacher salaries, expand access to higher education, build roads and embark on a number of other costly initiatives if elected.

"The reality of it is that neither one of them has campaigned on the real story," said James J. Regimbal Jr., a former staff member of the state Senate Finance Committee and an economic consultant in Richmond. "For the governor of the state, the real story is we have this train wreck coming."

Like many states, Virginia has used rainy-day funds and federal stimulus dollars to ease the pain of dropping tax revenue. But reserves are depleted, and stimulus dollars will soon run out. That means that the two-year spending plan Kaine will submit next month will probably include deep cuts that could touch every aspect of government and possibly result in fired teachers, frozen health services and crowded jails and prisons.

Pushed on the campaign trail to detail how they would deal with that continuing crisis and pay for their proposals, McDonnell and Deeds have each insisted they will be able to trim government waste, reinvent aspects of state government and make their campaign promises budgeting priorities.

"It takes leadership to get it done," McDonnell said when asked at a debate two weeks ago how either candidate could realistically afford his ideas. "I think we need to have government run a little bit more like business, with private-sector initiatives, more innovation, more consolidation."

The Republican points to cuts he made to his office budget while attorney general as proof he knows how to make it happen. He has also proposed funding for some of his ideas, such as ensuring that 65 percent of state education dollars are spent in the classroom, a proposal he says would result in a shift of $480 million out of administrative costs.

But it's unclear whether his goal would result in real new spending in the classroom: McDonnell's figure comes from federal definitions for what makes up classroom spending, but differing state standards show that 64.8 percent of funds are already being spent there.

Asked at the same debate about a proposal to award new college degrees, Deeds said: "How can I afford to pay for it? We create efficiencies in government. We do performance reviews of every agency of state government. Through zero-based budgeting, we create efficiencies and move new dollars into higher education."

Deeds has said he thinks the state can save $500 million over two years by conducting performance reviews and trim $300 million from local school systems by helping them do the same. He comes to the figures by looking at the experience of other states, such as Texas, that have saved millions through such reviews.

The claim, however, is somewhat difficult to square with Deeds's frequent praise for past Democratic governors Mark R. Warner and Kaine, under whom the state has been awarded national prizes for management in part because of efforts to trim waste.

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